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Has Shantaram curse finally lifted? Production to restart, 15-months on

Apr 11, 2021

Advertisement It’s been through more plot twists than the book on which it is based, but Shantaram – which was first mooted as a film in 2004 with Johnny Depp set to star – could finally be heading to the screen. For real this time. Pre-production is now under way at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, with cameras set to roll in May, about 15 months after the highly anticipated project last ground to a halt. Credit:Empathy Arts Production initially began in October 2019, with shooting on the 10-episode series for Apple TV+ split between Victoria and India. By mid-December, director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, True History of the Kelly Gang) had two episodes in the can, and was slated to return for the final two. But in February 2020, the company making the show, Paramount Television, put it into “hiatus” over concerns that the scripts for the remaining episodes weren’t ready. Showrunner Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, the forthcoming Now You See Me 3) moved aside. It was, though, far from the first time the Shantaram curse had struck. From the moment it was published in 2003, the semi-autobiographical novel by Melbourne-born Gregory David Roberts had attracted the attention of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. The book initially appeared as a “true story”, but in 2015 Roberts – who now lives in Jamaica, calls himself a spiritual seeker, and has recently released a reggae album (the first of what he promises will be many) – reframed it and its sequel The Mountain Shadow as “novels, not autobiographies”, admitting that “all of the characters and dialogue is created”. Shantaram tells the story of a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict called Lin who escapes from Pentridge and flees to India, where he reinvents himself as a doctor in a slum before embarking on a series of crazy adventures that include working as an extra in Bollywood, passport forgery in Mumbai, and arms trafficking in Afghanistan. Roberts, who was known as “the building society bandit” in his criminal years in Melbourne, escaped from Pentridge in 1980 and was captured in Frankfurt a decade later. He wrote his book while in prison in Australia after being extradited from Germany. Advertisement Russell Crowe was the first to publicly express interest in starring in a film version, soon after the book was published. In 2004, Warner Bros paid $US2 million for the rights to the story, with Johnny Depp set to star. Australian director Peter Weir was lined up to direct but left the project in 2006 because, a Warners spokesman said at the time, “his interpretation of it differed greatly [from] that of the studio and producers”. In 2013, the stalled project received another jolt of life when Joel Edgerton was courted – reportedly by Depp, now attached as a producer – to star. But once again, it came to nothing. Johnny Depp was originally slated to play Lin in a film of the book in 2004. Later he was attached as producer, with Joel Edgerton to star. Credit:Alvaro Barrientos Warner’s rights to the project finally lapsed in 2015, and in January 2018 Anonymous Content – the US production outfit behind The Revenant, Boy Erased, True Detective and George Clooney’s 2019 TV adaptation of Catch-22 – acquired the rights. That’s the version currently in production (with Anonymous and Paramount making it for Apple). Budgeted at $55 million, the show was enticed to Australia by a $7.4 million grant from the federal government’s Location Incentive Fund, on top of the 16.5 per cent tax rebate available to foreign productions shooting here. The Victorian government also contributed an undisclosed sum. In announcing the production in August 2019, Film Victoria CEO Caroline Pitcher said it would “provide up to 1000 more job opportunities … over an 11-month period”. A Paramount Television spokesperson confirmed this week the production is now expected to continue until the end of this year – more than 24 months after it started. Director Justin Kurzel Shooting in India was always going to pose challenges, not least because the production would have to work around – or through – the monsoon season, from June to October. The plan had been to shoot there across several blocks, with key cast and crew making multiple trips between India and Australia. But then COVID struck, and the need for quarantine made that untenable. “Production will move to Thailand,” Paramount said this week, “because it was not practical to film in India under pandemic conditions”. Of course, that plan is also at the mercy of COVID, with Thailand experiencing a surge in infections and its first locally acquired cases of the UK variant of the virus. At any rate, it is now likely that far more of the production will be shot in Australia than was initially intended. Charlie Hunnam (in a scene from The Lost City of Z) is the star of the Apple TV+ series. Credit:Aidan Monaghan Amid a vast cast of relatively unknown (in Australia at least) Indian actors, Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) is still starring as Lin, with English actor Alexander Siddig (Doran Martell in Game of Thrones) recently announced as Khader Khan, a kingpin in Mumbai’s underworld. British writer Steve Lightfoot (a writer on Hannibal and creator of The Punisher) is now the showrunner, and Anglo-Indian Bharat Nalluri will direct six episodes. Kurzel is no longer in line to direct the final two episodes, though, like Singer, he remains an executive producer. In retrospect, it now seems obvious that the very things that attracted Hollywood to Shantaram were also what made it so difficult to bring to the screen: the abundance of plotlines, characters and locations, and its implausible but compelling situations, made for a ripping yarn. But they also made it impossible to condense the sprawling book into a two-hour movie. As a TV series, that problem simply went away. There was plenty of room to follow characters or sub-plots for a while without losing the main thread. There was even talk that Shantaram might be a five-season proposition if it resonated with viewers. But that was 2019, an eternity ago. With all that’s passed since, it’s a fair bet that everyone involved in Shantaram would be delighted to get just one series in the can. In the circurmstances, that might even count as a great escape. Email the author at kquinn@theage.com.au , or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin Save

Gregory David Roberts Investments

1 Investments

Gregory David Roberts has made 1 investments. Their latest investment was in Zola Books as part of their Seed - II on November 11, 2013.

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Gregory David Roberts Investments Activity

investments chart

Date

Round

Company

Amount

New?

Co-Investors

Sources

11/4/2013

Seed - II

Zola Books

$5.1M

Yes

1

Date

11/4/2013

Round

Seed - II

Company

Zola Books

Amount

$5.1M

New?

Yes

Co-Investors

Sources

1

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