“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
With these opening lines, Gregory David Roberts introduced us to the landscape of human experience in his book, ‘Shantaram’. Published in 2003, this novel, often perceived as an autobiography, made an everlasting impression on readers worldwide. It’s a fugitive’s journey through Mumbai in the 80s after he flees the Pentridge Prison. Befriending a guide, Prabaker, Lindsay, the Australian bank robber and heroin addict familiarises himself with the slum now that’s become his home and gets the name Shantaram from Prabaker’s mother on a trip to his village. Lin/ Shantaram opens an unofficial clinic and as he begins to network with the black market in medical supplies, he gets progressively entangled in the city’s criminal underbelly. The novel is a gritty story of an escaped convict battling addiction, grief, love, loss, imprisonment, physical torture and a spiritual search for meaning as he moves through different dimensions of life in India.
Based on this international bestseller, is a new identically titled TV series starring Charlie Hunnam, co-created, written and produced by Steve Lightfoot on Apple TV+. The screen adaptation of the book has bounced around Hollywood for two decades with actors Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe and Joel Edgerton all signing on to play the lead role at various points. This 12-episode series was released on October 14 with a premiere of 3 episodes. Since then it has received some backlash for its portrayal of the ‘white saviour complex’.
‘White saviour complex’, sometimes called ‘white saviour syndrome’ or ‘white saviourism’ are terms used to describe instances where white folks consider themselves helpers of people of colour and indigenous communities. White ‘saviours’ work from the assumption that they know best what people of colour need. They believe it’s their responsibility to support and uplift communities of colour — in their own country or somewhere else — because people of colour lack the resources, willpower, and intelligence to do it themselves. This assumption comes from the underlying belief that they are superior to indigenous people or people of colour. Although it might look like a noble deed from the outside, the white saviour complex isn’t actually about helping and might cause harm to the people and culture of minority communities.
In the novel, Lindsay starts living in the slum areas of Bombay. Despite being a convicted felon himself, you can feel his sense of superiority from the language as he describes the livelihood around him. After a fire-related accident in the area, he starts helping people with their injuries with his basic medical knowledge. As the word spreads and more people in need of medical attention start coming to him, he decides to open an unauthorized clinic to help them. Because he feels that he ‘must’ save them, Lindsay even starts getting his medical supply from the black market which is dangerous and irresponsible. As such, we can see such instances of his white saviour complex throughout the book.
The idea of a white saviour complex was relatively unknown when the book came out, but looking at this story from the perspective of the current climate isn’t as easy to digest. In the adaptation, despite Charlie being a beloved actor, seeing a golden-haired, blue-eyed man seeking refuge in this country and still mentioning the “...smell of hope” which was described in the book as “It smells of the stir and sleep and waste of 60 million animals, more than half of them humans and rats,” can be understandably upsetting. However, this adaptation has been in the making for about two decades. We might see a more nuanced depiction of Mumbai and Lindsay’s life in it if the adapted script went through some time-appropriate amendments since the book came out. But that’s a big if.
“It was important that India was a big personality too, and that each of the characters had fully-dimensional stories on their own, and we weren’t just observing them through Lin,” says Hunnam in an interview defending the series after receiving backlash.
To play the devil’s advocate, times have massively changed since the book was released in 2003. The world is more politically aware and thus, is also conscious of the language we use to address people, communities and cultures which reflects in the art created now. It should also be noted that Lindsay Ford is the protagonist and narrator and we see Mumbai through his eyes. Although there is a moment of personal transformation for himself, with his name changing to Shantaram representing Lindsay’s own urge to start over, he’s still a foreign man in a new country. Of course, he experiences a culture shock when he first arrives. We would probably face the same if we were to travel to the chaotic and criminal underworld of Bombay in the 80s. The book was written at a different time and Gregory did indeed write it from a place of honesty, even if that place wasn’t attuned to the cultural sensibilities of 2022. He said it as he saw it. His humility in exploring suffering, pain, philosophical themes and spirituality with the poetic weight that makes the story so impactful is as real as it can be. In the novel, he alchemized his traumatic life experiences into a soulful tale of atonement and hope with his unique narrative style; a mixture of Gonzo journalism and self-reflective memoir.
As for the viewers, I think we’re definitely embodying the more positive side of humanity in seeking correct representation and respect for the oppressed communities and cultures in our fight for social reform. Accountability is an important attribute often ignored in the past but we should also keep in mind the futility of expecting this sensibility from pieces of art and literature produced in the past. We have achieved our progressive values over a period of time through reflection and correction and in a twisted sort of way, the past may be partly responsible as a catalyst for the evolution of our values. It’s clear that finding a balance between learning about the ignorance of the past and using it to evolve in the future is certainly needed.