Escaping into Shantaram
Star Charlie Hunnam and showrunner Steve Lightfoot tell DQ about adapting the sprawling, epic and elusive Australian novel Shantaram, about a man who breaks out of jail and finds himself in the criminal underbelly of 1980s Bombay, for Apple TV+.
For nearly 20 years, some of the biggest and brightest stars in Hollywood have been preoccupied with adapting Australian author Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram.
Among them has been Johnny Depp, who for the better part of a decade was attached to play the role of Lin Ford – the fugitive who escapes from a prison in Australia and winds up in the criminal underbelly of Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in the 1980s – in a feature film version of the 930-page book.
Russell Crowe and Joel Edgerton were also reportedly poised at one time or another to play Lin in feature versions of the beloved Australian book, which was first published in 2003.
Those attempted adaptations never made it to camera for a variety of reasons – but one seemed to trump all others: the story was so vast and sprawling that condensing it into a two-hour movie seemed almost impossible.
After the various film adaptations fell by the wayside, Paramount Television Studios and Anonymous Content picked up the TV rights in 2018. Later that year, Apple TV+ put a series version into development.
Around three years before that, English actor Charlie Hunnam had read the novel at the insistence of screenwriter Eric Warren Singer, who is credited as a co-creator on the TV series, which launches on Apple TV+ this Friday.
“I had a conversation where [Eric] said, ‘I have something I’m obsessed with – that I’ve been obsessed with for a decade – and I have a feeling we should try to team up and do it together,’” Hunnam tells DQ of his early conversations with Singer.
Hunnam instantly fell in love with the book and attached his name to the part of Lin. To the actor, the role was perfect. He had made his name playing Jackson ‘Jax’ Teller in the acclaimed FX series Sons of Anarchy, which had ended a couple of years previously after a successful seven-year run, and was looking for his next big TV role.
But while reading the book for the first time, Hunnam says it became apparent why the big-screen adaptation had never materialised. “It became clear that one of the reasons Johnny [Depp] and all of the people who went before me were unsuccessful in completing this adaptation is that it’s impossible to distil, effectively, and do justice to 930 pages in two hours,” he says.
“When I first read it, I identified that it has to be told over 30 hours, minimum, and so that became my obsession for going back to television.”
The next stage was for Hunnam to meet the book’s author, Roberts, on whom the lead character of Lin is loosely based. Lin is described as someone full of contradictions – a violent man who comes in peace, a compassionate criminal and a true romantic at odds with normal society.
This was the most daunting aspect of the process, says Hunnam, who first sat down with Roberts in Jamaica for four days to discuss the character. The two men had an instant “soul connection,” says Hunnam. After they went their separate ways, the actor says he had a sense that “I knew him and he knew me.”
“I was much less daunted by my peer group in Hollywood than I was by the responsibility of bringing [to life] this magnificent character on the page who is based on a real person,” adds Hunnam, who heads a cast that also includes Antonia Desplat, Alexander Siddig, Vincent Perez, Elektra Kilbey and Shubham Saraf.
The project was officially greenlit for a 12-episode first season in 2019, and pre-production began later that year. But while adapting Shantaram as a series, rather than a movie, gave the story more space to breathe, it didn’t come without its share of complications.
After two episodes, in early 2020, production was shut down because more time was needed to work on the scripts. That led to Singer departing as showrunner, though he remains an executive producer.
Taking over as showrunner was British writer and producer Steve Lightfoot, whose credits include Marvel’s The Punisher (Netflix), Behind Her Eyes (Netflix) and Hannibal (NBC). Like Hunnam, Lightfoot was a huge admirer of the book. He had read it when it was first released but, being much earlier in his career, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near the production.
“It felt somewhat fated that, 15 years later, it ended up coming back around and I actually got a shot at it,” says Lightfoot, who is also credited as a co-creator and showrunner.
When the production went on hiatus in early 2020, the initial plan was to wait out monsoon season in India before resuming. However, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic ended any notion that production might restart speedily.
Cameras would not start rolling again until May 2021. By that time, Lightfoot had spent nearly a year working on the scripts and collaborating closely with Hunnam, who had been prepared for the role by working with a dialect coach to hone his Australian accent.
In terms of his process, Lightfoot says the first question he asked himself when adapting Shantaram was, ‘How do you break the book down into episodes of television?’
“I had done quite a bit of adaptation before, and so the process was always the same for me – what’s the heart of the book? What’s the essence you want to keep?” he says.
“As much as there’s a lot of tough stuff and dark story and violence, gangs and the underworld, it’s an incredibly hopeful book. It’s ultimately a celebration of humanity, and there’s also a lot of humour in there. Also, the theme of redemption and trying to make up for the mistakes of your past is universal and something I thought was central to the book. I really wanted the show to have all that.”
Given the uncertainty created by the pandemic, the production needed to be extremely nimble. One of the biggest pivots saw the production use Bangkok, Thailand, as a stand-in for India because of Covid restrictions. The show also used Melbourne, Australia, as its main production base.
The production continued to encounter disruptions and challenges. After the initial location scouting, Lightfoot ended up in hospital for two weeks. When production was eventually up and running during monsoon season in Thailand, there was flooding on set and the production would regularly lose a few hours a day due to lightning strikes. There were also three delays for quarantines.
While no shooting took place in India in 2021, Lightfoot says some of the production team spent the first four months of this year in Mumbai doing second-unit photography. “We weren’t able to go there in 2021 to shoot the main unit, but I was very pleased that the work we did this year allowed us to still bring a lot of Bombay into the show,” he says.
Given that the first season runs to 12 episodes, Lightfoot says he was able to devote an appropriate amount of attention to the various aspects of the story without neglecting or omitting any large parts. “We’re living in this amazing moment where it feels like anything is possible, and the ambition, scale and desire to tell any kind of story on TV is really exciting.”
As for what comes next, that depends. There is certainly more story to tell, with Lightfoot noting the first 12 episodes of the show only cover around a quarter of the novel.
Meanwhile, for Hunnam, the series represented a significant career gamble – one that he knew he had to take.
“In the seven years since I read the book, I’ve been offered [and declined] a dozen-plus very good television shows that have gone on to air and become massively successful. I would watch those things come to air with my copy of Shantaram on my desk and think, ‘God, I hope this conviction bears gold in the end, because I’m going to be really sad if I turn down all these amazing opportunities and this thing doesn’t end up coming to life,’” he says. “I stuck to my guns and held that conviction.”