Synopsis : Fugitive Lin Ford looks to get lost in chaotic 1980s Bombay; alone in an unfamiliar city, Lin struggles to avoid trouble but falls for an enigmatic woman and must choose between freedom and love and the complications that come with it.
Q&A with producer/actor Charlie Hunnam and actors Shubham Saraf, Elektra Kilbey and Antonia Desplat of the Netflix TV series “Shantaram”
Q: Charlie, one of the thing that is so engaging in your character is that he’s a man who’s full of juxtapositions. He’s not afraid to get himself into certain situations. At the same time, there is a real softness and delicacy and he’s very emotionally driven as well. Can you talk about your development process in crafting him?
CH: That’s a good question. One of the things I was very focused on was trying to make him as neutral as possible. It was one of the things I felt we could take a little bit of liberty with, departing from the source material. When you meet him initially in the novel, he’s already succumbed to the dark side. I wanted him to be very neutral — relatable and accessible, just like if any one of us had made a horrible mistake that derailed the whole trajectory of our life, so that — he wasn’t carrying a lot of baggage, or wearing a lot of armor.
Steven [Lightfoot], our creator and writer, talked about that a lot. It was really more about the world keeping on tripping him over, that idea of the way positive and negative feedback loops work, that this one mistake led to a series of mistakes that get him deeper and deeper into a hole that he has to try to climb out of.
Q: Shubham, I know you read the book when you were about fifteen, so this is literature that you’ve been really familiar with for awhile. How did that really shape the way that you were crafting your character?
SS: That is basically a lot of what influenced how I played it, when it’s so inhabited within you. It can sometimes feel quite difficult to say stuff that you’re like, wait, I need to say that because it’s the way it is. But I claim finding a more expressive language was the key to getting more into the spirit of it, which is that Prabhu just loves to have fun. And that’s what I got to do, so I really enjoy expressing what I get to express. I really enjoyed doing it and that was the key to get through that sticky point.
Q: Elektra, with the character of Lisa, what’s really interesting is in the first few episodes we’re starting to get to know her. There’s a lot of people saying things about her. Charlie’s character is giving exposition about her in his voiceover narration. Other characters are talking about her and describing her. How was that a really useful tool for you in understanding not just who she was from her own perspective, but how she was viewed by the characters around her in this world?
EK: Initially, when I was trying to get to know Lisa, I was very drawn to asking myself: why is she in Bombay and how did she get there? There’s not much about her. She’s probably on the stage here as the character that has the least written about her in the book, so I had a bit more free range to come up with who she was.
It’s 1983 — I was tracking back — she probably grew up in the Sixties and I was imagining West Coast. I was imagining a young girl who, from very early on, was told that her only value was the way she looked. I think that’s why he says “so confident in her body”, that no one had ever validated her mind, and everything was an exchange: her giving body or beauty, and someone giving something back: safety, money, whatever it was.
So that was my entry point into the show, and that is validated by everyone: Karla, Lin, and different characters. Me getting pushed around by characters and not getting taken seriously as a soul, as a person. Throughout the series — starting there, you can build an arc where she takes agency of herself and her mind rather than always using her body for value.
Q: Antonia, Karla is an enigma, intentionally in a lot of ways and she’s very judicious about what she tells people and what she allows them to know about herself. So what was that balance of really understanding who she was at her core, but then deciding what you wanted to let audiences and other characters into?
AD: Yes, in the book there’s a big description of her wardrobe which said that her wardrobe is decided [by] whatever situation she is in, and she wears very specific clothing to that. So I really wanted to incorporate that in my interpretation of Karla.
I also wanted her to be vulnerable, because I think that whole facet that she puts on, this very intimidating and impenetrable persona, is a way to keep safe her vulnerability and her fears. I wanted to make sure that the audience felt her vulnerability so that they could feel a bit of compassion for her. I don’t think an enigma can define a person, and I think you have to face your fears to be your true self.
Q: Charlie and Shubham, you guys crafted this friendship on screen, and it allows for moments of lightness and levity even when they’re in the midst of potential danger or death in situations, and still laughing and joking around with each other. So tonally, how did you find that balance of allowing for the grittier emotional sides of the characters, at the same time allowing for that light playfulness between the two of them?
CH: I really played off Shubham a lot. I attribute a lot of that to the energy that Shub’s brought to who he is and his interpretation of the character. I felt very much that, because of the position that Lin is in in the early episodes, he’s not really in a position to feel a great deal of identity or certainty about who he is. So in this sort of neutral space that I was really interested in exploring, who he was, how the company that he was in, reflected his behavior. He’s really sort of subconsciously trying to ingratiate himself into the environment and the social groups that he was finding himself exposed to.
SS: Well, it was a sort of paint-and-canvas situation. There was what I enjoyed doing with Charlie — and I think you enjoyed [it]. What we enjoyed was having a good time no matter what. No matter what as actors, no matter how hard it was, how tired we were, we were trying to have a good time.
