Charles Sobhraj became internationally infamous in 1976 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to jail in India. Sobhraj, a Frenchman who presented himself as a gem dealer based in Bangkok, had been accused of committing dozens of murders (in addition to forgeries and theft) along what was known as “the hippie trail”—a sort of midcentury pilgrimage from Europe to South Asia—and earned himself the nickname The Bikini Killer in the process.
After being released from prison in 1997, Sobhraj returned to his native France and seemed to revel in his villainy; he gave interviews and reportedly sold the rights to his life story for millions of dollars. A brazen trip to Nepal in 2003, however, put him back in the crosshairs of authorities and he was arrested once again, charged with a double murder and sentenced to life in prison—a term he’s still serving today.
It’s no wonder that the sordid story of Sobhraj and his victims has been catnip for adaptations, inspiring books and films. But nothing has told the story quite like The Serpent, an eight-part limited series starring Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman that premiered to acclaim on the BBC earlier this year and is making its American debut April 2 on Netflix.
The series is undeniably stylish and depicts both the grit and the glamour of the 1970s ex-pat scene, but it also makes a great effort to tell the stories of Sobhraj’s victims and reveal the heroism of the people who apprehended him. Some dialogue is fictionalized, and the story is condensed in ways to make it work for television, but how much of what The Serpent portrays is true? Here, we’re finding out.