By Amit Roy
NOW that the BBC is going to screen an eight-part television drama on Indian origin serial killer Charles Sobhraj, the writer Farrukh Dhondy has spoken to Eastern Eye about the man that he got to know.
It was not so much a friendship as an “acquaintanceship” during the years 1984 to 1997 when Dhondy was commissioning editor for multicultural programmes at Channel 4 and had to “sup” with all manners of people as part of his job.
Dhondy quite rightly spotted that Sobhraj’s life was made for television. The problem, then as now, was to sift fact from fiction. In the end, Dhondy fictionalised all the information he had collected into a novel, The Bikini Murders. There was a time when Sobhraj was called “the Bikini Killer” because of the attire of one of his many victims.
The BBC drama is called The Serpent after one of the nicknames Sobhraj was given to reflect his treacherous character and his ability to slip away.
Sobhraj, who was locked up in Tihar Jail in Delhi from 1976 to 1997, has been described variously as a thief, fraudster, psychopath, and as someone who was “devilishly handsome” with a “cunning and cultured personality” but who “used his attractiveness to his advantage in his criminal career”.
So, what was Sobhraj like? Was he really a serial killer?
“My acquaintance with him began after he was released,” recalled Dhondy. “My book, The Bikini Murders, is based on that period with flashbacks to his murderous past. There is a lot of interest in that period.”
Sobhraj, now 75 and in poor health, “is in jail for life in Kathmandu for, I believe, two murders in the 1970s,” he said.
As for being a serial killer, Dhondy pointed out that Sobhraj “was convicted of serial murders in Thailand so, yes, he is a convicted serial killer.”
Dhondy, who got to him as well as any journalist can, added: “He struck me as an existential character who did not distinguish between right and wrong and lived with a startling amount of selfishness and self-preservation. No one else mattered.”
Sobhraj was born Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj on April 6, 1944 in Saigon to a Sindhi father, Sobhraj Hatchand Bhaonani, and a Vietnamese woman, Tran Loang Phun. But, after his parents split up, he was adopted by his mother’s new boyfriend, a French army lieutenant stationed in French Indochina, and brought up in Paris, where he began his life of crime at an early age.
The BBC, which has made the drama in a co-production with Netflix – as it did with Dracula – sums up: “Charles Sobhraj was the chief suspect in the unsolved murders of up to 20 young western travellers across India, Thailand and Nepal through 1975 and 1976. A master of disguise, having slipped repeatedly from the grasp of authorities worldwide, by 1976 Sobhraj was Interpol’s most wanted man and had arrest warrants on three different continents.”
“Inspired by real events, The Serpent tells the remarkable story of how Sobhraj was captured,” the BBC reveals.
Sobhraj will be played by the internationally renowned Tahar Rahim, who was cast in The Looming Tower, a drama about the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre, as Ali Soufan, a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent.
In 2010, Rahim attracted attention in Cannes in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet in which he played a young French man of Algerian descent, sentenced to six years in prison for attacking police officers. “I am thrilled to play Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent, a role I have dreamed of portraying since I read a book about him when I was 17,” said Rahim, who has been made up to look uncannily like Sobhraj did during the latter’s court appearances in India over 40 years ago.
Jenna Coleman, best known in Britain for playing Queen Victoria and being an assistant to Dr Who, looks unrecognisable and chilling even playing the role of MarieAndrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s partner in crime.
She said the story “intoxicated me into the dark, seductive world of Charles Sobhraj”, adding: “I’m looking forward to delving into hippie trail depths and bringing to life this unfathomable story.”
Sobhraj was tracked by Herman Knippenberg, a junior diplomat at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok who is played by Billy Howle, while Ellie Bamber is cast as his wife.
The magazine GQ published an in-depth piece on Sobhraj, written by Andrew Anthony who interviewed the master criminal, first in Paris, after his release from Tihar in 1997 and then in prison in Kathmandu in 2014.
Anthony, a British journalist, described his quarry as “quite possibly the most disarming serial killer in criminal history” and “a narcissistic pedlar of fantasies”.
He said: “Back in the 1970s, Sobhraj murdered at least 10 people, mostly western travellers along the Asian hippie trail. Some estimates number his victims as high as 24.
“In those days, visitors entered and left countries like Thailand, Hong Kong and Nepal with minimum official processing. Young idealists, trusting backpackers and hash-smoking stoners were looking to get lost, and Sobhraj made sure some of them were never found.
“He was a charismatic figure, fluent in several languages, and finely tuned to what budget travellers wanted.
“He would befriend them, advise them on where to eat and how to buy gemstones, sometimes put them up at the Bangkok apartment he shared with his French-Canadian girlfriend, and then kill them. He killed them by first drugging their drinks and then stabbing or choking them. Sometimes he would complete the murder by setting the body on fire – in more than one case, investigators found that the victim was not dead when he or she was set alight. He became known as the ‘Bikini Killer’ after the swimsuit one of his victims was wearing when she was discovered.
“Afterwards, he would steal their belongings and identities, often travelling the world on their passports and money. Like some bizarre real-life combination of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, he was handsome, charming and utterly without scruple. And such was the richly implausible nature of his exploits that Sobhraj generated his own impressive literary testaments.
“Richard Neville, the celebrated chronicler of the 60s counterculture, drew an extended taped confession from Sobhraj in The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj – later renamed The Shadow of the Cobra. The book was published in 1979.”
According to Dhondy, the BBC drama takes its line from the Neville book.