Randeep Hooda as Charles Sobhraj in the new film, ‘Main aur Charles’.
The first trailer for one of this year’s most-anticipated Indian films has just been released and it’s as chilling as the subject.
‘Main Aur Charles’ stars Randeep Hooda as Charles Sobhraj, widely reputed to be Asia’s most prolific serial killer.
But who is Sobhraj? Or, to give him his full name, Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj?
Sobhraj was also known as “The Serpent” – for his uncanny ability to shift and evade capture and escape from prison using various disguises – and, most famously, the “Bikini Killer” for targeting young women in tourist spots across Asia during the 1970’s.
While the true number of victims is unknown, some experts put it as high as 24.
Sobhraj was born on 6th April 1944 to an Indian father and Vietnamese mother in what was then Japanese-occupied Saigon.
His father, a wealthy Sindhi merchant, shunned him and his mother – a shop girl. She later married a French army lieutenant stationed in the country and Sobhraj thus became a French citizen.
But the young Charles was traumatized – first by his father deserting him and then his mother and step-father favouring their later children over him.
In fact, he once wrote about his father: “I will make you regret that you have missed your father’s duty.”
Sobhraj once also described his killing sprees as “cleaning”.
One cleaning spree – in 1976 – saw him befriend and then murder 10 travellers through the “Hippie Trail” of Thailand, India and Nepal.
A lean, handsome and charming man, Sobhraj’s malevolence was well hidden by his larger than life personality..
He spoke several languages fluently and often targeted young backpackers.
Sobhraj in his heyday, in the 70’s
He was also calculating. His victims probably thought there was nobody kinder, more genuinely friendly, than Charles Sobhraj, until he made them groggy with sleeping pills, drove them out into the countryside and viciously murdered them.
“I can justify the murders to myself,” he once said after being captured. “I never killed good people.”
Sobhraj also liked to brag about his crimes.
He confessed the details of his killing spree, which lasted between 1975 and 1976, to his two Australian biographers, Richard Neville and Julie Clarke.
But, as he warned them, “in the unlikely event I will ever appear in court in Thailand I will deny everything.”
Sobhraj’s favourite method was to make his victims ill, using anything from diarrhoea-inducing pills to itching powder, and then when they were weak and totally reliant on him, he would strangle them, mutilate them with a knife or shoot them.
Then he would disfigure their corpses.
Many of his victims were backpackers and small-time criminals.
He was also adept at manipulating India’s police force and its’ judiciary.
Sobhraj was first arrested in India in 1971. He was on the run soon after, conning the prison guards into believing he was ill, before making good his getaway from a hospital.
He was then re-arrested on 5 July 1976 after drugging a group of French tourists.
But Sobhraj confused his doses, and as his victims writhed around with diarrhoea inside a Delhi hotel, staff contacted police.
A year later, Sobhraj was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for passport forgery, theft, the drugging of the young tourists and the ‘culpable homicide’ of a French traveller, Luke Soloman, in Benares.
By 1985, his jail term in India was nearly finished and extradition to Thailand loomed.
The cerebral Sobhraj soon found a solution – to escape what he thought would be the far harsher conditions and tougher charges over in Thailand.
What’s more, escaping from even high-security prisons was something of a Sobhraj speciality.
In 1971, he had jumped from an upper-storey window of a police station in Greece.
The same year, he faked an appendicitis attack and fled a Bombay prison.
In 1972, he slipped out of a Kabul jail by drugging his captors. His most spectacular flight was from the Greek high-security prison on Aegina island, when he set fire to a police van and fled in the confusion.
Even in Thailand, when his house was finally raided, Sobhraj convinced police he was an innocent American professor.
In Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail – one of the largest in Asia – his exploits were well-known among inmates. Sobhraj was treated with awe, even by the convict gang leaders.
Finding volunteers to assist in his getaway was simple.
He roped in three infamous bandits, Brij Mohan, Laxmi Narain, and Raju Bhatnagar, who had contacts in the Delhi underworld.
Sobhraj needed cars, train tickets, several pistols and a hand grenade.
His most trusted cohort was an Englishman, David Hall, a veterinarian in his mid-twenties who had been caught trying to smuggle one and a half kilos of hashish back to the UK.
Convicted in 1985, Hall had begun a 10-year stretch in Tihar prison.
Once he had lured Hall into the game, Sobhraj arranged for the Briton to be released from Tihar jail.
In two of his past escapes, Sobhraj had faked vomiting blood and a bleeding ulcer, and now applied his expertise to Hall.
A prison doctor diagnosed Hall as having a damaged kidney and released him on 12,000 rupee (£120) bail.
Instead of fleeing India Hall remained in Delhi to help Sobhraj escape.
Hall was also aided by Sobhraj’s lawyer, Sneh Sengar, a vivacious young woman who had fallen in love with the murderer.
For several weeks prior to the escape, Sobhraj had been buying food and presents for the Tihar guards, so they were not suspicious when Hall appeared on
Sunday 16 March 1986, loaded with grapes and a tray of sweets for Sobhraj’s birthday. The food had been doctored and infused with 820 sleeping pills by Hall. Less than an hour later Sobhraj, Hall and three other escapees were headed towards Rajasthan.
Their freedom however, was short-lived.
Two weeks later, Sobhraj and Hall were picked up in Goa.
Sobhraj was sent back to Tihar jail, with his legend as the king of jail-breaks enhanced.
To ensure that the jail-break trial would drag on for years, Sobhraj had instructed Hall to photograph every aspect of the escape, from the Llama pistol, to the fugitives’ switch from car to train in Alwar, Rajasthan.
This meant that every item they had photographed had to be tracked down by investigators. The trick worked. It took eight years for investigators to prepare the dossier against Sobhraj.
Once he was found guilty and sent to prison, the time limitations were fast running out for Thai authorities.
Sobhraj’s tactics were unsurprising. He was the acknowledge ruler of Tihar jail and was referred to as “Charles Sahib”.
He gave money from a number of mysterious overseas bank accounts to help the children of the poorer prisoners and of the under-paid prison guards.
After finishing sentence in 1997, Sobhraj was released from jail.
He eventually returned to France, living a comfortable life just outside Paris. The mysterious bank accounts were regularly topped up as he charged thousands for interviews.
According to one report, he was paid a staggering $15 million for the rights to his story by one French film producer.
Retirement however, was not for Sobhraj. For reasons only known to him in 2003 he returned to Nepal where he was still wanted for the murders of two tourists back in 1975.
He was spotted on a Kathmandu street by a journalist who reported him to the authorities.
He was soon tried and convicted despite a shoddy trial.
He tried to escape from prison in 2004, but failed.