‘Shantaram,’ Gandhi’s Assassin, Ophelia: The Many Faces of Shubham Saraf

‘Shantaram,’ Gandhi’s Assassin, Ophelia: The Many Faces of Shubham Saraf


During his eclectic career so far British actor Shubham Saraf has played a variety of roles.

Saraf, who studied at the U.K.’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama and France’s École Philippe Gaulier, played an aristocrat in newly independent India in Mira Nair’s BBC/Netflix series “A Suitable Boy”; a policeman in Netflix procedural “Criminal: U.K.” and a PR advisor in Jed Mercurio’s BBC series “Bodyguard.”

The actor stars opposite Charlie Hunnam and Alexander Siddig in the upcoming Apple TV+ adaptation of Gregory David Roberts’ bestseller “Shantaram,” which tells the story of a heroin addict and convicted bank robber who, in the 1980s, flees Australia to India, where he reinvents himself as a doctor and a gangster in the slums of Bombay.

Saraf’s role is under wraps at the moment but he describes the process as an “intense life-altering experience.” Once cast, in the middle of COVID-19, Saraf’s life was “upended at short notice” and he shot in Thailand and Australia for six months after spending two weeks in quarantine in each country. Though set in India, it was impossible to shoot there because of the pandemic and Thailand stood in for the country’s exteriors while the studio interiors were filmed in Melbourne.

“I got to see Bangkok in a prime COVID curfew state — it’s a Bangkok that no one hopefully will never see again, but it was a very singular experience,” Saraf told Variety.

“Nothing about ‘Shantaram’ was ever easy, it was a joyous challenge to everyone involved,” Saraf added. “Apple had a bit of forest in the suburbs one hour outside of Bangkok and built an entire slum set, with a running river in the middle of it. And it was really hot in the day, beating sun, with nowhere really to cover — you’re literally in the slum with the shacks all around you — and in the night, you’re being bitten by mosquitoes, and it was long, 13 hour days, six days a week. I really went out of the frying pan into the fire.”

“Melbourne was an entirely different experience because they’d just gotten out of COVID and as a cast we became very close because we spent so much time together. There was sort of nothing else to do other than go on to set and be in the hotel,” says Saraf. The actor says that the series is going through its final touches and they are waiting to know if it has been greenlit for another season.

In theater, Saraf’s London-based credits include Benvolio in the National Theatre production of “Romeo and Juliet” in 2021, Ophelia in the cross-cast “Hamlet” at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2018 and Nikolay Tuzenbach in Rebecca Frecknall’s “Three Sisters” at the Almeida Theatre in 2019.

Earlier this year, Saraf was the toast of the theater circuit playing Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse in “The Father and the Assassin” at the National Theatre, written by playwright-in-residence Anupama Chandrasekhar and directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Describing it as a “star-making performance,” Variety critic David Benedict wrote in his review: “Saraf commands the vast stage with what appears to be absolutely no strain. That physical ease is not only compellingly attractive, but it also makes the space feel intimate as he brings the audience to him.”

Chandrasekhar uses the documented fact that Godse was brought up as a girl in the play and Saraf seized upon this as a hook to get into the character. “A man who was brought up as a girl and treated like a goddess, and then changed, tried to be ultra male, and then ended up killing Gandhi — I think there’s something there — you go, ‘what the hell is going on there?,’ ” said Saraf. “What I saw was someone who was obsessed with his identity, and obsessed with the narrative of who he was. ‘Am I a girl? Am I a boy? Am I straight? Am I gay? Am I a God? Am I normal?’ All these are all the questions that I think, formed him.”

India is now a stridently Hindu nationalist country where in some quarters Godse is considered a hero. Saraf would love for the play to be staged there, but doesn’t think that i would be safe to stage it there at this moment in time.

Meanwhile, Saraf has shot for his first Bollywood film, “Blind,” a remake of the eponymous 2011 Korean action thriller, starring Sonam Kapoor, which is in post.

Currently, Saraf is workshopping for an independent film and in discussions to put on some Samuel Beckett stage plays. He has numerous friends who are writers and creators and is collaborating with them on several projects, including TV shows and theater.

“I’m really getting a lot of satisfaction from taking a more authorship role in the work that I do,” said Saraf. “I very much want to change the landscape of storytelling — in the U.K. and the world. And to do that you need to be part of the storytelling, not just the performance end.”

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