'Shantaram's' Long Road from Book to Series

Shantaram on Apple TV Plus
(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

Shantaram, about a man who breaks out of prison in Australia in the '80s and relocates to Bombay, premieres on Apple TV Plus October 14. Charlie Hunnam plays the man, Lin. Gregory David Roberts wrote the book.

"Alone in an unfamiliar city, Lin struggles to avoid the trouble he's running from in this new place," says Apple TV Plus. "After falling for an enigmatic and intriguing woman named Karla, Lin must choose between freedom or love and the complications that come with it."

The series is co-created, written and executive produced by Steve Lightfoot, who is the showrunner. Lightfoot told B+C he found the book around 2004, and read it multiple times. He described it as "a great, sort of old school, rollicking adventure, romantic novel," and an "amazing depiction of India" one could only deliver after living there and absorbing the culture.

He dreamed about bringing it to screen, and said he was jealous to hear about other filmmakers, more established than Lightfoot at the time, who sought to make a Shantaram film.

His opportunity happened around 15 years later. At a general meeting with Paramount Television Studios just before COVID hit, an exec mentioned having acquired the rights to Shantaram, and was looking for a producer to take it on.

"I started gushing about how well I knew the book, and it sort of went from there," Lightfoot said.

He still has that book, which weighs in at 944 pages, that he bought a couple decades ago. "It's now covered in pencil notes and has folded corners," Lightfoot said. "It's been around the world with me."

About a month ago, Lightfoot realized the book is a first edition. "I should probably have looked after it quite a bit better," he said. 

Author Roberts doesn't have an official role in the series, but Lightfoot said he's always willing to offer his insights. "He said, it's a show, it needs to be its own thing," said Lightfoot, who's from the Lake District of England. "Go do what you want to do."

There are 12 episodes. Bharat Nalluri directs and executive produces. Andrea Barron, Nicole Clemens, Steve Golin and Justin Kurzel also executive produce along with Eric Warren Singer, who co-created the series.

The cast includes Antonia Desplat as Karla, Shubham Saraf as Prabhu and Elektra Kilbey as Lisa.

The original plan was to shoot in Melbourne and Mumbai, but the Delta variant caused the producers to shoot primarily in Melbourne and Thailand, with second-unit shooting in India.

Asked about his influences, Lightfoot mentioned Casablanca. He calls '80s Bombay "a city of exiles" and "people on the way down and people on the way up."

Lightfoot mentioned that Hunnam grew up not far from where he did in the north of England. Hunnam too is "a huge fan of the book."

Hunnam deftly brings physicality and sensitivity to the role, the showrunner said. "Lin's a guy who gets into scrapes and certainly isn't a shrinking violet. But on the other hand he's really affected by the stuff he goes through," said Lightfoot. "There's a toughness on one hand and a real emotional vulnerability that Charlie was able to bring to it. That duality is essential to the character."

Lightfoot described Shantaram as "a story about being able to overcome your past and become a better version of yourself, and about trying to be that best version of yourself every day, when sometimes it’s easier to do the opposite." ■

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.