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The many lives of Charles Sobhraj

‘The Serpent’ on Netflix is the latest cinematic incarnation of the charismatic villain’s exploits

In the recent web series, 'The Serpent', Tahar Rahim's posture, body language and dialogue delivery emanate a sense of understated power
In the recent web series, 'The Serpent', Tahar Rahim's posture, body language and dialogue delivery emanate a sense of understated power

Last year, Penguin Random House published On The Trail Of The Serpent, a revised and expanded edition of Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s The Life And Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj (1979), with an new foreword by Clarke (Neville died in 2016). In it she describes the early days of her relationship with Neville (the two were partners, not just writing partners): “A natural maverick, with a dislike for authority (…), Richard loved to taunt the Establishment. He could talk his way into and out of any situation and was so funny and charming that some people became addicted to him. I suppose I was one of them.” While reading this passage, I was struck by a simple fact: If read out of context, much of this held true for Charles Sobhraj himself, and the manifold ways in which he attracted and manipulated people.

It strikes at the heart of why serial killer movies are often accused of glorifying their subjects (most recently, Zac Efron’s rock ‘n’ roll-fuelled rendition of Ted Bundy); charisma is a double-edged weapon.

In the recent web series The Serpent (released on Netflix earlier this month), this charisma, that one of the most notorious serial killers of the 1970s used to his advantage, has been strategically toned down, to the dismay of many critics. Much of this is due to a subtle, expertly calibrated performance by Tahar Rahim, who plays Sobhraj. His posture, body language and dialogue delivery emanate a sense of understated power. He’s not dropping scene-ending zingers because he doesn’t need to.

Rahim is hardly the first actor to portray Sobhraj—either directly or by proxy—on screen. Take the original Don (1978), for instance, where Amitabh Bachchan played a double role: the titular gangster, and a simpleton named Vijay who is Don’s lookalike. The character of Don itself was partially inspired by Sobhraj—Randeep Hooda, while promoting his own Sobhraj film Main Aur Charles (2015), made a point of mentioning how the “Don ka intezaar toh gyaarah mulkon ki police kar rahi hai (cops in 11 nations are waiting for Don)” line was inspired by Sobhraj’s place on Interpol’s most-wanted list.

This was a movie released at the height of Bachchan’s “angry young man” persona (Deewar, Zanjeer et al), crafted by screenwriters Salim-Javed, who also wrote Don. The righteous anger of this angry young man was directed at corruption, cronyism—and the conspicuous consumption of the super-rich villains of these stories. Cut to Don killing an associate out of the blue and then claiming he did so because the man wore the wrong shoes. In the Mohanlal film Shobaraj (1986), heavily inspired by Don, there is an analogous scene where behind bars, the titular anti-hero complains: “Am I not a human being? What kind of food is this?” The implication is that Shobaraj considers himself a higher class of criminal than his fellow inmates.

This tendency was both heightened and “corrected” in Farhan Akhtar’s Don remake (starring Shah Rukh Khan) and its sequel. In Don 2 (2011), for example, Don asks a rival gang’s members for Italian restaurant recommendations before slaughtering them. But it is important to note, also, that in the SRK Don movies, we the audience were rooting for Don, not mousy ol’ Vijay (by now, India had become much more of a capitalist society). Indeed, the double-cross “twist” in Don (2006) killed off Vijay at the hands of Don, and we applauded. We waited for the inevitable sequel.

The Don movies are perhaps the ultimate expression of the hypothesis that Bollywood villains are generally more charismatic than the heroes—for the longest time, we cherished values like modesty and moderation in our heroes (remember, the economy had not yet entered its phase of aggressive expansion), so the bad guys tended to embody the opposite of that value set. Shah Rukh Khan, who has made a career out of playing flamboyant, driven men and their mousy doppelgangers (Don, Ra.One, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Fan), was always going to be the perfect man to explore this idea.

Another example of this shift is the Prawaal Raman film Main Aur Charles, which comes awfully close to glorifying Sobhraj. When at one point his girlfriend Mira (Richa Chadha) says, “I just want to have sex with you every time I see you,” it feels as though the writers of the movie are speaking beyond the fourth wall. Main Aur Charles is obsessed with making the audience root for the killer, which is strange because circa 2015, the cultural landscape was already far more favourable for anti-hero narratives.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad had been tremendously successful globally, and in India, the trickle-down pop cultural effect led to home-grown anti-hero stories like the Dhoom franchise, the Agneepath remake, and so on. And yet, Hooda’s Sobhraj lays the charm on thick. Women, police officers and journalists; nobody is entirely immune to his charms. It’s only a question of degree.

Films like Main Aur Charles could have benefited from a little less charisma and a little more thoughtfulness about the several different routes psychopaths can take to lure their victims. The Serpent understands this well and, in fact, delivers a very 2021 brand of seduction in the first episode itself. When Sobhraj meets a Dutch-Indonesian backpacker called Willem (Armand Rosbak), he’s quick to bond over their shared, partially European identity (Sobhraj is French, of Indian and Vietnamese descent).

When he later offers Willem a deal that sounds too good to be true (it is), he backs it up with the following “people like you and me” speech: “I know what it’s like, back in Europe, when you are like us. There are two men applying for the same position, they pick the whitest one. I think every man must wake up one day and say, ‘This is my life, this is my love, this is who I am.’ But to get there, people like you and me, we must take opportunities whenever they come.”

This is an indoctrination speech that co-opts the language of social justice, like right-wing movements around the world have learnt to do in increasingly believable ways. The danger that they represent, the danger that Rahim expertly channelises here, really does resemble the tightly-coiled menace of a serpent. It’s little touches like these that make this, the latest on-screen version of Charles Sobhraj, an era-appropriate villain in 2021.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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