Casting Call: Gregory David Roberts’ Spellbinding Novel Shantaram
November 13, 2012
Orlando Bloom/Photo © S. Bukley/Shutterstock
Welcome to Word & Fim’s Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books – either fiction or nonfiction – and make the case for how we’d cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Word & Film, we’re not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in how a film will be cast; we’re simply ardent fans of books and movies who can’t help ourselves from such musings.
Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram is one of those books primed for moviemaking of the most spectacular (and big-budget) kind. From slum to desert, beach to city, nightclub to smoke shop – there’s little ground in India that his story doesn’t cover. And just as varied and beautiful as the setting are the portraits of the characters that live and breathe on the pages of his book.
Roberts’ novel was published in 2003. It is the story of an Australian man who travels by the alias Lindsay Ford. After fleeing Pentridge Prison in Australia, where he was serving time for bank robbery, Lindsay heads to India. He quickly acclimates to the city of Mumbai, in which he finds a huge-hearted and wide-smiled local named Prabaker. The two become fast friends, and Lindsay is renamed Linbaba by Prabaker. In one unlucky moment, though, Lin is robbed and left with nothing – and finds himself living among the locals in the slums of Mumbai.
In spite of Lin’s criminal background, his taste for heroin, and his knack for finding trouble, he is at heart a good man. As he’s faced with the devastating effects of a cholera outbreak and a slum-wide fire, he faces the situation with courage, helping to rebuild the slum and start a healthcare clinic, utilizing his simple medical knowledge. He is beloved by the people of Mumbai as they quickly accept him as one of their own. During a visit to Prabaker’s home village, Sunder, Prabaker’s mother assigns Lin a new name, “Shantaram,” which in Marathi means “Man of God’s Peace.”
As Lin’s new life progresses, he comes to know a cast of characters ranging from moviemakers to locals, weapons traders, black market workers, and more. His heart’s affections fall on a Swiss-American woman named Karla, with mysterious motives but wisdom that precedes her years; there is German prostitute Ulla, often found in the nightclub Leopold’s being trailed by Sebastian Modena, a Spanish man who helped rescue Ulla from the clutches of the savage brothel owner Madame Zhou; Didier Levy offers some comic relief, as he reigns over his expat posse in Leopold’s, lusting after the handsome young men who cross his path; there is Abdel Khader Khan, father figure to Lin, legendary and revered underworld boss of Bombay; Vikram Patel, close friend to Lin and lover of all things Western; and the feared Madame Zhou, hiding within the walls of her otherworldly brothel.
Shantaram is epic storytelling at its best, a truly mind-blowing novel, peppered throughout with moments that will open your eyes and your mind and passages worth quoting word for word. And perhaps most mind-blowing is the fact that the novel is loosely based on Roberts’ own life, beginning with his escape from the same prison as his protagonist.
When Shantaram first landed in bookstores, interest in the movie rights began to run rampant. Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp (with Warner Bros.), both Hollywood heavy hitters, came forth with the desire to bring the book to the big screen. Warner Bros moved forward with a $2 million bid and won the rights. Eric Roth (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was brought on to pen the screenplay and Depp was named as the film’s star. Since then … a whole lot of nothing. The film has languished in development purgatory. Is it its scope, its cost, its complexity that keep it on the back burner? Is it the sheer length of time it would take to make such a movie that leaves it lying in the land of filmmaker maybe-somedays? And let’s not disregard the obvious challenges of a movie made overseas. And yet, optimism reappeared late in the summer of 2012 with news that Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “New York, I Love You”) will take the helm of Shantaram in 2013. What better time than now to start our dream casting of this incredible story?
It’s been reported that Johnny Depp would be in the lead to play Linbaba. He certainly has the depth of emotion, the range of ability, and the passion necessary to bring Lin to the big screen. But yet, there’s something predictable about this choice; it seems a natural fit on Depp’s resume. We’d like to propose someone a little more unexpected: Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” costar Orlando Bloom. From the quaint romcom (“Elizabethtown”) to epic adventures (“Pirates,” “Lord of the Rings”), Bloom has proven himself to be capable of great depth as well, but what Depp doesn’t have is that certain underlying ability to be awestruck. Bloom is experienced enough but not too experienced. In spite of the vast and horrific things he’s experienced throughout his life, there’s a certain disguised naivety, a quiet optimism that Lin exudes throughout Shantaram. This is that other factor Bloom can bring to the table.
