Real life crime stories
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

From serial killers to common hoodlums to con artists, stories of criminals have always fascinated us. So much so that we would love the real-life crime events to be retold to us, sometimes as a documentary, and sometimes even with a load of lies. The following is a pick of real-life crime incidents that found their way into the world of cinema.


A still from Badlands, left, and a combo picture showing Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather.

She was 14. He was 19. They met, fell in love and went on to kill 11 people, including the father, mother and sister of the girl. Two criminal lovers chased by the police, on a road to nowhere. This is stuff that Hollywood films thrive on. In this case, art only had to copy life.

Charles Starkweather was only 19 when he went on a murder spree that ended the lives of 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1958. That he was accompanied in these activities by his then 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate added a layer of intrigue and dark mystery around it. This was a story waiting to be retold.

Naturally, Hollywood could not resist this for too long and a film was made in 1963, titled The Sadist. Then came the 1973 film Badlands by legendary director Terence Malick. It was in fact the debut film of Malick who would then go on to make US classics such as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life and The New World.

Badlands is in no way a faithful documentation of the real-life antics of Charles Starkweather and Carol; it was rather ‘inspired’ by their last days. It had Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in title roles who managed to bring forth the casual deadliness with the supreme hollowness of their characters’ actions.

Bonnie and Clyde and The Highwaymen

Bonnie and Clyde
Stills from Bonnie and Clyde, left top, and The Highwaymen, bottom, and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow, right.

The year was 1934. The bodies of notorious gangsters Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow were brought to Arcadia after they were gunned down in an ambush in the Louisiana woods on May 23. The population of the sleepy town soon swelled from 2,000 to 12,000 within hours, according to many reports. People arrived in groups by train, horseback and even by plane. The city ran out of drinks and sandwiches.

In what could be a mix of misplaced hero worship, souvenir hunting and dark tourism, people tried to snatch whatever they could from the criminals. Including body parts like hair and fingers. The police had a tough time controlling the crazy mob. Bonnie and Clyde were known for bank robberies and the murder of 11 people, including police officers during the Great Depression. Their ‘heroics’ were frequently reported in the local media, often with photographs they posed for, elevating them to folk hero status during their lifetime.

At least three movies and many TV productions were based on the lives of Bonnie and Clyde. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), starring Dorothy Provine, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) directed by Arthur Penn and The Highwaymen directed by John Lee Hancock were notable Hollywood productions.

The 1967 eponymous film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway is not the first film on Bonnie and Clyde, but was said to have glamourised the criminal couple. The Netflix film The Highwaymen, on the other hand, recounts the story, rather coldly, from the eyes of former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer. It was Hamer’s relentless pursuit that brought curtains on their criminal career in the most devastating manner.

Black Friday (2004)

Black Friday
A still from Black Friday, left, and a file photo of Yaqub Memon, right.

On March 12, 1993, a series of terrorist bomb blasts ripped through Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. There were 12 in all, including one at the Bombay Stock Exchange Building, the symbol of India’s financial network. The blasts shook the entire country to the core. 257 people lost their lives and over 1,400 people were injured in a single day. The attacks were allegedly organised by Indian fugitive don Dawood Ibrahim through his associates Tiger Memon and his brother Yaqub Memon. A massive manhunt ensued after which several people including Yaqub Memon were captured and put on trial.

Black Friday is an Indian film in Hindi about the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993. The film directed by Anurag Kashyap details the events that led to the blasts and the following police investigation. The film is based on a book by Indian author and investigative journalist Hussain Zaidi. It portrays the role of Memon, his brother Yaqub and their associates who orchestrated serial blasts.

The Supreme Court of India verdict that came on 21 March 2013 upheld the death sentence against suspected ringleader Yakub. He was later executed on July 30, 2015. Tiger Memon was never caught.

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can
A still from Catch Me If You Can, left, and a file photo of Abagnale Jr, right.

Frank William Abagnale Jr was an American con artist and convicted felon. Born in New York in 1948, his first victim was his own father. Abagnale was only 15 at that time. He later enlisted in US Navy but was discharged soon. He moved on to car theft, stealing bank cheques, and impersonating government officials. In 1968, after many convictions and releases, he impersonated himself as a TWA pilot and moved to Louisiana. Abagnale was again caught and convicted to 12 years in jail on June 2, 1969. He fled to Europe and was arrested in France, and served three months there. He was then extradited to Sweden for fraud and deported back to the US in 1970.

Back in the US, he again started impersonating airline pilots and issuing bad checks. He was arrested after he cashed 10 fake PanAm payroll cheques in different places. Escaped from jail and was picked up 4 days later. Sentenced to 10 years and additional 2 years for escaping from jail. 1975, he started a new career as a security consultant and public speaker.

Abagnale Jr is a con no doubt but just how big a con he is still to be ascertained. be cause he was often found to be making tall claims as to the magnitude of his con jobs in a bid to subsist on his ‘fame’.

