Well, “spoilers”. I’m only going to be discussing the high points of the story, the reasons it is such a consistent big story even today. So if you know the name “Charles Sobhraj”, then this review will not spoil anything.
5 sentences about the real life story of Charles Sobhraj:
Sobhraj was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, his mother later remarried a French officer and he was raised in France. He came of age at the height of the hippie road era through Asia and made a career of traveling to hippie hotspots and drugging and robbing young travelers. Eventually he graduated to killing and robbing young travelers, and was almost impossible to catch because he hopped from country to country and preyed on non-locals. He was arrested in the end in India, sentenced to jail there, released, and then returned to France where he enjoyed a period of brief fame, before being arrested again in Nepal where he is now in jail.
Sobhraj’s story has fascinated me for years ever since I first stumbled upon it by way of a Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode. The episode focused on the idea of a man without a country and without a conscience who kills casually just because it is convenient. That’s so unusual, a killer who doesn’t do it for the joy exactly, but also doesn’t seem to feel guilty. He just kills people when he can gain any minor advantage by it. It’s not that he is vicious, or brilliant, he just sort of looks at the world with no conscience and that makes him powerful.
I read up on him after that episode and then was double fascinated when I learned about this whole post-colonialism theme. He was a child of colonialism, disdaining his own Asian heritage while being disdained by the French culture he aspired to. He used the same messy post-colonialism to help his crimes. He knew that the Europeans wouldn’t care about things that happened in Asia. And he knew that the Asians would have a messy confused response to tourists coming to Asia in a new form of colonialism. No one was going to care about these kids.
What I REALLY love about the story is that the Europeans didn’t catch him! I mean, they shouldn’t. He committed crimes in Asia, doesn’t matter that the people he killed were Western. The Indian police caught him and put him in jail, the Thai police had a warrant out for him, and now he is in jail in Nepal. He was caught by his own internalized prejudices, believing these “local” cops would never be good enough to catch him, or care enough to catch him for killing white visitors.
This miniseries isn’t the absolute greatest best possible version of this story, but it’s pretty darn good. And the real life story is SO good, and ties up so many interesting aspects of humanity, that the miniseries is worth watching for that. If you are interested in issues of colonialism, in hippie culture, in Thailand or Nepal or India, or in crime, this is going to fascinate you.
Now, digging into the SPOILER stuff that is directly addressed in the miniseries and I hadn’t known before!
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The miniseries structures it between the “bad” people and the “good” people. The “good” people are led by a Dutch undersecretary at the Thai embassy. He stumbles across two desperate families looking for their missing children and can’t get it out of his head. He tracks the children down to two bodies who were burned alive. And then he hears rumors through the old hand at the Belgian embassy of a French woman telling stories of a killer and poisoner. He finds out the woman is a neighbor of Sobhraj who helped their slave/servant escape and found strange things in their apartment while they were gone. The neighbors start working with the Dutch undersecretary and his brilliant wife and the Belgian to investigate who Sobhraj may have killed and how. When Sobhraj returns, the neighbor goes undercover to gather more evidence. Finally the Thai police raid his apartment and arrest him and his two partners (girlfriend and male desi friend). But they bribe the police and escape, going on the run to Kerachi and then Paris. Meanwhile, the Dutch undersecretary has leaked news to the papers and finally gotten Interpol to care and warrents paper the world. Sobhraj and his girlfriend (friend is dumped on the road somewhere) go back on the run and end up in India where one of their new friends/assistants goes to the police after witnessing a murder and Sobhraj is finally arrested. Years later, he is released from jail and returns to France and his first wife. And then in 2003 he goes to Nepal, where he is arrested, and the Dutch undersecretary comes into play again, digging up his old boxes of evidence to find something to get him held and jailed in Nepal. Which is where he is now.
If I am critiquing the miniseries as a miniseries, there’s a clear doubling between our Hero and his Wife, and our Villain and his Girlfriend. It works perfectly, seamlessly, between Sobhraj and the Dutch. Sobhraj is charming, confident, easy going, able to make friends everywhere. He is also impulsive, unplanned, and likes to move on quickly from one thing to another. But the Dutch diplomat is extremely un-easygoing. He even moves gracelessly, hunched shoulders and blocky walking. He offends everyone, he likes paperwork and process and sitting in his office drinking coffee and making phone calls. As a work of art, this is a really cool way to present our two characters. The bad person is so much easier to watch, so much more pleasant to spend time with. Until we start to see just how BAD he is, until the price of watching this handsome charming actor is outweighed by seeing all that death and mess. And the awkwardness of our Hero is balanced by seeing him consistently do the right ethical thing. I just wish it had worked better for the women.
Angela Kane, the real woman, is AMAZING!!!!!! She has a zillion credentials, and ended up having a career at the UN that left her ex-husband in the dust. Another way this show could have legitimately gone was to show a brilliant woman trapped in the role of “diplomat’s wife” and grabbing at this extra-curricular challenge because she wants to do something of meaning. The end result being a discovery that she needs to pursue her own career and get out of her husband’s shadow. We get that a bit at the beginning, an acknowledgement that she knows more languages than her husband, and is better at the diplomatic events too, but then she veers into the usual “wah wah, why can’t you spend more time with ME?” kind of wife.
And then there is Marie-Clare, the real woman, who helped Sobhraj kill. Again, this is one of the things I found most interesting about the real person. His “girlfriends” were also his gang. He didn’t use women just for sex. He trusted them and taught them. It’s another blind spot he took advantage of, no one would suspect an innocent young woman of being dangerous. The show is accurate in the facts, shows how they met, shows how she was actively involved in recruiting young travelers, she was aware of almost everything he did, etc. etc. But I want more BACKSTORY! You don’t just meet a guy on a trip and end up drugging everyone who walks in your door. Even if they didn’t know the real backstory, this is a fictional show, they are allowed to invent. Without that invention, it feels like women legitimately are one cute guy away from being a serial killer.
But where the show absolutely NAILS it is conveying the exact time and place that allowed this mess to happen. Young hopeful travelers were making friends with strangers and taking things as they come all over Europe. At the same time, the ripples of Vietnam were keeping the international authorities busy so that they didn’t notice or care about a few missing travelers. And the local authorities were unlikely to bother with the parallel universe of the Westerners.
And what the show absolutely gets right too is that Sobhraj, ultimately, is just an empty person. He didn’t kill because of racism and childhood trauma, or to make some grand statement. He killed because he wanted money and the easiest way he saw to get it was to rip off travelers checks from a young traveling innocent. And eventually he discovered it was easier to kill the travelers than try to drug them and not kill them. Heck, he only burned the corpses because it was a quick way to slow identification, not in some crazed ritual.
The most important thing the show does, as is most important for all true crime shows, is that it does not glamorize the crimes. Sobhraj is a monster, and deserves no sympathy. His victims may have used drugs, have been hippies, even helped him smuggles drugs or jewels, but they did NOT deserve to die. They were young folks who were most likely to be trapped by him simply because they trusted people. That’s the ultimate reason they died, because they trusted a stranger. And that’s the ultimate message of the show. Sobhraj may have failed them, but there were so many other strangers who did not, who cared about their deaths simply because they were human and no other reasons.
Okay, that’s all I got! What are your thoughts on the show? Or Sobhraj? Or anything else?