C-h-a-r-l, I typed. The over-enthusiastic search engine threw up names like Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, in that order. A league of extraordinary gentlemen, no doubt. On top of the list, however, was a name of an extraordinary but not-so-gentle man—Charles Sobhraj. Clearly, not only is evil “charming, attractive and difficult to resist”—as a line goes in Main aur Charles—but also hugely popular.
Infamous would be a better and ideal adjective for Charles Sobhraj, who murdered 12 (some reports say 24) western tourists in Asia, especially Thailand, between 1965 and 1976. Prawaal Raman’s thriller is based on the life of the notorious serial killer—portrayed brilliantly by Randeep Hooda—who eluded capture for years, which earned him the nickname ‘serpent’.
But did the 123-minute ‘biopic’ do justice to a life as intriguing and eventful as that of Sobhraj? The answer is, unfortunately, no. Directing a biopic is always a challenge. Some nail it—like Bandit Queen, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Paan Singh Tomar—while others fail to live up to the huge expectations. Main aur Charles treads the middle path, with a foot in the latter’s territory.
The film begins in Thailand, 1968, with a body of a westerner girl washing up ashore. Next we see two boots on a boat, followed by scene showing a skimpily-clad girl cosying up to a silhouette. A few such seemingly unrelated scenes later, the story jumps ahead by seven years, in Nepal. A year later he is held in India for poisoning a group of French tourists. And again a frog jump to 1986, when he pulled off a sensational escape from Tihar Jail. Phew! And they say, light travels fast. Though the film explains a few of these scenes later in the film, it loses its grip over the audience early.
As the name suggests, the story is told through the eyes of Delhi cop Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain), and focuses on the jailbreak and the game of one-upmanship between Sobhraj and Kanth. And since he comes in only around the time when Sobhraj is arrested in India, the film rushes through the first half to reach that point, all the while trying to establish Sobhraj as a seductive, suave but dangerous criminal. Not a single scene, however, shows him killing his victims. Deliberate? I wonder. The real Sobhraj had a clear modus operandi and was ruthless, but the film depicts him more like a womaniser and fraudster rather than a cold-blooded killer.
Hooda has played the character to perfection, with the bell-bottoms and blazers, coloured shades, flat cap, neatly-parted hair and the heavy French accent. Not to forget the sinister, enigmatic smile. A victim of which is a law intern Mira (Richa Chadda), who plays a star-struck girl who sympathises with and loves Sobhraj, and helps him, and three others including a foreigner Richard (Alexx O’Nell), to escape from the prison.
The film finds its groove in the second half, with the focus firmly on Sobhraj’s stint in the prison. How he toys with the police and the media alike, much to Kanth’s frustration. And why he staged the jailbreak, and how Kanth manages to keep him in prison. The exchanges between Sobhraj and Kanth are a treat to watch. Hussain is tailor-made for the role, switching between a restrained cop and an agitated investigator, as and when the situation demands.
But again, since the story is an account by Kanth, the film ends rather abruptly at the moment his role in Sobhraj’s life ends. Those familiar with the case diary of the celebrity criminal, will know there’s so much more to Charles Sobhraj, than what the film suggests.
Film: Main aur Charles
Director: Prawaal Raman
Cast: Randeep Hooda, Adil Hussain, Richa Chadda, Alexx O’Nell