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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Main Aur Charles, Review: Misanthropic biopic

Main Aur Charles, Review: Misanthropic biopic

In the biography, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, by Richard Neville and Julie Clark, the serial killer’s mother summed him up. “He has the face of an angel, but somewhere, I think the devil crept into his soul,” she said. Main Aur Charles is the heavily edited, partly fictionalised but deeply rooted biopic about one of the most enigmatic criminal masterminds in 20th century history, wanted in India, Thailand, France, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Nepal and Hong Kong, and known widely as Charles Sobhraj, alias the Serpent (who slid out of so many jails). And the pun on the word ‘wanted’ is intentional, because a host of spell-bound men and women went to great lengths to work with him, work for him, have affairs with him and even marry him. Sobhraj, on his part, showed neither mercy nor remorse for his dastardly acts against all and sundry, and compared his deeds to that of a soldier on the battle front, gunning down enemies, in true misanthropic vein.

Main Aur Charles makes a ridiculous attempt in the opening credits to distance itself from the real-life character and the incidents filmed, by putting in a disclaimer that it is pure ‘fiction’. Wonder what compulsions prompted the producers to do this; perhaps they were afraid of being asked to pay royalty, or of facing defamation claims (Sobhraj was well-known for charging fees for every interview he gave). The titles also thank Amod Kanth, the real-life police officer who led the Delhi team that went in hot pursuit of Sobhraj, and the Main (Me) in the title refers to Kanth. Come on, you can’t claim it is fiction and then thank the very officer who pursued the case! Moreover, in the film, the serial-killer is chased by an officer named Amod Kanth! And wait a minute, there are two more attempts at covering-up: Charles is never referred to as Sobhraj or by any other second name/surname, just Charles (!), while the first name of the Bombay police officer, who fleshes out Charles in Go,a is changed from Madhukar to Sudhakar. Nobody, who knows the well-documented facts, will be fooled so easily!

Charles is an enigmatic con man and a vicious killer. There’s a thin line between his ‘victims’ and accomplices, which include British copywriter Richard (Alex O’Nell), clinging on to Charles, who promises to save him from a long prison term for possessing drugs, a princess Malvika (Heeral Mei), seeking adventure in an otherwise bland life, a young hippie girl hopelessly drawn towards him (Mandana Karimi), and an innocent law student Mira (Richa Chadda), madly in love with the dreams conjured by Charles. Most of the story is narrated through the eyes of Senior Delhi police official Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain). Charles escapes from India's most secure prison, the Tihar Jail, by drugging the entire guard contingent, and is then traced to and arrested in Goa. Three regional police forces argue about jurisdiction over his custody: Delhi, Mumbai and Goa. Finally, he is put in the hands of Amod Kanth, who is bent upon getting him jailed for a long term.

(For information on the real-life Charles Sobhraj, read the story at the bottom).

Since 20012, attempts have been made to film the mind-boggling tale of Charles Sobhraj. Sanjay Dutt, Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff were billed to play the part. One was titled Bottomline-A Slap in The Face of Redemption, the other was named Jailbreak (what Raman called his screenplay) and finally, writer-director Prawaal Raman came-up with Bad. With the Bad producer parting company after some days of shooting, and a new financer coming in, he changed the title to Main Aur Charles.

Prawaal Raman (Darna Mana Hai, Gayab, Darna Zaroori Hai - You Gotta Be Scared, Zabardast) is a South Indian brought up in Bihar, who assisted Ram Gopal Varma on Jungle and Company. Raman’s influences include Andrei Tarkovsky, Guru Dutt and Ritwik Ghatak. And maybe, on the off-chance, he’s seen the impactful 1968 serial killer thriller, No Way to Treat a Lady. On second thought, if he had been influenced by the Rod Steiger starrer, his present film would have been rather different and more gripping. News announcements on state-owned All India Radio and Doordarshan, the only two broadcasters at the time, are inserted amateurishly, and bear no resmblance to way they were, and are, conducted. Except for well-written peeps into the private life of Amod Kanth, including some scenes featuring his wife (Reena, Tisca Chopra), and one fleeting scene at the home of Zende, there is very little or no reference to families or back-grounds of any of the characters. Even the detail of Sobhraj coming from a broken family is revealed through Mira. Raman has said in an interview that Amod is the only 100% real character in the film. Not true, Raman, just not true. Almost all your characters are real, whether some are 100% and others 99% is a matter of detail.

Amod Kanth is a winner of the President's Police Medal, and has handled many high-profile cases -- from former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's assassination by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, to the stock market scandal blamed on broker Harshad Mehta. He retired from the Delhi police force in 2007, aged 60. Currently, he runs a non-government organisation (NGO) for children, called Prayas (effort).

Shot in a mixture imaginative camera angles and slick camerawork, we also see some haphazard framing too. The film uses both linear narrative and abrupt-cut flash-back styles. The only flash-forward is so seamlessly integrated that audiences might not get it even when it is explained in the dialogue almost two hours later. What he does not put on the plate, though, he tries to delineate through performances, and here the cast has stood him in good stead.

