Netflix has a plethora of content for enthusiasts of the true crime genre. An upcoming addition to its impressive library is The Serpent, BBC’s acclaimed series on the life of notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj.
The mini-series is created by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay, and stars French actor Tahar Rahim as Sobhraj. Others in the cast include Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber and Tim McInnerny.
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Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj was born in 1944 in Saigon, French Indochina, to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father. After his father deserted the family, Charles was adopted by his mother’s second husband, a French army lieutenant, and sent to a boarding school in France. He was, however, unhappy there and tried to escape to Saigon by sea multiple times, managing to reach as far as Djibouti on one occasion.
Sobhraj began committing petty crimes as a teenager and received his first jail sentence in 1963 in Paris. After diving deeper in the world of crime, he fled from France in 1970 with his wife Chantal Compagnon to escape arrest. After travelling through Eastern Europe with fake documents, he arrived in Mumbai later that year, where Chantal gave birth to their daughter Usha.
In Mumbai, Sobhraj started a car theft and smuggling operation, and his profits grew handsomely. In 1973, he was arrested and imprisoned after a failed robbery attempt on a jewellery store. He, however managed to escape and fled to Kabul, where he began to rob tourists along the Hippie Trail that stretched between Europe and South-East Asia.
Sobhraj committed the first of his known murders in 1975. Charming and fluent in several languages, his modus operandi was to befriend and help the victims before drugging them. He is said to have committed between 12 to 24 such murders.
He was arrested in Delhi in 1976, after a failed attempt at poisoning a group of French students. This time he was sentenced to 12 years in Tihar Jail. In the tenth year of his sentence, he escaped again, only to be recaptured in a month and sentenced to another ten years. He was finally released in 1997, after which he retired to a comfortable life in Paris.
In 2003, Sobhraj was spotted in Kathmandu and arrested by the Nepal police for a double murder charge dating to 1975. He was subsequently convicted by multiple courts. As of 2021, Charles Sobhraj continues to be in Nepalese prison.
Sobhraj has spent over 35 years behind bars in his lifetime and has also escaped from jail numerous times, which earned him the nickname ‘the serpent’. He has also been labelled ‘the bikini killer’, a reference to a couple of his early victims who were wearing swimsuits when their bodies were discovered.
The Serpent isn’t the first time that Sobhraj’s story has been adapted to the screen. Shadow of the Cobra is a 1989 television movie based on the book The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke. In 2004, filmmaker Jan Wellmann released a documentary titled Sobhraj, or How to Be Friends with a Serial Killer. Bollywood too has attempted a film on Sobhraj. Main aur Charles is a 2015 film with Randeep Hooda playing the killer. It is told from the perspective of a cop, Amod Kanth, who handled the Sobhraj case.
The Serpent will stream from Friday, April 2 on Netflix.