‘Shantaram’ Makes Charlie Hunnam the Hero of an India-Set Drama: TV Review

“Bombay felt exhilaratingly free, a place where everyone started new.” That’s Lin Ford, played by Charlie Hunnam, speaking to us in voice-over about the city where he hopes to begin again. Today known as Mumbai, the Indian metropolis is many things; on “Shantaram,” it’s the staging ground for a white fugitive to lose and find himself. It’s that dynamic that tends to frustrate over the course of a long season.

Based on the novel by Gregory David Roberts and executive produced by Steve Lightfoot, “Shantaram” is set in the 1980s, in the wake of Lin’s prison break. Making his way out of an Australian penal institution in the pilot episode, Lin, a recovering heroin addict, seeks to disappear into a city of millions before, potentially, moving on, but is perpetually drawn toward an intriguing, possibly amoral woman named Karla (Antonia Desplat). Rooted in place by this sense of nascent romance and by a growing affection for the place and its people, Lin begins establishing a life, even while repeatedly telling us that he’s aware that his past — his identity as a wanted man and his knowledge that he’s being urgently sought by the authorities — makes all of this a holiday from reality.

There’s a certain ticking-clock element to Lin’s anticipation of danger that adds chewiness and tension to Bharat Nalluri’s able direction, although given the 12 hourlong episodes, one comes to wish “Shantaram’s” clock might tick a bit more rapidly. And Lin’s confessions to the audience can have an expatriate headiness that becomes repetitious. “Drunk on whiskey and visions of my own redemption,” he tells us, “I’d forgotten what I really was — a fugitive, who needed to stay invisible.”

A show in which a man on the lam goes into hiding, or at least tries to evade notice, might be an interesting one, but “Shantaram” is telling another, more complicated, story — Lin, who’d benefit from staying anonymous, can’t avoid calling attention to himself. The casting of Hunnam helps make the case for this — the actor’s expressive face and brute-force charisma transmit everything Lin is feeling, notably the pull of temptation. Hunnam, of “Sons of Anarchy” and films including “The Lost City of Z,” is perennially credible as a rough sort who invariably falls into trouble. It’s in his performance, if not consistently in the series’ scripts or direction, that we see Lin’s involvement in demanding medical care for Indian nationals as a dance between altruism and a need to be at the center of things.

In one scene that Hunnam claws back from cringe-worthiness, friends compliment him on saving lives, saying things like “It’s an incredible story” and “It’s a pretty amazing thing you’re doing”; the voice-over indicates that Lin knows the bill will likely someday come due on his escape from prison, but not that he feels anything particularly complicated about situating himself as the savior of the brown citizens of a city he just dropped into. Hunnam adds an effacing quality, an understanding that Lin is working to aid others in part to gain the glow of redemption. Later, he tells a mentor figure (Alexander Siddig, doing fine work), “I guess I want to be the man they see when they look at me and not the one I see in the mirror. I can’t do that if I leave them to die.” The humanitarian impulse is strong; so, too, Lin’s perception of those he saves primarily as people meant to witness his own journey.

The series seems less aware of that fact, piling up associates and adversaries from among those whose lives in Bombay are more than an incidental sojourn; all of them come across less real to us than Lin does. A smirking journalist (Sujaya Dasgupta) plots to crack Lin’s story and expose him, musing to a friend with Bond-villain silkiness, “If he knows I’m close, he’ll run, and there’ll be no story. This way, he’s not going anywhere.” Desplat is suitably alluring as Karla, but the character’s interactions with Lin generally fail to transcend a certain perfume-ad vagary. Karla, enmeshed in the city’s expat scene but too enigmatic to be really knowable, tells Lin at one point that she doesn’t believe in love: “I think heaven is a place where everybody’s happy because nobody has to love anybody else ever again.” Whether or not her mind can be changed, one yearns for him to move on.

This series is only the latest in a recent torrent of programs about a white fellow restarting his life in a foreign land; elsewhere on Apple TV+, for instance, Justin Theroux leads his family on an adventure with Mexico as backdrop on “The Mosquito Coast.” But the show from which “Shantaram” could pick up a few tips is this year’s HBO Max original “Tokyo Vice.” There, one white man’s journey into the Japanese capital as a newspaper reporter investigating the criminal underworld is indeed transformative, in that it lends him skills he needs to do his job and to survive. But the milieu is allowed to be as (and usually more) interesting as the man who finds himself in the midst of it. Too often on “Shantaram,” Bombay is, first, the site of Lin’s romantic pursuits or personal growth. And it’s a city with far too many stories for that to be the one that consumes all the oxygen.

“Shantaram” will launch with its first three episodes on Friday, October 14 on Apple TV+, with new episodes to follow weekly.

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