Randeep Hooda (Darna Zaroori Hai, The Coffin Maker, Kick) comes up with a mesmerising performance—methodical, cool as cucumber and replete with a perfected French accent. Raman’s insistence on Hooda for the part turns out to be a tour de force. Adil Hussain (Agent Vinod, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Life of Pi) is the perfect foil. Hussain has joined the club of elite actors who seldom fail to bring a part alive. Richa Chadda (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Gangs of Wasseypur, Masaan) tries hard to play the dumb girl who is completely captivated by Sobhraj’s spell, succeeding only partially. She’s comfortable during skin show shots, like all other women in the film, including Indo-Iranian actress Mandana Karimi (Bhaag Johnny, Roy), TV anchor Heeral Mei and Dijana Dejanovic (Sobhraj’s companion and lawyer).

Alexx O'Nell (Cheeni Kum, Gangster, Umrika) is among a few resident talented British actors who are getting more and more opportunities in India. Tisca Chopra (Taare Zameen Par, Qissa, Rahasya) takes you by surprise with her disarming candour. Playing a psychiatrist, debutant Lucky Morani looks attractive, but her falling for Charles at their first meeting seems rather incredible. But then, all the women in the film fall for him at first sight! Nandu Madhav (Jis Desh Men Ganga Rehta Hai, Harishchandrachi Factory, Jana Gana Mana) as Sudhakar Zhende is quite natural, especially in the Goa scenes. As investigating officer Joshi, Shanu Dev has a brief role, competently essayed. Vipin Sharma (Taare Zameen Par, Gangs of Wasseypur, Special 26) plays the corrupt jail-warden with characteristic finesse.

Main Aur Charles leaves a dozen things unexplained, and has most likely been brutally chopped at the editing table. The background score, obviously inspired by the James Bond themes of the late 70s-80s, is compelling, till it is blasted at eardrum splitting decibels, for the 100th time. With material like Charles Sobhraj’s stranger than fiction life, they could have done better. Yet, there is enough in the film you keep you engaged.

Rating: ***


The Charles Sobhraj story, as culled from the History Channel’s 2007 documentary, Serial Killer Charles Sobhraj: The Serpent, written and directed by Lourdes Castellano (Covering the period relevant to the film)

Born Hotchand Gurmukh Sobhraj Bhawnani, in April 1944, in Saigon, Charles was the illegitimate son of an Indian money-lender and his illiterate Vietnamese peasant-girl mistress. Soon after his birth, Sobhraj's father married an Indian woman, and his mother wedded a French military officer, when Sobhraj was four years old. Hotchand Sobhraj witnessed countless acts of violence in war-torn Indo-China, before his step-father took the family to France, in 1953.

At the Catholic boarding school in Paris, he was nick-named ‘Charles’, after his mimicry of the legendary actor-director, Charles Chaplin. His first crime was a gun-point robbery. Soon afterwards, he married and found a job. Jailed again for forging his sister’s signature on cheques, Charles was freed when she dropped the charges. Not much later, he took his wife to Bombay, setting up shop as an international con man and smuggler, specialising in the theft of passports from American and European tourists. Arrested for a jewel robbery in Delhi, Charles was granted bail, in spite of an escape attempt.

He jumped bail and fled to Kabul, where he was jailed for auto theft. Another escape brought him back to France, where he kidnapped his infant daughter from his mother-in-law, leaving the woman drugged and locked in a hotel room. Sobhraj's first known murder victim was a Pakistani chauffeur named Habib, hired by Charles, and a female companion, in September 1972. In November 1973, Sobhraj was in Istanbul, teaming up with his step-brother, Guy, to drug and rob wealthy tourists. Both were arrested in Greece, but Charles managed another escape, leaving his brother in jail, as he fled back to India. In Delhi, he entered the heroin trade, gaining a foothold in the cut-throat business with inside information procured --under drugs and torture --from a local pusher, whom Sobhraj later killed.

In October 1975, Sobhraj killed an American tourist, Teresa Knowlton, in his Delhi flat, and had a side-kick dump her body. A Turkish competitor in the drug trade, Vitali Hakim, was beaten, his neck snapped, his corpse doused with gasoline, and set afire. In Bangkok, Charles strangled Hakim's French contact, one Stephanie Parry. A month later, still in Bangkok, he strangled Dutch tourists Cornelia Hemker and Henricus Bitanja on December 16, burning their bodies, to eliminate all evidence. Shortly before Christmas, Canadian Laurent Carriere and American Connie Bronzick were found dead in Kathmandu, their bodies burned. Sobhraj--travelling as Henricus Bitanja, with his victim's passport --had booked a room at the same hotel, but he slipped out of Nepal, after preliminary questioning.

Sobhraj continued his trek across Asia’s Hippy trail, murdering Israeli Allen Jacobs for his passport at Varanasi. A few days later, on January 9, 1976, Sobhraj and two accomplices drugged a trio of Frenchmen at Goa, dumping their bodies at roadside, but all three victims managed to survive. In Hong Kong, Allen Gore lost all his money, but kept his life, despite a dose of Sobhraj's chemical cocktail. Arrested with false passports in Bangkok, Charles was allowed to walk, after doling out bribes all around. In Penang, Malaysia, he was arrested for trying to cash stolen traveller's cheques, but he managed to talk his way out of jail. Back in Bombay, Sobhraj poured a fatal potion to French tourist Jean-Luc Solomon.

In 1976, he drugged an entire class of 60 French engineering students, but miscalculation of the dose sent 20 to a local hospital, and this time police were waiting. Arrested on July 5, 1976, Sobhraj was linked with at least ten homicides, spanning the past three years. Convicted of "culpable homicide" in the Solomon case, Sobhraj was sentenced to seven years at hard labour, with two more years tacked on for drugging the French students. In 1982, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Allen Jacobs.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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