The Serpent, a BBC One-Netflix co-production, released on BBC iPlayer earlier this month.
The Killer Instinct: A poster for The Serpent
If you had read a headline with the words ‘Charles Sobhraj’ in it, chances are you had read the story. Released on BBC iPlayer this month, The Serpent, an eight-part mini-series, justifies, somewhat brilliantly, our endless fascination with this shape-shifter of a serial killer. For Sobhraj, people were objects, things he toyed with and then disposed of. Prisons were taverns, rooms where he cooled his heels. Love was a feeling he mimicked, never felt. Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, The Looming Tower) doesn’t just look like Sobhraj, he also seems to capture his menace that was as quiet as it was deadly.
Set for most part in 1970s Thailand, The Serpent shows Sobhraj drug, rob and kill backpackers who had left the West to either find nirvana or hashish. Sobhraj, as one character suggests, could smell both their loneliness and their traveller’s cheques. He reduced seduction to a formula. On the surface, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), third secretary to the Netherlands ambassador, doesn’t seem a strapping enough adversary but the bumbling and earnest diplomat is dogged in his pursuit of Sobhraj. He knows Sobhraj killed and then burned the bodies of a Dutch couple. He will do what it takes to bring their families justice.
Knippenberg, at one point, tells a Thai police official, “[Sobhraj] changes his identity the way you and I change underwear.” As Sobhraj changes names, passports and nationalities, the suspense is excruciating. Given that we know how Sobhraj’s story ends-he is serving time in a Nepalese jail-it seems strange that The Serpent makes you want to scratch that edge of your seat.
Sobhraj had an Indian father and an Indian accomplice. In July 1976, he was arrested in Delhi and sent to Tihar. While The Serpent slowly inches toward this denouement, it might also help us Indians realise that our obsession with Sobhraj isn’t wholly parochial. The show helps us see the darkness the world and its human beings sometimes find hard to hide. Unlike some true crime series and serial killer documentaries, The Serpent never writes off Sobhraj as ‘evil’. Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote, “The doors of heaven and hell are adjacent and identical.” Sobhraj, you see, knew which door to open when.