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Shantaram reloaded

The Marathi-speaking Australian author of the best-selling novel Shantaram chats with Reema Gehi.

books Updated: May 23, 2007 19:19 IST
Reema Gehi

Plans are on to make Gregory David Roberts' top-selling novel on the Mumbai underworld into a Johnny Depp-Amitabh Bachchan movie. Meanwhile, its author, a regular at the city’s socialite evenings is scripting a Hollywood thriller. He is also in the throes of writing a sequel to Shantaram and could getmarried to “a princess from Switzerland” any day now.

In a fortnight, he’ll be off to France and Rome with his fiancée Francoise Sturdza. Is she, as the buzz goes, “a princess from Switzerland”? To that, he ripostes, “Yes, but does that really matter?”

Okay, I meet the 54-year-old bestselling author of Shantaram (back in the news since it will be made into a Johnny Depp movie) at a cycle shop in Colaba, where he’s making a Bullet mo'bike. The novel, released almost four years ago, has sold more than a million copies worldwide but he doesn’t exactly behave like a millionaire, gulping down cutting chai rather than a fancy lopchu.

We sit on plastic chairs, he begins by telling me that he’s a Melbourne-born gora but a Mumbaikar by heart (he speaks fluent Marathi). Excerpts from our fast-motion conversation:

It seems you’re writing a script for a Hollywood movie. Correct?<b1>
Yes, for the last ten months I’ve been working on the script for Allegra. It’s on the slave trade in women in the 21st century. All over the world, women get trapped and kidnapped from war zones, their passports are taken away, they loose their identity.

My friends Brad Listermann and Kashmira Shah - they used to be married - and I thought of the idea. The pre-production should start soon. The movie’s a thriller, based on online research. I did lots of Google searches and finally developed a story. Anthony Mandler will direct the film in April next year. We plan to shoot it in Mexico.

Can you escape from the name Shantaram?
Yes, of course. People in Hollywood only know me as Gregory David Roberts. The villagers of Maharashtra gave me the name Shantaram.

What’s the status of the movie based on Shantaram?
Well, I have given the script’s first draft to Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning writer of Forrest Gump and Munich. He’s written the second draft. Now Mira Nair and he are writing the third.<b2>

Are you happy with the choice of Mira Nair as the director?
Yes, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed The Namesake. I adore Tabu, she’s a brilliant actress. She is one of my top ten
actresses in the world. Watch Virasat and you’ll know why.

You must be over the moon that Johhny Depp is playing Shantaram...
I went to London to meet him. He’s the only American actor I know who’s clued into India – from its cuisines and writers to Satyajit Ray and Mani Ratnam.

Can you confirm if Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan are also in the film?


(Thinks) Amitabh

ji

is definitely doing the film. But I am not sure about Shahrukh. He is a man of astute intelligence. I would love him to be a part of the movie.

What is your Bollywood connection?
(Laughs) In the 1980s I did a couple of films, I used to be an extra. The white guy hanging around in the crowd. It was fun interacting with the light, sound and camera guys.

You’ve been familiar with the city for over two decades. Are you a bona fide Mumbaikar now?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve been back since the last three years. I’ve also lived in Germany, France and Melbourne.

Do you regard yourself as a part of Mumbai’s social circle?
(Laughs) You’re asking if I party? No, I don’t. I don’t smoke, drink or take any sort of substance. Neither am I into girls. I’m engaged to be married soon to the president of the Hope for India Foundation.<b3>

Tell me more about her.
(Smiles) Françoise and I met in Mumbai at a charity event. We both were very reluctant guests, we were there merely for a common friend but we were the last ones to leave. We spoke the entire night. We have been together for a little over a year. She’s with me in Mumbai though she has a house in Geneva. Later this month, we are going off to St Malo in France for an adventure writing festival. And then we’ll be in Rome where I will be reading my new short story. Then we’ll be back here.

It is believed that Shantaram is a fictional autobiography...
It was once believed that the world was flat but it isn’t. Similarly Shantaram is not an autobiography, it’s only a novel. But the novel is written in first person.<b4>

Well to write something deep one must experience it first...
Imagine being tied up with a thick rope, being hung upside down and being beaten up with lathis. This happened
to me at the Arthur Road jail where I entered as a man who weighed 90 kilos and came out a frail 45 kilos.

Haven’t you glorified the underworld with the book?
To glorify means to come close to God. Crime is stupid, lazy and weak. You can only exploit it and make money out of it.

Like?
(Smirks) Shootout at Lokhandwala. The director and producer are not even remotely part of what happened then. That is pure exploitation of crime, a way to make a buck.<b5>

The way you talk, your body language, seem to suggest that you’re quite a narcissist...
(Laughs) No, I’m not. The word ‘narcissist’ comes from Narcissus, a handsome Greek youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He was extremely good looking. I don’t think I am.

You dedicated the book Shantaram to your mother. Whom would you dedicate the sequel to?
I’ve been writing the sequel since four years. I will dedicate it to my 29-year-old daughter, she’s an interior designer based in Australia.