Created by Eric Warren Singer and Steve Lightfoot, Apple TV+’s drama series ‘Shantaram’ revolves around Lin, a heroin addict incarcerated for a robbery who escapes prison and seeks refuge in the city of Mumbai AKA Bombay, India. Lin starts to live in the slums of Bombay and becomes a doctor to contribute to the community which helps him reinvent himself as a person. As the series progresses, Lin even becomes a part of the infamous Bombay underworld, which leads him to Afghanistan. Since the series offers an extremely realistic portrayal of Bombay in the 1980s, the viewers must be wondering whether Lin’s extraordinary and astounding journey has real-life connections. Well, let’s find out!
Is Shantaram a True Story?
‘Shantaram’ is partially based on a true story. The series is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Gregory David Roberts, which is a partially fictional account of the author’s life. Like Lin, Gregory David Roberts AKA GDR was a robber who targeted building society branches, who got convicted and sentenced to imprisonment in Pentridge Prison, only to escape from the jail in 1980. After his escape, GDR arrived in Bombay, like the protagonist of ‘Shantaram,’ and made connections with several people who inspired the characters of the novel. However, the author didn’t rely entirely upon his life to create the narrative of the novel and its standalone sequel titled ‘The Mountain Shadow.’
“Some experiences from my life are described pretty much as they happened, and others are created narratives, informed by my experience,” GDR said in an interview, explaining the real-life influences behind ‘Shantaram’ and ‘The Mountain Shadow.’ “I wanted to write two or three novels on some bare elements from my life, allowing me to explore the themes that interested me, while keeping the narrative immediate by anchoring it to some of my real experiences,” he added. In the novel, after arriving in Bombay, Lin befriends Prabaker, who is based on Prabhakar Kisan Khare, a real guide GDR befriended after escaping to the Indian city from Pentridge Prison.
As the novel portrays, GDR had visited and stayed in an Indian village with Prabhakar and was robbed on his way back to Bombay. “There was a guy. […] He did meet me in Bombay. He did take me around the city for a couple of months and he did take me to his village and when we came back after six months of living in the village, I did live in the slums with this guy. He is gone now, God rest his soul,” GDR said during an Indian NonFiction Festival session in 2013. “He was a scoundrel. He was a womanizer. He had three wives. He drank constantly. […] He was a thief,” the author added.
After coming back to Bombay from Prabaker’s village, Lin sets up a free health clinic to help the slum-dwellers of the city. In reality, GDR also ran an illegal free clinic in the 1980s in Bombay. Lin being recruited by the Bombay underworld for committing various crimes isn’t a fictional detail either. GDR was reportedly involved with the Bombay mafia at the time to smuggle passports and foreign currency. Before writing the novel, the author was asked to hide the identities of the mafia men he associated with during his time in Bombay and not portray them as “idiots” like the media used to do.
Lin’s eventual entry into Bollywood to be an extra in films also resembles the experience of GDR. “I played bit roles [in Bollywood]. A gora in a party scene or in the villain’s den. If you see old Hindi films, the ones made in the 1980s, look at them hard. You may find me in a scene or two,” the author told Rediff. Lin’s imprisonment in Bombay’s Arthur Road Prison also has roots in GDR’s life. “I did spend four months in an Indian prison named Arthur Road in Bombay. If anyone’s around from the 1980s who had experience in Arthur Road, they will know that prison, as depicted in the book, is real,” GDR shared in June 2022.
According to GDR, ‘Shantaram’ is a novel about “exile experience,” following people in exile who are seeking the meaning of life and the answer to life’s questions. The same is established through the character Karla, along with Lin. The fictitious character, a Swiss-American woman who seeks refuge in Bombay after killing someone, reinvents herself in Bombay like Lin. This reinvention, which happens everywhere in the world when people move to or are in exile in another country in real life, can be identified as the foundation of the novel and its other connection with reality. There is a possibility that the character Karla is a combination of several women GDR encountered in Bombay as well.
It is nearly impossible to draw a line between reality and fiction in ‘Shantaram,’ especially when even GDR has been contradicting himself about the same. The same author who had revealed that he had a friend named Prabhakar during his time in Bombay had stated that “none of the characters bears even a remote resemblance to any real person I’ve ever known” on the official website of the book. Ultimately, ‘Shantaram’ is about Lin’s journey of being an escaped convict on the run to become a “Shantaram,” which translates to a “man of God’s peace.” GDR, like Lin, was named Shantaram as well. “The people in a village near Mumbai gave me the name Shantaram,” he added in the Rediff interview.
‘Shantaram’ is a fictionalized account of GDR’s astounding life in Bombay, where he reinvented himself. His experiences serve as the foundation of the novel and show’s storylines, which also possess a fair share of fictional elements.
Read More: Where is Shantaram Filmed?