Bikini Killer, The Splitting Killer and The Serpent are but a few sobriquets that Charles Sobhraj earned in his heydays. The awe about the half Indian-half Vietnamese criminal mastermind sustains even years after his final capture, and his life as a serial killer, fraudster, escape artiste and thief continues to interest film and OTT makers.
As Sobhraj’s birthday comes up on April 6, we take a look at some of the notable screen efforts to capture his life:
THE SERPENT (2021)
Sobhraj’s life is back in focus with the new Netflix show, “The Serpent”, starring French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim as the criminal mastermind of French nationality. The eight-episode limited series is among the most chilling and interesting accounts on Sobhraj’s life yet.
While the show imagines Sobhraj in all his ruthlessness, there is a small room left for his portrayal as a victim of circumstances — especially in a sequence in the second episode where he asserts how, from the time he was a teenager he felt that no one actually wanted him, that he was denied everything. While most the “The Serpent” depicts Sobhraj as a cold, calculating monster, the series creates scope to humanise him through this scene.SNAKE (yet to release)
Based on Farrukh Dhondy’s research and interviews with Sobhraj, three seasons of the series will be produced in Hindi and English, according to reports. The series will stream on Zee5.MAIN AUR CHARLES (2015)
Bollywood tried its version of the Sobhraj story with Prawaal Raman’s 2015 release “Main Aur Charles”, starring Randeep Hooda in the titular role. Adil Hussain’s act as top cop Amod Kanth, who had handled the Sobhraj case, was impressive in a film that fared below expectation at the box office.
Director Raman maintains he wanted to showcase the image Sobhraj enjoyed publicly at that time.
“I showcased him the way he always planned and portrayed his image to the world. An enigmatic criminal who was eloquent, well-read, smart and on the wrong side of the law. (He was) Someone who understood the value of PR and marketing as his main tool, almost as if the crimes he committed served as the platform for the same. But the portrayal fails when one evidently notices that the police and the law in different countries always outsmarted him,” says Raman.
Actor Alexx O’Nell, who plays Richard Thomas, Sobhraj’s accomplice in the Tihar jail escape, says that research for his character gave him an insight into how those around Sobhraj were affected by his company.
“Chatting with Amod Kanth (the Delhi top cop who handled the Sobhraj case) about who Richard really was gave me an insight into how, of all those who became associated with Charles, Richard was the only one who did not let those events define him. After turning a state witness and ensuring Charles’ conviction, he returned to his family in the UK and disappeared into anonymity,” says the actor.
SOBHRAJ, OR HOW TO BE FRIENDS WITH A SERIAL KILLER (2004)
In 2004, Finnish filmmaker Jan Wellman made the documentary “Sobhraj, Or How To Be Friends With A Serial Killer”. The film cashed in on the renewed interest in the subject at that point of time, given the fact that Sobhraj had been arrested on September 22, 2003, and tried serving as a refresher on Sobhraj, tracing how he led a free life for seven years in Paris with a French passport, two wives and two daughters. and projected the serial killer and escape artiste as a modernday Don Juan of sorts.
The narrative of Wellman’s documentary stayed cut-to-cut while focussing on how Sobhraj escaped maximum security prisons, and how he had no qualms leading a life with no compunctions. It highlighted how Sobhraj was never been convicted of murder despite allegations that that he had killed around 50 people in India, Thailand, Nepal and across Southeast Asia, most of his victims being backpackers from Europe and the US.
A 2006 review in Variety, however, is underwhelmed by Wellman’s effort.
“Wellman doesn’t get anything especially revealing from Sobhraj during their interview,” it stated, adding that the story avoided speaking to relatives of his victims, in order to distance the viewer from the brutality of his crimes. Not only this, the review felt the look and feel of the film seems to present a downplayed version of the killer.
SHADOW OF THE COBRA (1989)
The TV film is based on the book “The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj” by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke. The two-hour, 45-minute narrative is split in two episodes, and it updated for the late eighties’ audience the content of the book. The focus was on how the notorious serial killer preyed on Western tourists in South East Asia during the 1970s.
The film cast Pakistani-origin English actor Art Malik as Sobhraj and, despite his lack of similarity in appearance, the actor did an adequate job as the criminal mastermind. Australian actress Helen Buday essayed Sobhraj’s lover Monique Leclerc.