Call once It felt like this on hearing. The person speaking was an underworld don from Mumbai and was referring to one of his areas, apparently called Call-a-Bar. I had a moment of cognitive dissonance before realizing he was referring to Colaba.
On the TV in front of me was the Apple TV+ blockbuster TV series Shantaram, based on Gregory David Roberts’ book of the same name, which was quite a sensation in the early 2000s.
I haven’t read the book, I’m a little ashamed to say. Still, I know what the story was about. Lynn, an Australian ex-drug addict escapes from prison and arrives in India to go underground, become involved in crime, drugs, and living in a slum, where his modest paramedical skills enable him to work as a healer. I make famous. Lynn, falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit, is a good guy in search of his essential goodness. According to one review, Shantaram is a mixture of “crime, humanity and redemption”.
Which will make it box office material. They say that Johnny Depp once wanted to play the role of a star. But it took two decades for Shantaram to become a TV series.
Perhaps they should have waited a few more decades. Shantaram not only hits all my buttons but it’s one of the few eggs Apple TV+ has laid after multiple award winners like Ted Lasso and Coda. I first watched it with some trepidation, the way you watch a James Bond film that shows us what oriental, exotic India looks like.
Then I heard crime boss Khadarbhai say ‘call-a-bar’, and a switch flipped inside me. Few things are more cringe-worthy than a foreigner speaking like a local and trying to flub it. But a $55 million movie in which they couldn’t even be bothered to pronounce the main location’s name correctly?
Something is seriously wrong. And it all has to do with the politics of trying to tell someone else’s story.
Question 1: How can an Indian director get an Indian name wrong? Bharat Nalluri looks about as native as you can get. He is not. He grew up in Newcastle, and attended the Royal Grammar School there. He is completely British.
Okay. What about underworld don Khader Khan? Surely they would know how to say Colaba? Ermm, no. Alexander Siddig, who played the role, was born Siddig Al Fadil in Sudan and is an English actor best known as Dr. Julian Bashir in Star Trek.
Go through Shantaram’s cast list and you’ll notice another oddity – there isn’t a single Indian in the lead role from India. They are lookalike Indians of British or Australian nationality who live long enough to lose any Indian sensibility or accent. Even Ravi, the slum boy who harbors a grudge against Lynn for his mother’s death, stars Matthew Joseph, an Australian actor of Kerala origin.
It is possible that he was trying to sidestep the politics and bureaucracy of Bollywood associations. Or maybe they didn’t think that Indians born in India can act like people born abroad.
Shantaram’s slums are cleaned and renovated in Thailand, the real ones in Mumbai are judged too crude for Western tastes. Real Indians and real India are just a blurred background for this TV series by non-Indians for foreign audiences.
Clearly, realistic accents and accents can’t matter much in such a film. Behind it is the same deep indifference and audacity that makes an American say Iraq ‘I-rack’ and an Iranian ‘I-ren-ian’.
There is a difference between films that try to explain India and films like Slumdog Millionaire and Shantaram that exploit it. Being an astute writer, Gregory David Roberts understood that he was writing not for Indians but for a white, western audience, who loved his oriental spirituality and mysticism and some crime, sex, violence and hard knocks. were shaken by If life knocks you down even a little bit, you can claim to have seen the divine light and people will believe you.
You can’t say it better than reviewer Sandipan Deb: “Write a book, make money, throw stones, chatter about Nirvana.”
GD Roberts did exactly that. In 2015, he attempted a 900-page Shantaram sequel titled The Mountain Shadow. It landed with a thud and was never heard from again.
Realizing that he had written the only best-seller he would ever write, Roberts did what every self-respecting hippie entrepreneur does – shaved himself bald, applied a fiery red tattoo to his forehead, donned saffron robes and Wrote a book called The Spiritual. Path, with gems such as “Honesty is a river flowing in an ocean of faith” and “Success is the full expression of personal fulfillment”.
Perhaps one day Swami Gregory will give a free sermon at the Mondegar Cafe. You know, the one with Call-a-Bar.
You can contact CY Gopinath at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The views expressed in this column are those of the individual and do not represent the views of the paper