‘Shantaram’ Is Yet Another White Savior Story

The TV adaptation of the controversial 2003 novel offers a new format but the same exoticization of India.

Sadaf Ahsan

October 14, 2022

‘Shantaram’ Is Yet Another White Savior Story
Shubham Saraf and Charlie Hunnam in "Shantaram" (Apple TV+)

The below is a review of the first three episodes of Shantaram, which premiere on Friday, October 14, 2022 on Apple TV+.

Early in the first episode of Shantaram, the Apple TV+ adaptation of the best-selling and controversial 2003 novel by Gregory David Roberts, a sandy-haired, blue-eyed man (Charlie Hunnam) escapes Australia’s Pentridge Prison in broad daylight in 1982. He hides in an attic, scales walls, and deftly evades the guards. He’s smart. But, as we quickly learn, he’s also a reformed heroin addict who wound up in prison after a robbery led to a police officer’s death. 

So where does he find refuge? In India’s Bombay (now Mumbai), of course, under the new, false name of “Lindsay Ford.” The moment he steps onto the tarmac, he narrates, “The first thing I noticed was the smell.” At the pause, you may feel a moment of apprehension as to the words coming next. He concludes, “In that first Bombay minute, I didn’t recognize it, but I do now…it was the smell of hope.” (Note: The book isn’t as kind. It later goes: “It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of 60 million animals, more than half of them humans and rats.”)

From there, audiences watch Lindsay — or “Lin” or “gora” as he comes to be known — find refuge and liberation in India, all the while exoticizing it as a paradise, reducing its people to stereotypes, and spinning its lead into a classic white savior (he is literally the only doctor-like figure who can treat any Indian’s physical wounds). The premise is a tough, ham-fisted sell that banks on its viewers getting lost in Hunnam’s pretty eyes but is too reductive — in 2022! — to take even remotely seriously.