Bringing Charles Sobhraj to life

Director Prawaal Raman's fictional account of the events surrounding the life of Charles Sobhraj, one of the world's most notorious confessed serial killers, runs for two hours - the film could have done without the first.

The unintended demarcation between the two halves is obvious: the loosely tied skein of a plot in the first half weaves itself together with clarity in the second; and the lead characters try too hard to look the part in the first hour, only to come into their own later.

The film opens with the discovery of a bikini-clad woman's body on the beaches of Thailand - one among the many victims of Sobhraj (Randeep Hooda), the French con artist of Indian and Vietnamese parentage. From Thailand in 1968, the action fast-forwards to 1975 in New Delhi all the way to Sobhraj's arrest in 1976 that landed him in Tihar Jail and his recapture in Goa after a jailbreak 10 years later. Without so much as a token cinematic signpost for the uninitiated, that's befuddling, at best.

What follows is sequence after sequence featuring dim-lit bars, the vibrant beaches of Goa swarmed with hippies, and hotel rooms with plush linen - all of which appears to be little more than a dramatised reconstruction of events without much thought to the nuances that lend a crime thriller a raw, believable quality.

And somewhere beneath all that gloss, Hooda's near-perfectly mastered half-French, half-English accent; his effortless, close-lipped, slightly tilted smile; and - almost chillingly - measured demeanour jostle for attention. And that's a pity, because in playing Sobhraj, Hooda has outdone himself. But it's not until an hour has passed that we begin to notice his performance, shorn of embellishments.

It's only when the action shifts to the events surrounding the Tihar jailbreak and the aftermath that the film lives up to its title - quite literally. All the loose ends tie themselves soon after the sequence in which Sobhraj slips out of the jail after sedating the guards with "custard".

This is also when the character of Main in Main Aur Charles comes alive. A serious-looking Adil Hussain, who plays then Delhi Police chief Amod Kanth, offers a much-needed balance to the sly ways of Sobhraj. However, Richa Chadda is forgettable in her role of a criminal law student who is drawn to Sobhraj's charm so much that she turns into his accomplice.

In fact, it is when the two counter-forces - Main and Charles - come face to face towards the end that the film finds its purpose. With sunlight streaming into a dark room, the anger in Kanth's eyes is palpable after he learns that Sobhraj's jailbreak was only a ploy to extend his jail term in order to escape his extradition, and possibly execution, in Thailand. All that a calm, unfazed Hooda has to say to the angry cop is that evil is, after all, not such a bad thing.

The movie does have its moments. Only, you have to look hard for those in the first hour, and sit back and watch them go by one after another in the second.

The world is all too familiar with the criminal-celebrity who has graced the TV screens with his characteristic swagger time and again. For some time, at least, that image is sure to change, all thanks to Hooda.

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