Karla Saaranen, the woman who catches Lin’s eye, is a worldly, sophisticated, independent sort. The things she has seen and done weave themselves together to create an intriguing history. She is savvy and sly, and good to the heart. Some obvious choices certainly come to mind: Keira Knightley, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, Rachel McAdams. But the woman most up for the part? Lauren German. She caught our attention for the first time in the twentysomethings-running-wild-about-town in “Spin” – and we’ve not seen her in much since. But she possesses that perfect mix of sexiness and strength. She’s accessible without being gullible, strong without being harsh. And has just the kind of eyes Roberts describes in his novel.
The most noted characteristic of Prabakar, the Bombai resident who takes Lin under his wing and shows him how to get around in the slums, is his huge smile. Reading the novel, it was immediately Dev Patel who came to mind. Now that he’s matured from his “Slumdog Millionaire” days (which were fabulous days, mind you), we’d love to see him take on this starring role in the movie adaptation of Shantaram. He has the aforementioned grin – but also possesses a depth capable of accompanying Lin through all his joys and travails.
Ulla, the “slim and pretty German prostitute,” is a woman about town – and about making money while about town – often accompanied by Modena. She’s far from naïve, but yet still exhibits an incredible sadness. We’d be excited to see Elizabeth Olsen in this role. Olsen stunned moviegoers with her perfectly nuanced performance in 2011’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as a young woman seeking a return to normalcy following a harrowing period of time as part of a cult. Olsen knows how to do savvy – but she also has the capacity to exhibit a sense of underlying pain and hurt on the big screen, a quality quite necessary to the character of Ulla.
Modena, Ulla’s savior – and pimp – is a “dark, brooding, undernourished young man … a dour and taciturn Spaniard.” Diego Luna, the Mexican-born actor who stormed American theaters with the 2001 Stateside arrival of “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” is just the man for the role. His eyes are of the can-you-trust-him-or-can’t-you variety, and as evidenced in his comedic turn in 2012’s “Casa de mi Padre” alongside Will Ferrell, he can also bring a more lighthearted side to Leopold’s, the bar where the motley crew of characters in Shantaram is most often found.
Didier Levy, the mid-thirties alcohol-swilling French black marketer, is described as residing in a body consisting of “humpy wads of flesh and deep lines that gave him the … look of a much older man.” Here’s where we’d prefer to relocate Johnny Depp. (Stay with us here.) We know he can do drunk, but we’d like to see him get into a character whose depth of moodiness is a bit more apparent than usual. Though he may have to pack on some pounds, it would certainly be worth it.
Every man on a journey needs some sort of wiser figure in his life, a father figure, if you must. In Shantaram it is Khaderbhai, an Afghani mob boss who easily commands the respect of everyone with whom he comes into contact. From his first appearance in Gregory David Roberts’ novel, all the way to and through his time with Lin on the Afghanistan border, Khader’s wisdom flows forth, as he executes a plan for Lin he may have had all along. There is no other actor more perfect for this role than Ben Kingsley, who has, over the course of his career, proven that he is excellently capable of every role that is placed in front of him. It’s Kingsley we envision alongside Orlando Bloom as Lin as the two pursue their own missions through life.
For Vikram, Lin’s confidant and spaghetti Western-loving confidant, we nominate Parvin Dabas. He stole the show in 2001’s “Monsoon Wedding” and has stuck to Indian filmmaking since. We’d love to see him in another Stateside hit, showcasing his immense talent to an even wider audience.
Madame Zhou is a woman to be feared. She is brutal in her dictatorship over her brothel and relentless in her ownership of her workers. She is as much shrouded in mystery as she is known and feared throughout India. Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was brilliant in “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” despite her beauty has the talent to pull off the grotesqueness that runs through the blood of Zhou. Recalling her work on one of the early seasons of the Fox show “24,” Aghdashloo can evoke a certain bone-chilling air on the turn of a dime.
There you have it: our casting of the core characters at the heart of Shantaram. How did we do? What would you do differently? And for which characters on whom we haven’t touched do you have an opinion?
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