Nov 02, 2015
Someone recently asked me, who is the most underrated actor in India today. And without a moment’s pause I said, Randeep Hooda. I firmly believe that, and Main Aur Charles reinforces my belief.
Though it covers only 20 years of his life, from the Bikini Murders in Thailand to his escape from Tihar and subsequent arrest in 1986, Main Aur Charles is an excellent biopic. It accomplishes two contrary things at the same time: It demystifies Sobhraj the criminal, and further mystifies Sobhraj the Casanova.
If a tally were ever taken, the number of women Sobhraj made sure fell in love with him and did his bidding, knowing exactly what he was accused of and yet believing in his absolute innocence, would greatly outnumber the number of murders he is accused of.
Sobhraj has till now evaded the death sentence, but not jail. Yet, while in jail he has conducted more love affairs than most free men can claim to. The film is mesmerised by the jena se qua of a jail inmate accused of several murders. The appeal is left a mystery, though in reality it wasn’t. Sobhraj just played the game of listening and caring with a French accent and the unsaid promise of deceit.
Main Aur Charles is based on excellent research and a sharp screenplay and that’s why it doesn’t claim to be telling the complete story of Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj from the perspective of the serial killer or its own. Instead, it tells stories about him from the perspective of others — those who met him, helped him, worked for him, fell in love with him and the men who arrested him, saw through his charm and guile and worked to keep him in jail.
The film chronicles the crimes, arrests and modus operandi of Sobhraj, always keeping the distance that Sobhraj deliberately maintained, even in the face of incriminating evidence and guilty judgments, from the murders and other crimes he was accused of.
We meet Charles (Randeep Hooda) in Thailand, from where he escapes, leaving a trail of dead bodies and shocked women, some wives, some lovers, some dead.
The film assumes a certain amount of familiarity with Sobhraj’s cases, accomplices and MO, dwelling not on the details of what he did, where and how, but focusing instead on his character and his ability to get others to do what he wanted. It shows him as an exceptionally polite, charming and well-mannered man, but also a manipulator, liar and user. What comes across right from the beginning is his sharp, quick mind that is always devoted to one cause: The creation of the myth of Charles Sobhraj. Not just while executing a crime, but also in the retelling of it.
The film is fascinated by Sobhraj’s cunning and savvy, but above all his mysterious power over women. While it glamourises him and his surroundings, turning a hippie-chaser into a free-spirited but elegant gentleman, it claims that it can’t quite crack the mystery of Charles Sobhraj the lover.
Charles gets very little dialogue, mostly speaking what’s in the public records — statements of others, or his interviews to the press. His vanity and his accomplishments get a lot of play.
Mostly we get details of him through the women who fell in love with him, Mira (Richa Chadda), and the men who fell prey to his plans, especially Richard (Alexx O’Neil), an accomplice and co-accused in the jail break. Mira, a law student, is a composite of many women.
Then there are the two cops, Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain), who was a DCP in Delhi when news of Sobhraj’s jail break came, and the Mumbai cop, Madhukar Zende. The film accords Kanth a much larger role that he actually played in the case, but it tells the truth about Zende and his claim to fame — arresting Sobhraj in Goa. It was stage-managed by Sobhraj.
The film, written and directed by Prawaal Raman, is classy and not show offy. Not given to “thrill” us with crime and drama, it takes a rather bold call to remain sober and deliberate. Watch Main Aur Charles not just for an incredible performance by Hooda, but also for how smart biopics can be made. Not all have to be over-the-top kitsch like Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya.
Hooda as Sobhraj, with his French accented English, doesn’t overdo it. He underplays mostly, remaining precise, contained, much more inside his head than outside. And like Sobhraj, his eyes don’t catch the smile from his lips. In my several years of covering the Tihar Jail and, specifically, Charles Sobhraj, I never saw a smile reach Sobhraj’s eyes.
Hooda’s Charles, like the real one, maintains and conveys a grandeur and distance from his reality by talking of wanting to belong to a woman, a country, of books and philosophers, even when his hands are chained and he is talking from across a wire mesh. But he also reveals himself in the solitude of his cell, or in certain moments with his accomplices — moments when he shows his devotion to meticulously controlling the story and images that get played in the media.
One scene shows him collecting all the newspaper clipping about him, watching and enjoying his creation. It’s myth-busting.
Adil Hussain is a very fine artist. He plays the voice of sanity amidst Sobhraj’s fandom and adds a very generous amount of gravitas and depth to Amod Kanth.