The first time I decided to travel to Thailand on an advance notice of 9 hours to my family, I contacted the only person I had known— an old friend who had spent her childhood and late teen years in the country. Among the other handy information she parted, she asked me in loud and clear words to stay the fuck away from anyone who tried to talk to me, especially if that individual looked like they’re from the Indian subcontinent and/or offered to sell me gems. I don’t think I fully understood that, not during that trip and definitely not during the subsequent trips I made yearly between 2016-2019 to Pattaya, Bangkok and Phuket.
I fully grasped that piece of advice only after I finished watching The Serpent (2021).
Commissioned by BBC and developed by Mammoth Screen for co-production between BBC One and Netflix, this true-crime 8-part miniseries released first on New Year’s Day (2021) for the audience in the UK. The rest of the world, y’know the countries where The Serpent slithered the field, only got rightful access in April ’21. Which is to say, the rest of the world was deprived of this fascinating insight into the intriguing life of the infamous serial fraudster, Charles Sobhraj until last week.
The Serpent is based on the 1979 book by journalists Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, “The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj” and is perhaps, the first re-telling of the account of his crimes and nature of his criminal activities on screen as close to the investigative work that followed. There are four other docu-dramas among other books and films in the public domain on the subject, including Randeep Hooda as Charles Sobhraj in Main Aur Charles (2015), but this one just hits different (maybe, cause it's BBC?). Directed by Tom Shankland and written by Richard Warlow, this is a gripping retelling of the known crimes carried out by Charles Sobhraj. The series amplifies the crimes and their unfolding carried out between Bangkok, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, Karachi, Delhi, Bombay, and Paris for the most part.
Between the 1960s and late 1970s, Alain (played by ruggedly handsome Tahar Rahim) is accused of theft, drugging and robberies, identity theft from hippies and tourists travelling across the Gulf of Thailand and in countries including Afghanistan, Greece, India, Pakistan, and Nepal (the Asian "Hippie Trail"), unknown to the authorities that his real name is Charles Sobhraj. Using lax cross-border immigration and easy travelling rules, which he uses to his advantage, Sobhraj and his Québécois partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman looking every bit enamoured) come together as a force to drug and rob the travelers as they hoodwink to represent gems business.
His known accomplice, Ajay Chowdhury (reprised by Amesh Edireweera), joins Sobhraj in carrying out the murders of these hippies and travelers they encounter along the way. Some meet their end as they are burnt alive by the trio (after drugging), while a few others escape along the way. These hippies would be often found dead and washed up on the seashore in bikinis, and despite denying all accusations of murders, Sobhraj found himself attached to the notorious nickname, “Bikini Killer” courtesy of the deceased women found in their swimsuits. So much for that erotic bait and the drama associated with the name.
The show takes you back to an age of no instant social media updates and #wanderlust on the 'gram. The disappearance of these hippies was attributed to drug overdose and no authorities including the diplomats were particularly concerned in attempting to hunt them down. The investigative work prompted by a Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg to look into the disappearance of a missing couple— Willem Bloem (Armand Rosbak) and Helena Dekker (Ellie De Lange)— helps in the creation of the first timeline of Sobhraj’s scandalous crimes, making him Asia’s biggest scam artist there is. Knippenberg is joined by his wife Angela Kane (Ellie Bamber) who helps him piece evidence and timeline along the way as he uncovers the plot and takes the viewers to an understanding of these crimes and how they were committed. Meanwhile, the cops, authorities, ambassadors, and other key people in the system constantly discourage and lampoon his efforts until nearly the end of the show, by which time, as a viewer, you wonder, “how late is too late?”
While all these and more were being committed at the behest of Sobhraj— the chief architect of these true crimes— you can’t help but wonder how the show problematizes the roles of every single participant in each crime. From Sobhraj’s unsuspecting neighbourhood friends Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Greg Isvarine) to his accomplices Marie-Andrée (known as Monique when she commits these crimes), to even the brief appearance of his cold mother and former sympathetic wife, you are pushed as a viewer to think of ethical concerns and questions— what does it mean to be in love (or worse, besotted by a serial criminal), by a man who is known to be dangerous and is responsible for creating havoc of drugs and murders with disappearing international tourists who are largely unaccounted for. The series does an excellent job at creating the mood, ever so jubilant and light at the moment while juxtaposing the crime for what it is when we today realize that these were being carried out at large with the state being in complete oblivion.
The show itself doesn’t delve into much detail and nor does it pretend to. The nature of his crimes and the way he committed them with the participants are all based on the testimonies of the few who were in police custody and the ones who survived, along with journalistic shreds of evidence and reports, some inaccurate and others totally wild. To begin with, the clues of these crimes were scattered and put together by an individual, his wife, and others who helped them along the way. To expect accuracy and to expect details along with a woke representation of people of colour and others is to ask for a lot, especially in a documentary based on a book written in 1979. You can either be authentic, or you can try and attempt at being cinematically woke.
Bear in mind, if you do end up reading about Sobhraj, the man himself is acquitted to have killed nobody and is accused of specific crimes, not even all. He's initially only accused of killing 12 individuals when the informal testimonies link him to as many as 24 murders. To expect finesse and details is to ask for fiction in what is supposedly a true-crime series which ought to explain his charm and his manic ways of working. To expect more from the creators and team, in terms of “things are not clear” is to ask for signposting.
If it’s taken over 45-50 years for a series of this nature to have come out on Charles Sobhraj, arguably, one of the more fabled figures in the annals of true crimes, that should tell you, how flipping good he was at what he did, along with being terrifyingly charming.
What stuck with me while streaming the show is the set design. Most of the Bangkok portion was shot in Hua Hin and due to COVID-19, most of the part including scenes from India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were shot in England, with sets created to look like a convincing 70s landscape. To attempt that in England is a task and to that in England in the midst of the pandemic is worth an applause.
The acting is incredible. Tahar Rahim looks frighteningly good and his accomplices, “squad”, are total “goals”. For real though, each actor in the series makes you want to stay with them and hear their part out, it’s as though they are all fighting to stay alive, including Rahim and Coleman, even when you as a viewer see the mess they are responsible for.
The show is edited and put together with the help of chyrons and that helps create a back and forth timeline of the detailed events within the episodes, which initially may seem excessive and difficult to follow, but as you progress further into watching the series, you wait to see those, just to be able to travel across time, in an age of no cellular device and no broadband connection for you to start investigative journalism at home. While this certainly may not be the greatest true-crime series or even the most accurate one, but there’s something passionate and totally charming about The Serpent which holds your attention consistently through the 8 episodes.
When the scams get boring (yawn Nigerian Prince) and repetitive, the generations in the future are bound to remember Sobhraj and co. for their innovation and sheer determination in getting what they wanted, The Serpent is a testament to that. It’s safe to say, that we can all blame Sobhraj, a man with an Indian father, Vietnamese mother, and French upbringing, for ensuring that travelling overseas has become way tougher, as has securing the visa to most countries. I mean in which universe, Sobhraj is allowed to get away from everything he’s done to chill in Paris and I have my US visa rejected?