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Who was Charles Sobhraj? The Serpent character’s real-life alter ego

Tahar Rahim plays the titular French serial killer in the new BBC series The Serpent.

The Serpent

BBC One’s 1970s-set crime drama The Serpent stars Tahar Rahim (The Looming Tower) in the role of French serial killer Charles Sobhraj.

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A famous murderer, his story will nonetheless be unfamiliar to some British viewers; but no doubt the new BBC thriller will change that, as we follow a young Dutch diplomat’s journey on the Asian ‘Hippie Trail’ as he searches for a mysterious killer.

But who was the real Charles Sobhraj, and when was he captured?

Who is Charles Sobhraj?

Born 1944, Charles Sobhraj is an incarcerated French serial killer of Vietnamese and Indian origin; he’s otherwise known as “The Serpent,” or else “The Bikini Killer,” so nicknamed due to the attire he dressed some of his victims in.

He was the chief suspect in at least a dozen murders of Western travellers that took place in South Asia in the 1970s, and was for a time Interpol’s most wanted man before his capture in 1976.

As the BBC states: “Posing as a gem dealer, Sobhraj and his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc travelled across Thailand, Nepal and India in 1975 and 1976, carrying out a spree of crimes on the Asian ‘Hippie Trail’ and becoming the chief suspects in a series of murders of young Western travellers.”

Sobhraj allegedly hated hippies (otherwise referred to as “longhairs” by characters in The Serpent). He was also a thief and fraudster, travelling with stolen passports, and often conned his victims prior to their murders.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, Tahar Rahim (who plays Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent cast) revealed that he had been aware of the serial killer from a young age, after spotting the bestselling book On the Trail of the Serpent: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj on his brother’s nightstand.

“I dreamt, in the bottom of my mind, to play him someday, to portray him [sic],” Rahim said.

The Serpent
The Serpent (BBC)
BBC

Asked if he took the harrowing story home with him while filming, Rahim said: “Yeah, of course,” before revealing that, due to Sobhraj’s allegedly psychopathic nature, he had had to approach the character a little differently.

He said: “Let’s talk about the character. It’s a very complicated character to portray. It’s easier to get out of the character, sometimes, than to get in. With this one… I remember I struggled the two first weeks, it was hard for me to capture him, to understand him, because how can you possible be real and in a way truthful when you have to portray those type[s] of people? They’re psychopaths, murderers, they don’t have any empathy for anyone.

“Usually I start my – when I build a character, I start from inside. And this time… I came to realise, I should start from outside. And that’s what we’ve done, we’ve talked about him a lot. Learnt a lot of things about him, pictures, videos, I heard recordings, and then it was more of the stature first [of] all.”

He added that conjuring up the image of an animal – appropriately, a cobra – helped him get into character.

“I thought of an animal, and of course, ‘The Serpent’. But I had to pick [a species], and I thought of a cobra. The cobra is very still, and when  he bites, boom. And there’s a kind of a charm around this cobra thing. And at some point, I just let my imagination and my guts lead me to something that I feel is kind of truth… You just go with the flow.”

When was Charles Sobhraj captured and jailed?

The Serpent
The Serpent (BBC)
BBC

Charles Sobhraj was eventually captured in July 1976 in New Delhi, after an attempt to drug a group of French students went wrong, and he was overpowered by three of the students.

He served his sentence in India from 1976 to 1997, before returning to France. However, during a trip to Nepal in 2003 he was arrested again, and given a life sentence for two murders committed in 1975.

Sobhraj has given multiple interviews with journalists since 1976, but Tahar Rahim has said he dismissed the idea of meeting his real-life character in person.

“It came up in my mind at some point, if I could meet him when I was preparing for the show,” he told journalists during a press Q&A. “And I thought about it, and at some point I thought, it’s not a good thing to meet someone like this, to give them some kind of importance. But I wanted to meet him for many reasons, you know, when you see a real-life character you can mimic him, but I wanted to see how he would try to con me. That’s the reason why I wanted to meet him. So I could tell him it’s never gonna happen. But we – it was just an idea.”

The Serpent began on New Year’s Day, 1st January at 9pm on BBC One. You can buy On the Trail of the Serpent: The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj on Amazon.

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