If you need to orchestrate a jailbreak, you should do so in such in a way that ensures that a movie will be made about it. Thus advises the felon Charles, and nobody follows this advice more avidly than the person who put these words into the character’s mouth.

Style trumps substance in writer and director Prawaal Raman’s ambitious attempt to deconstruct the mythos that surrounds the smuggler, con artist and murderer Charles Sobhraj. The movie claims to be a work of fiction, but there is no doubt about the inspiration for its cool, magnetic and ruthless anti-hero ‒ the half Vietnamese and half Indian con artist and smuggler who racked up a series of convictions for murder and robbery in the 1970s, and who is currently lodged in a prison in Kathmandu.

Sobhraj also spent time at Tihar Jail in Delhi, from where he escaped in 1986, months before his term was to expire, only to be caught in Goa a little while later. The escape was a ruse to extend his jail term and avoid being extradited to Thailand. By earning a new sentence, Sobhraj ducked the deadline on a time-bound death warrant on him. One of the police officers who handled the aftermath of the escape was Amod Kant, who is played by Adil Hussain in the movie.

The plot is simple and straightforward, but Raman jumbles up the sequence of events to the extent that it is often not clear what is happening to whom and where. Main Aur Charles opens with a television documentary style montage of the jailbreak, and the non-linear and restless shooting and editing pattern stops only in the extended climax, after Charles is back in prison as he intended and the Delhi Police try to nail him one last time.

The attempt here is to make a chic Hollywood-style period crime thriller spilling over with sex, crime and drugs. Much of the film is in English, since Charles hangs around with foreign tourists for the most part, and when he speaks, it is with a thick French accent. Since Charles is portrayed as a man of immense and irresistible sex appeal, the movie has any number of women with smooth backs and exposed limbs willing to shed their clothes at the slightest excuse. “Whenever I see him, I want to have sex with him,” declares the law student played by Richa Chadha, one of many women besotted with Charles. The joke is on them, since Charles is aroused more by their foreign passports than their bodies, but why should this truth stop a montage of yet another woman writhing on the sheets?

Image management

The brazen fun that Charles and his cohorts are having is contrasted with the routine police work by Adil Hussain’s overly loud and morally outraged cop. Hussain’s outrage at Charles seems to be the result of envy. When the policeman's wife (Tisca Chopra) inquires about Charles’s much-vaunted virility, she earns a harangue in return.

Through the mess of montages, shards of Charles’s complex personality come into view. Raman’s lack of control over the narrative is balanced by his understanding of Charles’s personality. Randeep Hooda’s beautifully judged and controlled performance conveys his character’s mystique. Hooda understands that the movie is about the image, not the man, and that a glint or a sneer is adequate to communicate his character’s contempt for the Indian judicial system and his victims.

The sleek cinematography works best in the frames containing Charles’s often inscrutable visage. The arch-criminal is teased into the movie one abstracted frame at a time – we see his feet, his back, and a profile in the distance before encountering the man himself. A recurring motif is of Charles moving from the shadows into the glare of the spotlight, and the movie’s depiction of his love for the camera and manipulation of media interest in his story add up to a better portrait than the bedroom activity and the fake documentary footage of his exploits.

Had Raman stuck with his investigation into Charles’s mystique and his self-mythologisation, this movie might have actually become the sophisticated biopic it wants to be. Main Aur Charles should really have been about the poster, not the case file.