By Neeraj Nanda
MELBOURNE, April 7, 2021: Premiered by Netflix on 2 April 2021, The Serpent, (eight episodes) grips you like an ongoing fever, as the master criminal Alain (Tahir Rahim), his girlfriend Monique (Jenna Coleman), and friend Ajay Chaudhury (Amesh Edieweera) move ahead on their killing spree across nations. This real-life stuff happened around 1975-76 when Charles Shobraj (Alain in the series), nicknamed the ‘bikini killer’(posing as a gem dealer) with his accomplices (starting in Thailand) kills around 12 young westerners (hippies) with similar modus operandi (poisoning and killing) in different countries.
This was the pre-mobile phone and pre-internet age and the Vietnam war was ending. The stage was set for this rather bizarre and sensational newspaper headline-making killer (dad was an Indian Sindhi and mum Vietnamese) with a sharp brain, master forger, and intense power to infatuate women. No doubt, The Serpent, weaves his personality into the sad trail of intrigue, death, and sensation.
Dutch diplomat Herman Kippenberg (Billy Howle) persues Alain with all the determination to put him in the dock for the killing (and burning alive on a beach in Thailand) of two Dutch nationals. In fact, Herman emerges as much a hero, in the series, as Alain. The happenings in Kathmandu and New Delhi are legendary. He escapes from Tihar jail (New Delhi) and is rearrested in Goa (India) after 22 days. All this, to avoid being extradited to Thailand for murder. How he escapes from Tihar Jail is the plot of the 2015 Hindi Bollywood movie ‘Main Aur Charles’, in which Randeep Hooda acts Charles Shobraj.
The name Charles Shobraj emerges in episode 6 as ‘Charles’ and later as ‘Charles Shobraj’. In episode 7, Charles Shobraj is in Paris (with Monique) trying to see his ex-wife and daughter. The interaction between Charles and his Vietnamese mother makes an interesting watch as the mother gestures her contempt for the son’s actions. She knows her son well. “Charles lies, always,” she tells Monique. Meanwhile, Herman is closing in for the prey.
Charles escapes from Thailand and is back in France where he tries to settle down. He is a free man despite the massive criminal record. An unusual development takes place. Charles’ takes a trip to Kathmandu where he is accidentally confronted by a Nepalese journalist, who takes his photo and files a story. The master criminal is arrested for murdering two westerners in Nepal. He argues that the one who murdered the two was not he. Why? Because, in reality, then he had entered Nepal with a forged passport and a different name. The scene looks cool as Charles is soft and convincing. He is released because of no evidence but fate has something else for him. Herman’s dangerous pursuit of the serpent, makes the Kathmandu cops rearrest him as he is walking out of the prison. He is later sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and he is still in Nepalese jail in his mid-seventies serving his term.
To this day it remains a riddle as, why Charles Shobraj living in freedom in France went to Nepal. Was he overconfident or his attraction for the subcontinent took him there?
In the last two episodes (seven and 8) where the climax seeps, the events are very racey. Fast-moving happenings can be confusing as the director takes the liberty of fast-forwarding months and days forward and at times going back into past months. Instead, two more detailed episodes could have been added to the limited series.
People in the Indian subcontinent will be disappointed at the almost little details about the happenings in India (the escape from Tihar Jail). It could have added to the strength of the series. Many books about Charles Shobraj have been popular in India and if another one comes will not be a surprise.
Tahir gives a regal performance. Jenna and Amesh do justice to their roles. And, Billy as Herman is excellent. At places, stock footage is used (looks like), which is blurry. In totality, Directors Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots have done a good job filming a rather tricky criminal saga. Writers Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay could have added more meat with missing facts added.
I give the series 3 out of 5 stars.
The series was first released on BBC-One in January 2021. It is streaming on Netflix now.