Years ago, during my routine mindless scrolling of YouTube, I came across some AP Archive videos of a man called Charles Sobhraj. I am eternally fascinated by the past, particularly crimes done in the past, so I mindlessly watched a couple videos before moving on and subsequently erasing Sobhraj from memory. Then Netflix came along and jogged my memory.
Charles Sobhraj is a notorious serial killer who murdered over a dozen people in the mid 70s, preying primarily on hippie Western tourists who flocked to South Asia. He would pose as a gem dealer to lure unsuspecting victims, who he then poisoned and pretended to nurse them back to health, before eventually killing them after relieving them of their money and passports. Among his many monikers are The Bikini Killer, The Splitting Killer, and The Serpent.
The Serpent is a Netflix original* crime drama based on Sobhraj and his trail of horror. The show starts in Bangkok, where the disappearance of two Dutch tourists get the attention of a Dutch diplomat named Herman Knippenberg. From this we are taken on a wild, albeit slow paced, ride into the world of the man they call The Serpent. Sobhraj is a Frenchman, born to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother, raised in France with his French Stepfather. He is a man without a home and without a conscience, and must have a lot of charm as he is able to slither around seamlessly in and out of lives, countries and situations. We see Sobhraj charm Marie-Andrée Leclerc- the quintessential bored woman in need of adventure which she finds in Sobhraj, becoming one of his most loyal partners in life and crime. There is also Ajay Chowdhury- an Indian man who serves as Sobhraj’s right hand man and underlying. Marie-Andree and Ajay are fiercely committed to The Serpent and jostle for his attention. Ajay directly participates in the murders, while Marie-Andree is portrayed as conflicted- going along with the plot as far as recruiting and drugging the tourists but stopping short of murder. Either way she is also scum.
Knippenberg soon traces the missing Dutch tourists to Sobhraj and quickly realises that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Over and over we see the trio charm naïve tourists, drug them, and rob them. The process is not a quick wham bam robbery, but a long prolonged ordeal for the victims. They are lured in under the pretext of a party, buying gems, or just a generous homeowner sharing his home with new friends; then they mysteriously fall ill and the trio spring into action to nurse them back to health while feeding them more of the poison disguised as medicine. By the time the victims wise up, it’s usually too late. They are finished off and disposed of and voila! Sobhraj has a new passport and identity. Rinse and repeat. From Thailand to Nepal to India.
It was so infuriating to watch. The greed and careless disregard for human life and wellbeing was disgusting. The love of money IS the root of most evil. All the killing was for what? Money. How long he thought he was going to keep doing that for is not clear; and I don’t know how sustainable he thought this money making model was. One mustn’t ask these questions of people like Sobhraj-their minds work differently and for as long as they are alive and free they will be planning something criminal.
With the exception of Knippenberg, no one seemed to notice, and if they did they did not care. Hippies going missing was not a priority back then, especially as they were stereotyped as drug dealers and users engaging in risky lifestyles. Sobhraj himself denied murdering the tourists, saying that as drug addicts the victims “…may have been… liquidated by a syndicate, for dealing heroin.” I was also annoyed by the tourists themselves for not being wary enough, but this was the seventies and it seems everyone was
more stupid less cautious back then. It would be more difficult, but not impossible, for this to happen now in the age of fast news, social media, CCTV, DNA, and increased awareness.
Sobhraj had the coldness and confidence of a psychopath, and nothing seemed to rattle him much. The series shows him as always being a step ahead of everyone else and finding ways to wriggle out of situations that would consume most people. Even the real life Sobhraj enjoyed a life of luxury while in prison as he was able to bribe the prison guards. It is only towards the end that we see him lose composure as desperation sets in and the walls close in on him.
The French-Algerian actor Tahir Rahim is beyond sublime in this. I don’t know how similar his delivery is to the real Sobhraj, but my oh my does he execute the role flawlessly. His performance is unnerving and I absolutely despised his character. Jenna Coleman was also brilliant as Marie-Andrée Leclerc. Leclerc is a strange one, swaying from victim to criminal partner. She has a religious background and seems to worship Sobhraj with an obsessive devotion which Coleman portrays well.
I wanted worse for Sobhraj, Leclerc, and Chowdhury. In real life Leclerc died of ovarian cancer at 38. Chowdhury disappeared and has never been seen dead or alive since. The story about town is that he was killed by Sobhraj. The show leaves it ambiguous. Sobhraj spends 21 years in an Indian prison living the life of a Rockstar and returns to France where he continues his celebrity lifestyle. For whatever reason-arrogance, thirst for attention- he goes to Nepal and is immediately arrested and sent to life in prison. This is little solace for his victims, and for me. I would have preferred for him to receive a severe lashing in the town square everyday for a dozen years before being led to the electric chair.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Serpent and learning about the real life crimes. The acting, in addition to the fascinating nature of the crimes, made this a thrilling watch. I had my heart in my mouth for a good part of the series. It is scary to think of the evil that lurks in the shadows, and those that openly reveal themselves in the light.
*It is shown on Netflix as a Netflix original but sources also show it as a BBC commissioned show.