The long-awaited screen adaptation of Shantaram – the semi-autobiographical novel penned by the 1969 final year Parade College student Gregory David Roberts (formerly Gregory Smith) – is to begin shooting in Victoria next month.
Snowtown’s Justin Kurzel has committed as director to the first two and final two episodes in the 10-part series for Paramount, commissioned by Apple TV+.
Shantaram is the first project the newly-minted streaming player has backed in Australia, and among its first international productions. The series will be shot in India and Victoria, with Docklands Studios and the former Pentridge Prison site in Coburg amongst the filming locations. Regional Victoria is expected to double for Afghanistan in parts of the story.
Shantaram – a Maharashtrian name meaningMan of God’s Peace - has been adapted for the screen by Eric Warren Singer, who was nominated for an Oscar alongside David O. Russell for his screenplay for American Hustle in 2014.
Roberts’ sweeping semi-autobiographical novel of 2003 tells the story of a convicted Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from Pentridge and flees to India, where he reinvents himself as a doctor in a slum before embarking on a series of wild escapades – from working as an extra in Bollywood, through to forging passports in Mumbai and trafficking arms in Afghanistan.
Dubbed “the building society bandit” in his criminal years in Melbourne, Roberts escaped from the notorious Melbourne jail in 1980 and was captured in Frankfurt a decade later. He penned his novel whilst incarcerated in Australia, having been extradited from Germany.
Soon after Shantaram was published, Russell Crowe expressed interest in starring as Roberts in an adaptation. Then in 2004, Warner Bros paid $US2million for the rights to the story, with Johnny Depp set to star. Peter Weir was expected to direct, but left the project in 2006 because, according to a Warners spokesman, “his interpretation of it differed greatly than that of the studio and producers”.
In 2013, the stalled project received another jolt when Joel Edgerton was courted – reportedly by Depp (now a producer) – to star in the film. But once again it came to nothing.
Warners’ ownership of the project finally lapsed in 2015, and in January 2018 Anonymous Content – the US production outfit behind The Revenant, Boy Erased, True Detective and the recent TV series Catch-22 – acquired the rights.
While there has been no word yet on casting, Shantaram is extremely unlikely to get away this time. The Federal Government has ommitted $7.4million towards securing the production, on top of the 16.5 per cent location offset. That suggests the total spend of the series in Australia is in the region of $55million.
The State Government has also invested through Film Victoria’s production incentive attraction fund.
Film Victoria CEO Caroline Pitcher told The Sydney Morning Herald’s Karl Quinn she was “delighted that Victoria would be hosting the first streaming television series” from Apple TV+ following the company’s announcement in March that it was moving into commissioning original content.
“This production is going to employ hundreds of highly-skilled Victorian screen practitioners and provide up to 1000 more job opportunities for Victorians over an 11-month period,” she said.