An Orientalist Story We Didn’t Need To See…: Our Review of ‘Shantaram’

Posted in Apple TV +, TV, What's Streaming? by - October 14, 2022
An Orientalist Story We Didn’t Need To See…: Our Review of ‘Shantaram’

Based on the novel/veiled memoir by Henry David Roberts, Shantaram is a frustrating series. Its flawed plot provides glimpses of a story that it needs to tell. But the show buries that story deep inside a tale we’ve seen far too much of. At the Apple TV+ series’ centre of this 1980s period drama is fugitive Lin Ford (Charlie Hunnam). He’s an aspiring paramedic who falls into robbing banks to fund a heroin addiction. After participating in theft – and even playing a role in a policeman’s murder – Lin escapes jail and finds white saviour-style redemption in India…

After escaping an Australian prison, Lin travels to India. When he steps off the plane, armed with a fake passport, Lin’s cheesy voice-over tells us it was the scent of his new home that hit him first: “It was the smell of freedom.” Sadly, as the show progresses, the quality of Lin’s narration doesn’t improve…

Upon his arrival, Lin befriends a group of shady ex-pats, most of whom make their livings profiting from corruption and organized crime. At first, it looks as though Lin might team up with characters like Didier. Didier is a sniggering French man who brags about – and capitalizes off of – his lack of a moral compass. Karla (Antonia Desplat) is a beautiful Swiss translator slash shady businesswoman. She beguiles Lin to the point where he unwittingly agrees to be an accomplice in a plot to foil her business rivals. Lin seems all but destined to fall back into his old patterns, but he doesn’t….

Disgusted when he discovers how Karla used him, Lin turns to more humanitarian causes. He finds a community within the residents of Sagar Wada, a community the show’s wealthier individuals refer to as a “slum.” While living there, Lin establishes a free clinic to repay their generosity, treating burn victims and helpful dispensing medicines. 

Television series that humanize people who suffer from drug use disorder are a welcome addition to the entertainment landscape. However, shows that make a white man the centre – and saviour – of a story set in a racialized community are not. 

Sure, there are racialized characters who get some development in Shantaram. One example is Khader Khan (Alexander Siddig), a wealthy Afghan businessman/gangster who came from humble beginnings. After fighting to get where he is, Khan can’t seem to stop fighting. Khan’s backstory is compelling and Siddig’s performance is stirring, but it can’t make up for the series’ shortcomings where representation is concerned.  

After settling in Sagar Wada, Lin invests both his time and money into the impoverished Mumbai community in which he resides. During these scenes, there is certainly ample opportunity to explore the stories of more of the community’s residents. Instead, Shantaram turns them into superficial props. While there are lingering close-ups on the faces of the community’s residents, few receive speaking parts. 

Ultimately, Shantaram’s attempt to represent life in 1980s Mumbai feels like an exercise in orientalism. I enjoy watching a story that refuses to caricature a person living with addiction issues. However, Lin’s redemption arc is marred by Shantaram’s indifference to the people he redeems himself by helping. Shantaram may be loosely based on Henry David Roberts’ real life as a fugitive. But it feels more like a colonialist cliché than an exploration of how people can and do overcome addiction issues….

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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