Because it’s hard — thirteen hours a day, six days a week. So we were really going for that, and I think that bled into the characters. I think that’s very much the case with Prabhu, that he arguably has the worst [circumstances] out of anyone. He lives in a slum, he’s literally trying to make a buck so that he can put a meal on his plate.
So he’s going through it and his survival technique is, when a human is pushed to that level of adversity, your survival is to try and have the best time you can. The harder life gets, the more you need to survive, the more you need to try really hard to have a good time. I think the moments that were slightly more emotional — gritty, as you said — happened not because we were trying to, but more like we were trying to not have them, and then they come more as a surprise. That’s what I think happens more in real life; you’re never trying to be that, you’re trying not to be that. And then something happens and you’re sad.
Q: When he first meets Lin, it’s a kind of transaction that’s happening between the two of them, and an opportunity for him. For you, what was the tipping point, or the changing point, where it goes from being a transactional business opportunity into a real friendship and a real place of connectivity for him?
SS: The first scene we found, which was when he comes to my house and I feed him my food and we drink whiskey together and we swear together. That was another moment when the actors bled into the characters, which bled into the story which was, we had met each other before, we were acting for the first time together, and I was just vibing off him.
CH: We shot this — unfortunately, we had to block shoot the whole twelve episodes because we were shooting between Australia and Thailand, and we lost one of our directors in Covid and everything. So we had to start shooting all twelve episodes simultaneously, which meant that there were a lot of the end of the journey at the beginning of relationships, and stuff happening in a way that you wouldn’t usually schedule, at least if you were trying to be somewhat thoughtful of your actors.
So like Shubham says, we had — for those of you that know the book, one of the endearing, shining lights of this narrative is the relationship and the enduring friendship that happens between these two characters. We’d never met each other and as you all know, chemistry onscreen, as in life, is an unpredictable, squirrelly entity to try to get your hands on. We just showed up and started laughing, and took the liberty to throw a script out of the window and see if we could make friends as the camera was rolling. And I think by the end of it, I thought f***, I love this guy. This is going to be great.
Q: Antonia and Elektra, you found the dynamic of the friendship between your two characters. There are moments of immense trust and supportiveness. The fact that Lisa lets Karla look after her money so that she doesn’t spend it on drugs, and she knows that that’s going to be completely safe. There’s no question in her mind. And at the same time, they both question whether the other person is being transactional in this dynamic and whether they’re being used at times as well. How did the two of you view the emotional plain of this interesting and complex dynamic?
AD: We became very good friends in real life from day one. We met in 2019, and even during the pandemic we were on FaceTime once a week. I think that beautiful connection that we have in real life shows on the screen. But also I think it’s a [balance] between the two of them, and I think we have that dynamic a little bit, in that we’re very bonded with each other and we’re very honest with each other.
It’s really nice to have that dynamic because Lisa and Karla have become sisters, they both ran away from their homes, and they found a home with each other. But sisters are very complicated; and there’s a lot of hate and a lot of love. So it’s driven by love but I think there’s a note of frustration and hate. It’s really nice to have.
EK: I feel the same way. Also, when we initially looked at this dynamic and this relationship, my initial feeling was that Karla was the first woman who ever loved Lisa and didn’t see Lisa as some form of a threat. Lisa might at some point along the way have gotten Karla confused with romantic love as well, and I think Lisa has feelings of romantic interest in Karla. But also she feels family with Karla and she is also envious of Karla and her strength. Those little touches paint their relationship as well, and that makes for the close friendship and sisterhood which makes this relationship interesting in the show.
AD: Yeah, and because they’re so different as well. They take out a certain side of the characters’ personality in a nice way, so she has an intimacy and Karla does everything but that. She encourages that, and it gives Lisa some strength, so there’s nice transactional and emotional dynamic.
Q: How did the two of you within your characters find that space that you’re talking about, where they each take a little bit of the other one, even though there’s this middle space and so there’s a difference in the dynamic that the two of them have with each other, as opposed to the way that either of them interacts with any other character because of that?
AD: Yeah, when you looked at the [series], you realized the moment that both of the characters are just being themselves — shoulders relaxed, sinking down into a different voice, not looking, researching or scheming something when they’re together. It’s when they’re like adolescents: Karla and Lisa come out and one’s like “Oh, but you shouldn’t do that” — more the way that two friends talk. And that makes it more intimate. The facades that they put on for the other characters.
Q: Charlie, there’s a real quietness and introverted aspect to your character, and it feels like he’s battling that side of himself. Having been incarcerated, he even references how he’s had enough time of solitude and reflection, and he’s really trying to escape that. But it doesn’t change his personality overnight. He feels like he’s always been someone who has lived in the quiet moments quite a lot. How did you find his relationship with the instances between the dialogue where he’s very astutely paying attention to things around him, or just reflecting on himself whether he wants to or not?
CH: It’s interesting. As you say that, I realize that I didn’t consider it as much as you have. I think that I may be — it’s one of those connections that I thought with the character innately so I didn’t have to reach for that so much. I really didn’t think about it that much at all.
