It was the year 1997 when every newspaper was screaming aloud about the one man, who despite the overwhelming evidence against him, walked free out of an Indian jail. Infamously dubbed as the ‘Bikini Killer’, this man Charles Sobhraj had managed to conjure his freedom by playing his legal cards right. A curious me had gotten wide-eyed after reading his acts of crime in the newspaper. A man, who could charm his way out of each and every adversity that he faced, killing people for money and their passports, was a myth, an incomprehensible puzzle for most of the world. Nobody knew, what went inside that little head of his. Six years later, when he was finally apprehended by the Nepalese authorities, he was caught on the camera, with a little smile on his face. If one zooms in on that photograph, it’s quite obvious that it wasn’t the smile of a man resigned to his fate, rather it was more of a smirk of a man, looking forward to his next adventure. Murdering people, with his effortless charm and cunningness, he was labelled as ‘The Serpent’, a reptile, who slithers on its prey, before clutching it in an unrecoverable grip. BBC One and Netflix co-produced an eight-part limited series of the same name, about this nefarious man, who is accused of at least 12 murders. 

Set in the mid-70s, the series aims to tell about the life of times of Charles Sobhraj. Going back and forth in time, it paints the picture of the man, who duped and killed people for their money and stole their identities. But instead of solely focusing on Charles, the show also goes at length to describe the people who were directly or indirectly affected by his crimes. Charles’s accomplices, his neighbours and the Dutch diplomat who literally threw away his life into the ashtray, looking for this killer. Does the show glorify the killer? Yes, to some extent. It also proves the point that the vanity of a man, is more than enough to push him over the edge. Calm in the advent of assured capture, this man’s audacity spoke of his criminal brilliance. People around him were in awe of his personality. They got drawn to him, just like a moth gets drawn to the flicker of the burning lamp. And those who were after him, spent restless days and nights, as he was capable of anything. Each episode begins with the point of view of a person, who’s either an accomplice or a victim of Sobhraj. With the episodes going back and forth in time, the show delves into the psyche of this serial killer. Did he kill people for fun? Did the whole idea of ‘Hippiness’ made him hate the white-skinned people to the core? Or was it sheer joy to become notorious? Whatever it is, the show makes him an enigma of a man who till date remains a cypher to the countless true crime observers. 

Tahar Rahim, the man from ‘The Mauritanian’ (2020) plays the lead role and brings a much-required authenticity to it. He exudes the charm of a man, who could outwit people with his mysterious persona and also displays a certain menace that makes him a ruthless killer. His portrayal of a master manipulator whose self-obsession knows no limit is spot on. Jenna Coleman plays his lover and accomplice Monique aka Marie Andree, who remains in a hypnotic, tranced state in Charles’s company. She plays his femme fatale, who keeps on committing the crimes, as she’s genuinely head over heels in love. It’s her predicament that makes her character so engrossing to watch. Her relationship with Charles is doomed from the beginning, as she’s constantly in two-minds over trusting this man, thus becoming his partner-in-crime.

The ensemble cast is well cast. Amesh Edireweera plays Ajay Chowdhury, Charles’s man-Friday who is in a unique conflict with Monique, over their respective allegiance to Charles. Incidentally, there has been no trace of Ajay Chowdhury since he was last seen in 1976. It’s unclear whether Charles actually let him go or made him one of his victims. Billy Howle plays the Dutch diplomat Herman Kippenberg who loses himself in the search of Charles Sobhraj, along with his wife Angela played by Ellie Bamber. It’s their tireless efforts that finally puts Charles behind the bars, but in return, destroys their lives forever. Tim McInnerny as the Belgian diplomat Paul, Mathilde Warnier as Nadine, Alyy Khan as DSP Tuli, and Pravessh Rana as Inspector Thapa do well in their respective roles.

For true crime lovers, ‘The Serpent’ is a riveting watch. The tension is palpable, the suspense is simmering, especially when in the weirdest of quagmires, Charles manages to pull an escape out of nowhere. Strangely, one finds himself drawn to this shady character and roots for his escape. One can only imagine how charismatic the actual man would have been. Killing hapless tourists across the world, in the midst of scenic locales, the show recreates the vintage seventies with its authentic set pieces, with the majority of shoot occurring on-location before the pandemic hit the world. The timeline switching between the past and the present may be confusing for some viewers, but as a slow burn thriller, it just adds up to the experience. A must watch!

‘The Serpent’ – all eight episodes now streaming on Netflix worldwide, Rated – Adult for violence. Episode run time – 50 – 55 mins

The Cinemawala Rating:3/5

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