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True life serial killer Charles Sobhraj was a master manipulator who revelled in deceitful mind games, so it’s understood that a film chronicling this devious mastermind’s audacious jail breaks would be tricky.

Main Aur Charles, featuring Randeep Hooda as the charming cold-blooded conman and murderer who killed at least ten tourists on a hippie trail in India, Thailand and Nepal in the 1970s, is that and more: It’s decidedly convoluted, thoroughly confusing and at times crackling. This is one of the rare Bollywood films that doesn’t overexplain and leaves a lot unsaid. Be patient so that you can wrap your head around the frenetic events unfurling in the first 40 minutes of the film.

The thriller opens with the corpse of a young woman washing up the shore of a beach in Pattaya in Thailand and traces Sobhraj’s sly escape from Thailand to India.

We gathered all that from a blend of stylish shots (Hooda is shown relaxing on a boat with polished leather shoes — perhaps to underline his character’s cool quotient) and some I-mean-business shots (Sobhraj has multiple identities, owns numerous fake passports and makes jail breaks look like child’s play). There’s a lot of information cramped in the first half because Main Aur Charles plays out like a bizarre jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together.

However, a semblance of some order is restored when top cop Amod Kanth, in charge of investigating Sobhraj’s audacious jail break from maximum security Tihar jail (played by the supremely talented Adil Hussain), enters the equation.

“Charles is a crook,” declares Kanth with a finality when his own peers seem to be in awe of an escaped convict. He’s splendid as the righteous cop who is insulated from the creep’s charm and guile. His frustration at the way in which the media and the world at large glorified the cold-blooded creep is wickedly brought out. Hussain doesn’t rely on bombastic dialogues to communicate his disgust for the emboldened criminal. A snarky remark delivered with a straight face does it for him. Ideally, the thriller should have belonged to actor Hooda from the word go. But he comes to his own and truly flourishes in the second half as the movie becomes less cryptic. In the beginning, Hooda underplays it to such an extent that you are left feeling unmoved.

Plus, we wish the director had adopted a less complicated approach right from the start so that the viewers are not left exhausted after playing catch-up with the storyline. There are a few sloppy kisses thrown about to highlight that Sobhraj, also known as The Serpentine and The Bikini Killer, is a ladies man. His magnetic appeal and seduction methods are driven home at regular intervals, something that we could have done without. But director Prawaal Raman should take a bow for resisting the urge to insert songs into his ambitious thriller. Richa Chadda, who plays Mira; a flawed law student who becomes a willing accomplice to her lover Sobhraj’s misdeeds, is satisfying to watch. She’s warped, but not as much as her lover. There are many interesting strands in Main Aur Charles, but the strands don’t weave together well because the thrills that give us a window into the cat-and-mouse-game between a determined cop and a rabid creep come at a staggered pace. In short, Main Aur Charles is a grim, no-frills cop and criminal saga, but we wish the thrills were as potent and magnetic as Sobhraj’s notorious personality.

 

Out now

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Adil Hussain and Richa Chadda

Director: Prawaal Raman

Stars: 2.5 out of 5