Known to play around with legal systems the world over as a child would play with his toys, Charles Sobhraj has often been portrayed as one of the most enigmatic criminal masterminds on screen. Films and series have dwelled upon his run as an alleged serial killer, and accounts describe him as an escape artiste and master of disguises.
Given the eventful life he led, Sobhraj has automatically drawn the interest of storytellers on screen. Born to a Vietnamese mother and a Sindhi father, fictional and documentary accounts of his life have often cited a neglected childhood as areason for his subsequent persona. Reports of his serial killings earned himthe name Bikini Killer, and his cunning disposition fetched him sobriquets as Serpent, Cobra and Snake. After multiple jailbreaks over the years, his final capture, too, was no less dramatic than his life.
Cinema and tele-series – including the Bollywood attempt “Main Aur Charles” and the new web series “The Serpent” – have not surprisingly set up a picture of awe when it comes to Sobhraj, though people who have met him tend to underplay the glamorising.
Top cop Amod Kanth, who was then Deputy Commissioner of Police, Crime (Delhi), says it was made amply clear to Sobhraj that he was being treated as “an ordinary criminal”. Senior journalist Kumkum Chadha, one of the few members of the press to have known Sobhraj on a one-to-on basis after she was approached byhim through his late lawyer to write his biography, feels a big reason he managed to escape from prison is because the system was corrupt and inefficient. Prawaal Raman, director of the film “Main Aur Charles”, describes the experience of meeting Charles Sobhraj as rather “mundane”.
Kanth opens up recalling a vulnerable side of Sobhraj. “He used to get very depressed, worried and anxious if you saw right through his bluff,” he says.
“The only thing I did was that I did not let him sit on a chair. I made him sit on the ground. I was always on a chair or people investigating him would sit onchairs. I never allowed my team to apply third degree or beat him, but psychologically he was made to understand that he was being treated as an ordinary criminal and that he could not bluff me. We did our homework,” says Kanth.
After the Tihar escape, Charles along with David Richard Hall went to Mumbai and then Goa. Kanth was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing him back to Delhi.
“The escape took place and he went to Mumbai. I had information about him in Mumbai and I knew which route he took to Goa. The reason why his locations were so open is that he didn’t want to conceal himself,” says Kanth.
Upon his capture again, the police were doubly cautious while locking him up. “I had to go all the way to Mumbai to get him back to Delhi. I took a BSF aircraft and brought him to Delhi. Then I put him in a newly-built police station in Delhi’s Ashok Vihar area, which had multiple lock-ups in the basement. Partly I carried out the investigation there, and partly at Tihar,” Kanth recalls.
Once he was locked up again, Kanth says Sobhraj didn’t show any sign of physical resistance to investigation. However, he didn’t talk much. It was then that Kanth diverted his attention to his partner-in-crime, Richard Hall.
“Charles’ major funding happened through David Richard Hall. He was also doing the videography of the entire escape. I used to have lunch that my wife packed. One day, I was trying to get David to talk while having lunch in front of him. I offered him the lunch my wife had made, and this made him break down. David remembered his wife, who was at that point working in the UK. I got him to talk to her, which emotionally charged him, and he started talking. We got the entire story of their chase from him,” says Kanth.
The former top cop fails to fathom Charles’ image as a ladies’ man. “I don’t know what girls found attractive,” he says.
Senior journalist Kumkum Chadha, who was approached to write Sobhraj’s biography through his late former lawyer NM Ghatate, recalls her first meeting with Sobhraj and how their twice-a-week meetings gave an insight into the man that he was. The biography, which was started, never saw the light of day since the central character broke out of prison.
“At that time, more than 20 years ago, as a young reporter it was an exciting prospect for me. He (NM Ghatate) took permission from the court and then I went and met him, in which we discussed how it (the book) would be done. He said that we would do every day (the sit-down session where he would narrate his life). That was my first meeting,” says Chadha.
She recalls how late author Khushwant Singh had told her that while it is an interestingproject to work on, she had to be very careful.
“He (Sobhraj) said that I visit him every day to get material from him but since the Courtorder had specified only two meetings per week, and that too in the presence of a jail officer, I stuck to that. There were times when Charles would say that I could increase my visits to three times a week but I was quite clear about following the court directive,” shares Chadha over a telephonic conversation.
Talking about Charles’ popular image as a charming and intelligent man, Chadha says, “Lot is being written about his intelligence and charm. To me none of that was true. Everyone said that he is very smart and he managed to escape. What did he do? He drugged the officials and he walked out. The reason he was able to do that, when he escaped the jail in Delhi, was because our system was corrupt and inefficient. If the jail officials were following their duty, they had no business hobnobbing or having lunch with a criminal. My sense is thatthe system was very willing to be subservient to a criminal and that helped him escape. What people want to misinterpret as a jailbreak, to my mind, was the weakness of the system which he exploited.”
“Charm is subjective because you are looking at a ‘criminal’ in a jail. Naturally, psychologically, your image is different from what you see as an English-speaking fellow like him who can converse. From that level, sure, he was a shade above other criminals we come across,” says Chadha.
“When I was doing my book on jails and I came across Sunil Batra from a bank van robberycase, or Rajendra Sethia, they were suave, too, and English-speaking as compared to Kartar Singh and Ujagar Singh. Obviously, these people are different from the rest. I would not say he was charming. At best, call him street smart. He had a sharp brain. Even when I was getting material from him, he wasn’t very coherent. He was clever to the extent of how much he should give out. He wasn’t very frank. He could talk his way,” recalls Chadha.
Today, Sobhrajserves a life term, far from the glamorised ‘bad boy’ image that fiction tends to set up for him. Filmmaker Prawaal Raman, whose 2015 release “Main Aur Charles” used a bit of that hue while painting Sobhraj’s image for the screen, ironically admits his experience of meeting the man was far from exciting.
“Meeting him was as mundane as meeting any prisoner standing behind bars,” Raman sums up.