The exploits of Charles Sobhraj have spawned a host of books, television shows and movies, including the Hindi-language production Main Aur Charles in 2015. Prawal Raman’s film, starring Randeep Hooda, focused on the time spent by the career criminal in India in the late 1970s and 1980s. The deadly trail of deception, identity swapping, drugs, gems and bodies that preceded Sobhraj’s Delhi adventure is charted by the BBC miniseries The Serpent. Sobhraj is played by the French actor Tahar Rahim, whose previous credits include A Prophet, The Past and The Kindness of Strangers.
The eight-episode series was released on January 1 on the BBC iPlayer streaming platform. Among the sources of The Serpent, written by Richard Warlow and directed by Tom Shankland, is Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s Bad Blood: The Life and Crimes and Charles Sobhraj. Sobhraj’s slithery ways earned him the epithet “Serpent”, which also inspired Thomas Thompson’s non-fiction book Serpentine in 1979 and the Australian television series Shadow of the Cobra in 1989.
Sobhraj is now 76 years old, lodged in a prison in Nepal. Sobhraj has remained in the Kathmandu jail for almost two decades, despite his record of notorious jailbreaks.
“It doesn’t matter how good they are at catching me, I will always escape,” Tahar Rahim’s Sobhraj brags in The Serpent.
The British show focuses on the series of robberies and murders committed by Sobhraj in Thailand in the mid-1970s. Some of the names of the characters have been changed, and “all dialogue is imagined”, a disclaimer says.
Aided by his lover Marie-Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera), Sobhraj uses charm, precious stones and psychological X-ray skills to lure gullible backpackers to his hotel. Many of these tourists are relieved of their foreign exchange and passports and killed, often in brutal fashion. The spate of crimes was called the “Bikini Murders” in the local press on account of the swimsuits some of the victims wore.
As the corpses pile up, an official at the Dutch Embassy begins poking around. Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) is moved by requests from the families of tourists who have gone missing in Thailand. His wife Angela (Ellie Bamber) and expat Paul Siemons (Tim McInnerry) get roped into the investigation. Along with a French couple who manage to escape Sobhraj’s designs, Herman burns the midnight oil gathering evidence against the charismatic killer.
The relationship between Sobhraj and his lover Marie-Andree is a major focus of the series. A Quebecoise who is mesmerised by Sobhraj, Marie-Andree struggles with her conscience even as she helps her partner ensnare new victims. Stacy Martin plays Sobhraj’s first wife, Juliette (her real name was Chantal).
The series includes portions set in France, to which Sobhraj and Marie-Andree flee from Thailand, and Kathmandu in Nepal, one of the many crime scenes for the compulsive criminal. Darshan Jariwala makes a fleeting appearance as the manager of the hotel in Kathmandu where Sobhraj runs up huge bills. Pravessh Rana has a lengthier role as a Nepalese police officer who interrogates Sobhraj on two occasions, finally arresting him the second time in 2003 for murder.
The Indian section is short, and includes a role for Ally Khan, playing a character possibly modelled on Amod Kant. The former Delhi Police officer had interrogated Sobhraj when he was arrested in Delhi in 1976 on charges of culpable homicide and robbery.
Sobhraj was lodged in Tihar Jail, from where he escaped in 1986. He was re-arrested soon after in Goa. The theory goes that he stagemanaged his capture to avoid being extradited to Thailand to face a possible death sentence for his many crimes.
“Every man must one day make a home, say to himself, this is my life, this is my love and this is who I am,” Sobhraj tells one of his many marks. Bitter about his mixed Indian-Vietnamese heritage, Sobhraj says he has often suffered from being a “half breed”.
“Everything I ever wanted, I had to take it,” Sobhraj declares before proceeding to extract brutal revenge on the world for imagined slights.