Cast: Randeep Hooda, Richa Chadda, Adil Hussain, Alexx O’Neil, Vipin Sharma, Tisca Chopra, Mandana Karimi
Director: Prawaal Raman
Rating: 3.5 stars
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 does two opposite things at the same time: It demystifies Sobhraj the criminal, and 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 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 the most charming men can claim to.
Main Aur Charles is based on excellent research and an intelligent 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. 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 diligently 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 subsequent arrests, 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. The screenplay assumes a certain amount of familiarity with the Sobhraj’s cases and conduct, focusing instead much more on his character — an exceptional manipulator, liar, charmer and user. What comes across right from the beginning is his sharp, quick mind that is always devoted to only one cause: The creation of the myth of Charles Sobhraj.
Hooda as Sobhraj, with his French accented English, doesn’t overdo it. In fact, he underplays mostly, remaining precise, contained, much more inside his head than outside. And unlike Sobhraj, his eyes too 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 that reached Sobhraj’s eyes. The film is fascinated by Sobhraj’s mind and savvy, but above all his mysterious power over women. While it glamourises him and his surroundings, it doesn’t claim to have cracked the mystery of Charles Sobhraj the lover. Charles gets very little dialogue, mostly he speaks what’s in the public records — statements of others, or his interviews to the press.
But we do 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 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, whereas it was all stage-managed by Sobhraj.
The film, written and directed by Prawaal Raman, is classy and not show offy. It keeps its attention on the polite inmate accused of several murders. Hooda’s Charles, like the real one, maintains and conveys a grandeur by talking of books, 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 it also catches him in the solitude of his cell, and with his accomplices — moments when he shows his commitment 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. The pace of the film is deliberate, not given to “thrill” us with drama. It takes a rather bold call to remain sober and deliberate. Watch it for not just an incredible performance by Hooda, but also how smart biopics can be made. Not all have to be like Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya....