Despite an eventful week, in which we relaunched the print edition of The Annapurna Express, I finally succeeded in committing myself to a series that had been on my watchlist for almost a month now. Co-produced by BBC One and Netflix, “The Serpent” has been a trending topic of discussion for film lovers online and I couldn’t put it off any longer.
The eight-part crime drama serial has a strong connection with Nepal and features the life and crimes of serial-killer Charles Sobhraj, also dubbed the ‘bikini killer’ and ‘the serpent’ based on the nature of his crimes and his cunningness. Told in different timelines using flashbacks to switch between the past and the present, The Serpent chronicles Sobhraj’s criminal activities from the early 70s till his arrest in Nepal in 2003, where he is still imprisoned, serving two life sentences for the murders he committed back in 1975.
The plot of the series is already known to the world with plenty of online resources available on Shobhraj’s life. It is the execution of these available timelines, with some creative liberties of course, that makes The Serpent deservedly get so much attention.
Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim plays Shobraj, the French serial killer of Vietnamese-Indian origin, embodying his beguiling personality with much conviction. Compared to Randeep Hooda’s Sobhraj in “Mein Aur Charles” (2015)—which I thought would remain the best on-screen portrayal of the mysterious serial-killer—Rahim’s personification is what apples are to oranges. While Hooda’s Shobhraj had the style and suave befitting a Bollywood production, Rahim’s is more raw, gritty and tenacious. With the character of Charles Sobhraj itself covered in a number of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual layers, Rahim does an excellent job of personifying the bundle of complexities called Shobhraj.
In the supporting roles, Jenna Coleman plays Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s Québécois girlfriend who assists him in smuggling, robbing, and unknowingly in murder. In this adaptation, however, Coleman’s Leclerc is just one of the lost souls who Sobhraj captivates and uses to commit his heinous crimes. Amesh Edireweera as Ajay Chowdhury—Sobhraj’s partner-in-crime—has the simple task of showcasing unrelenting evil and violence on screen. While Sobhraj seems to have at least some method to his madness, Chowdhury is utterly evil and actor Edireweera portrays the role convincingly. Billy Howle as Herman Knippenberg—a Dutch diplomat in Bangkok whose investigations lead to Sobhraj’s capture and incrimination—is also one of the strong onscreen presences that make the series enticing.
Attention to detail is another strength of The Serpent. The makers have put in a lot of effort into research and execution as they recreate the 70s hippie era in countries like India, Pakistan, Thailand and Nepal. Jhochhen (Freak Street) featured in some parts of the series is extremely convincing, as if it was actually shot back in the 70s itself. The attention to detail is so intricate that the makers recreate the iconic Snowman Café of Jhochhen—a hip joint back in the 70s—which still exists.
Told in so different timelines and travelling to-and-fro across many countries, The Serpent manages not to break the story’s continuity. The series retains a healthy pace throughout and every episode is enjoyable. The only complaint with the producers, who have otherwise worked so hard: the use of Indian actors for Nepali characters, and recognized faces at that. The Nepali film industry, although nowhere as big as Bollywood, definitely has actors who could have fit the supporting roles. Honestly, it feels wrong to see Indian actors take up Nepali roles when such faux pas could easily have been avoided.
Who should watch it?
This review is for those who have not watched The Serpent yet. I know quite a few who are apprehensive about starting a series lest it disappoints and wastes their time. This one, I would assure, is worth every minute spent on Netflix. If you like crime thrillers or dramas based on real-life people, this one is for you.
Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Crime, drama
Actors: Tahar Rahim, Jenna Coleman
Directors: Tom Shankland, Hans Herbots
Run time: 7hrs approx.