Tahar Rahim as Charles Sobhraj in BBC One’s The Serpent
‘IF I’D WAITED for the world to come to me, I’d be waiting still.’ That is Alain Gautier aka Charles in the new BBC One series The Serpent. Five years after Bollywood made Main Aur Charles, based largely on his arrest in India, The Serpent focuses largely on his time in Thailand where posing as a gems dealer, he drugged, robbed and killed at least a dozen travellers. It adds to a growing body of books and movies that have made the murderer a cultural phenomenon long after his arrest in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2003.
What makes Sobhraj such an enduring bad boy?
Filmmaker Sriram Raghavan, who was contemplating a movie based on him, says he largely based Saif Ali Khan’s suave but evil character in Ek Hasina Thi (2004) on Charles Sobhraj. “He was charming and diabolical,” he says. Raghavan couldn’t meet him, but says he has read his biography
Serpentine by Thomas Thompson. “He’s the sort of guy who could befriend a diplomat as easily as a cab driver,” adds Raghavan.
So powerful is his allure that various stars in India have thought seriously about playing him in a movie, including Aamir Khan and Sanjay Dutt. Indeed, in The Serpent, Charles boasts about how Indians love him, regarding him as something of an anti-hero despite the two stints, between 1976 and 1997, he served in Tihar Jail in Delhi. Retired police officer Amod Kanth, the ‘main’ in Main Aur Charles, says Sobhraj was a cheap conman who was given undue importance and attention. “He was made larger than life,” says Kanth, whose character was played by actor Adil Hussain in Main Aur Charles and by Aly Khan in The Serpent. “The media was obsessed with him and though he didn’t speak very good English, he was clever enough to pick up some knowledge of the law and of philosophy with which he used to impress people.”
Sobhraj was in his custody in Delhi for a whole month and Kanth says he got a good opportunity to study him. “I didn’t use third degree but made sure he sat on the ground all through his interrogation, telling him that his place was at my feet.” Kanth recalls his bad breath, a smell he still cannot forget. “I told him I could never understand what women saw in him,” he recalls, calling him a “stinking swine”.
But as The Serpent makes it clear, it is his outsider status that makes him attractive to certain people. Born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father who abandoned both mother and son, he was a citizen of nowhere. Speaking mostly in French and English, he would befriend Western travellers, offering them basic facilities in an open house he maintained in Bangkok, Thailand with his Quebecoise girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc, whom he met on a houseboat in Srinagar’s Dal Lake. A warm bed, hot shower, food and drink would often be enough to lure these young men and women far from their families and nations. He would then prey on them—stealing their passports and money—before disposing of them. The Serpent ends with a tribute to his forgotten victims: ‘To all young intrepids who set out with big dreams but never made it home.’
Sobhraj is shown as someone who deeply despises this lost generation who ‘travel only to acquire’ the Eastern way of life, calling it a ‘new kind of colonialism’. The acquisitions could range from gems to drugs to yoga to transcendental meditation. It was the time of The Beatles travelling to India (1968) and men such as Steve Jobs and Apple’s first employee Daniel Kottke looking for higher meaning (1974). The world was in ferment, with anti-Vietnam War protests in the US and the student agitation in Europe. By the time Sobhraj was arrested in Delhi in 1976, he had already left a trail of burnt and mangled bodies behind. His vanity was overpowering, enough to defeat anything, as Leclerc says to him in The Serpent. He thought he was invincible. At the end of the road trip from Paris to Mumbai, he says to Leclerc, ‘Nobody cages us, nobody.’
Someone finally did, and as The Serpent shows, it was a junior Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, Herman Knippenberg, whose tenacious search for two young Dutch travellers to Thailand led him to Sobhraj, whose trail he never left.
As BBC One’s The Serpent shows, it is Charles Sobhraj’s outsider status that makes him attractive to certain people. Born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father who abandoned both mother and son, he was a citizen of nowhere. Speaking mostly in French and English, he would befriend Western travellers, offering them basic facilities in an open house he maintained in Bangkok, with his Quebecoise girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc. He would then prey on them—stealing their passports and money—before disposing of them
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Sobhraj’s close brushes with the law had also emboldened him and he got careless, trying to drug as many as 22 of a German group in Delhi. During his two decades in Tihar Jail, he was something of a celebrity, carefully reading the prison manual to get himself facilities such as a typewriter, a colour TV, special food and media interviews.
Much of it was his constant craving for attention in the media. He would give interviews not merely to impressionable young journalists in Tihar Jail, which then changed its policy on access to prisoners, but also to foreign journalists, such as Richard Neville of Oz, who co-wrote On The Trail of the Serpent: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj. Such desperation to be in the limelight is a trait Sobhraj shares with other notorious serial killers such as Ted Bundy, most of whose victims were collegegoing women from Washington and Oregon to Utah and Colorado in the US.
Like Bundy, Sobhraj had his fans, the latest of whom was his lawyer’s daughter, Nihita Biswas, who married him in Nepal and sought her own parallel career in Bollywood by entering Bigg Boss Season 5 in 2011. Pscyhologist Dr Rajat Mitra says psychopaths such as Sobhraj modulate their body language, gestures and tone of voice in such a seductive manner that they tend to take people away from the path on which they are travelling: “It’s partly genetic and partly the way they were raised. By the time their victims realise they have been exploited, it is usually too late for them,” he says.
And such is their charm that each new victim believes they are the one who can change him, which explains the never-ending trail of girlfriends and enablers. Sobhraj, now 76, is still in prison in Kathmandu. He continues to hold the rights to his lifestory, which is why even The Serpent doesn’t mention his full name. His appetite for recognition continues unabated and he hopes he will be played at some point by a big Bollywood star. Director Ram Gopal Varma, chronicler of many who live in the shadows, scoffs at that idea. “There are far more interesting criminals than him,” he says. But few perhaps with such global allure.