What’s very clear when you read the novel is that it’s not a memoir, it’s certainly not a biography, but it is a novel, the source material. But a lot of things in the novel actually happened to Greg [Gregory David Roberts, the book’s author], and it’s very clear reading it that he’s a great thinker. He’s really interested in the meaning of life and the nature of God, and what it is to bring forth one’s highest potential, and the line between light and dark that we all have to walk. I suppose I was troubling myself to think about those things in the character. Maybe I was just basically doing that, and those moments that it felt like . . . what you suggested I was doing.
Q: The show was filmed in block shooting, and obviously there were inherent challenges that come with character development and tracking emotions. It’s challenging enough shooting a film in that way, let alone an entire season where you’re going from episode 1 to episode 8 and all the episodes in between with everything your characters have been through. How did each of you all approach that?
SS: I find it quite releasing. I know it was hard, but that was the truth of it, that was what was going to happen, and you had no choice. It was . . . fine, here we go. You can’t control it. I was like, I’m going to go insane. I remember I tried to put sticky tapes — I was quarantined for like two weeks before we began filming and I arrived.
I got the scripts for the first time in quarantine. They were put outside my door, there was twelve scripts so I had to go through the entire show to make the character during two weeks of quarantine. I was like, I’m going to really do this. I had never been given this kind of chance, really. I’m literally doing nothing else.
I got the hotel to bring me sticky Post-Its, and I labeled each and every scene and everything I was in. I gave it a title, did all the things. And my intention was, for the rest of the series, to put down my notes and the work I was going to do on each sticky tape. But honestly, I put about six sticky notes, then I gave up.
So the idea that I will be so present and so organized that the day before the shoot I will be like, Oh, this is exactly where I am in my twelve [episodes]. And now, I will be going to the end of the season in the middle of the day, and then the very beginning. I was like, I can’t do that. I can’t do that, so I’m just going to turn up and go, Okay, fine, this is the scene and just play the scene.
AD: I did the complete opposite. I have a “bible” that’s separate to all my notes, and every page is a scene and it’s of a scene all done chronologically. And also what I did during quarantine was I put down all my scenes of the [series] — all of them. Which means there is no floor space left, and there is not enough space to write all of it down. I wrote down how I ended up playing the scenes
EK: I got some amazing advice from Shubham during the shoot. I had this feeling that I was a really bad student. Because I was wanting to, but Antonia’s doing which was like, place everything out, always know where I am, know exactly what I’m doing. They told me that in acting class once, though one of the few acting classes that I had, I can’t do. They said, “You have to study. You have to write everything down.” I said “Okay, okay.” So at the beginning, every time I sat down to do it, and I would sit down and “This is not fun.” Then I walked around all the time, and said “Yeah, study. I know my lines. I know this.” And then I said to Shubham in Thailand, early on, “Shubham, it’s not really working out for me, this writing things down and planning everything.” And he goes “You already are Lisa. Just let her live through you.” And after that, I just —
SS: I can’t remember saying that. I’m glad it worked, though.
EK: Well he allegedly said that. And after that, it was an incredible journey. I was like, “Oh, but you’re so amazing. You don’t do that? Because it doesn’t work for you?” And I was realizing my brain doesn’t work like that. And that’s okay.
Instead of having this good girl syndrome, that I have to do so much studying and prep all the time, I realized that what’s best for me is knowing the arc of the story and the arc of the different characters and where they intersect. And then just letting it be.
My acting coach, Todd Sussman — he’s amazing — he told me “Just show up. You’re already Lisa. You know her life. Now just react to what Lisa would react to.” And moving forward with that moment, I felt so much more engaged, and no feeling that I was doing something bad. That’s, I feel, when Lisa came alive inside.
CH: I would like to quote Conor McGregor. He said “Doubt can only be removed through action.” So I think that for us, in the beginning of a job it’s f***ing terrifying, right? You’re standing at the bottom of a mountain, and you’d better check through and make sure your equipment is correct before you start off on the voyage.
I tend to want to do a lot of work initially. In my experience of long-form television where you’re shooting one episode after another, the accumulative effect of all of that experience through the course of the show gets you through the back end of it, where the shit starts to get real. But six or seven or eight months, and you’re tired and your life is falling apart, and everything that’s happening when you shoot.
But because we were block shooting, I kept feeling like I needed to remove my doubt through action. And again showering praise on Shubham tonight — honestly, from working with Shubham, I realized something about that experience. I didn’t worry as much when I was going to do a scene in the shows because I felt like, we’re just going to figure it out together. I know he’s got my back, and if I’m not able to bring it, he’s going to compensate. Hopefully, on the rare days that that’s true of him, I’ll do the same for him.
So I learned through that, that if I could have the same confidence with everything that when I worry fifty percent less, I was fifty percent better.
SS: It was a ride — it was the best time ever.
CH: Yeah. When it was the best time ever.
Q: Thank you all.
Here’s the trailer of the film.