The Serpent Review: A Whole Series Later, “Bikini Killer” Charles Sobhraj Remains a Mystery

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The Serpent Review: A Whole Series Later, “Bikini Killer” Charles Sobhraj Remains a Mystery

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

It is no secret that Indians love to claim international celebrities even with the thinnest of threads connecting them to subcontinental heritage. While most may not agree with the liberal politics of American Vice President Kamala Harris, it doesn’t stop them from owning a part of her inspiring migrant story. The same goes for sportsmen and film celebrities, we are either vaguely connected with by lineage or the colour of their skin. Much in the same vein, Charles Sobhraj is India’s most illustrious link to a true-crime story that, much like popular culture, has become a canon most countries would rather not miss out on. Sobhraj has fascinated Indians for generations now, enough to warrant the odd cinematic reference and countless news stories. The BBC series The Serpent, now streaming on Netflix, is a long-due storied portrayal of the enigmatic yet seductive Sobhraj that has eluded Indians for decades.

Bollywood has already made a film on Sobhraj, the largely forgettable Main Aur Charles (2015) starring Randeep Hooda. It is kind of surprising that given the nib-breaking frequency with which true-crime stories are now being written these days, it has taken the good part of four decades for someone to unclench the tightly held veneer around Sobhraj’s life of crime. Tahar Rahim, dons the impossible mantle of essaying Sobhraj in the Netflix series, when he remains in reality a man beyond literary definition. Most true-crime stories are sported by painful backstories or psychological impulses that lead to some sort of violence. Charles Sobhraj, on the other hand is the aristocrat of serial killers, painfully calm in his body and bafflingly without clear-cut intent. Rahim, therefore has a bit of a task on his hands but he clears the first hurdle with ease.

The Serpent opens in Indonesia and is seen through two different timelines. One in which Sobhraj casually eliminates western hippies to one where the chase on his tail is on, courtesy the Dutch Diplomat Herman Knippenberg played convincingly by Billy Howle. As the two timelines trudge forward, it’s the impenetrable charm of Rahim that begins to grow on you. For those who have seen the actor’s masterly performance in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), Rahim is at his usual bewitching finest. His deep baritone and unanimated body feels as mysterious and inaccessible as Sobhraj’s life has seemed beyond reproach. The man casually seduced women, at one point led a gang of three, became an overnight celebrity during his jail time in Tihar, and married after serving a life sentence. And that’s just some of the headlines from a life that seems fit for obsessing over by not just people but entire countries. It is rumoured that Amitabh Bachchan’s line “Don ka intezar to 11 mulkon ki police..” was inspired by Sobhraj’s exploits at the time. Together with his love interest Marie-Andree (Jenna Coleman), Charles befriended hippie westerners on trails between Indonesia and Nepal and subsequently murdered them.

It is rumoured that Amitabh Bachchan’s line “Don ka intezar to 11 mulkon ki police..” was inspired by Sobhraj’s exploits at the time.

Sobhraj’s motivations are the subject of speculation to this day. His hatred for white-skinned hippies is evident in the series. In one scene, he tells a woman he has just drugged, “You’re vulgar. You throw yourself at men the way you throw yourself at religion.” To which effect, The Serpent also cautiously examines the many pitiable contradictions of hippie culture that truly bloomed after the late ’60s. In search of Nirvana or spiritual transcendence of some kind, tourists from the west or “young longhairs” as one character calls them, mobbed Asian shores in search of the vague and as Sobhraj felt, vacuous. “You cannot buy your way off the wheel,” Charles tells one of his victims. Though he was also referred to as the “Bikini Killer” because of the profile of his victims, there is no clear streak of sexual violence to latch onto either. This is still one of the weaker links of the series, the inability to unmask Charles Sobhraj beyond the performative aspects of his crimes. From political hatred of western hippies to killing them in a serial fashion, the jump can’t simply be down to whimsy or control. “From the age of 15, there was no one and nothing that wanted me,” he confesses at one point. There are certain flashbacks to early childhood etc, but put together none can present the man in one readable piece. Maybe that is why he remains both accessible and yet untraceable by conscience.

Politically, The Serpent doesn’t shy away from examining the counter-cultural effects of the American hippie movement on lesser countries. There is a sense of irony in the foolhardy chasing detachment through privilege. “They are only rich assholes, and when they wake up in the morning they will still be rich assholes,” Charles tells Marie-Andree after she witnesses him drug two people they had just met. There is so much to examine in Sobhraj’s life, his sway over women, his fatal magnetism that has survived his crimes, and the sheer equanimity with which he has dealt with its fallouts. Though the series has its ebbs and flows and kind of drags in the middle, Rahim is magnetic, restrained yet adequately raw for a man who continues to be carved in the public imagination and will inspire many more attempts.