Catch Me If You Can is a Hollywood biographical drama directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. The screenplay is based on Abagnale’s autobiography though he was never involved with the film. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in top roles.

‘Kurup’, ‘NH 47’ and ‘Pinneyum’

Stills from Kurup, and NH 47, left, and a file photo of Sukumara Kurup, right.

In January 1984, the charred body of a film representative K J Chacko was found in a black Ambassador car on a national highway in Kerala, India. That was the beginning of the unravelling of one of the most intriguing and sinister murder plots in the state. A wealthy expatriate Sukumara Kurup was accused of killing Chacko to fake his own death for insurance money. Chacko was forcibly poisoned and strangled to death, it would emerge later. His body was then burned inside the car to make it difficult to identify him and look like it was Kurup who died in the accident. Kurup has been one of India's most wanted criminals and continues to evade arrest.

The movie 'Kurup', which was simultaneously released in five languages, was based the cold-blooded crime. Dulquer Salmaan plays the role of Kurup in the movie, directed by Srinath Rajendran. The film also features Indrajit Sukumaran, Shine Tom Chacko, Sunny Wein and Shobitha Dhulipal. ‘Kurup’ is currently streaming on Netflix. The Chacko murder case also inspired two other Malayalam films; NH 47 (1984), directed by Baby and Pinneyum (2016) by Ador Gopalakrishnan.

'Talvar' and ‘Rahasya’

Talvar and Rahasya
Stills from Rahasya, and Talvar, left, and a file photo of Arushi Talwar, right.

Arushi Talwar, a 14-year-old girl from Noida, just minutes away from the Indian capital of New Delhi, was found dead with her throat slit in her bedroom on May 16, 2008. A day later, the body of Nepalese domestic help Hemraj was also found on the terrace of their house. The girl's parents, dentist couple Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were sent to jail initially by a court. They walked free from prison after 4 years as the court declared them not guilty. The double murder of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj remains an unsolved case.

The gruesome event has inspired two films, Talvar and Rahasya, both of which are based on the failed, murky investigation. 'Talvar' was directed by Meghna Gulzar with Irrfan Khan playing the main role. The movie clinched the Best Adapted Screenplay at the 63rd National Film Awards of India. It is currently available on Netflix. The movie ‘Rahasya’ directed by Manish Gupta received favourable reviews and remained popular for 100 days at the box office.

Molly’s Game

Molly's Game
A still photo from Molly's Game, left, and a file photo of Molly Bloom, right.

Molly Bloom is a US entrepreneur, speaker and author who was charged with running a high-stake poker game that attracted wealthy people and celebrities from Hollywood and sports. Before this, she was into competitive skiing (her mother was a ski and snowboard instructor and her brother was an Olympic skier) before she suffered an injury while trying to qualify for Olympics herself.

In 2007, Bloom started Molly Bloom Inc. as an event and catering company to host poker tournaments. By 2008, the games had moved on to private homes and hotels, with hands going as high as $4 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Even the Russian mafia allegedly turned up and took part in her games, according to reports.

The FBI finally stormed her place and arrested her in the middle of the night. Defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey tells his client of the prosecutors' offer to let her keep the money and her freedom in return for all her hard drives containing gambling records. Molly pleaded guilty and in 2014, she was sentenced to one year of probation, a $200,00 fine and community service. She went on to write an autobiography Molly's Game, which was later adapted into a film by the same name.

Molly's Game was written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The film was released in 2017 and starred Jessica Chastain in the lead role.

The Serpent (2021) and Main Aur Charles (2015):

The Serpent
Stills from The Serpent, Main Aur Charles, left, and a file photo of Charles Sobhraj, right.

Charles Gurumukh Sobhraj Hotchand Bhawnani is the full name of a French serial killer of Indian origin otherwise bluntly known as bikini killer. The conman and serial murderer Sobhraj was born in Saigon to an Indian father and a Vietnamese mother and his tryst with petty crimes started as a teenager. While he is believed to have killed between 10- 20 tourists in different Asian countries and was imprisoned in India for twenty years from 1977 to 97, only nine of his victims have been known for certain.

The Serpent was an eight-part British crime series produced by BBC One and Netflix on the life of Charles Sobhraj while Main Aur Charles is a Bollywood crime thriller based on his life. Tahar Rahim essays the role of Sobhraj in the series.

In the Bollywood version, after escaping from a high-security jail, Sobhraj becomes the target of a massive manhunt led by a sincere cop who is determined to arrest him. The film gives a detailed account of Sobhraj's dark deeds told from the perspective of this police officer.

Written and directed by Prawaal Raman the film stars Randeep Hooda, Adil Hussain, Alexx O'Nell, Anastasia Fullfina and Richa Chadda in lead roles.

Special 26 (2013)

Special 26
A still from Special 26

In 1987, a gang posing as officers of India's top investigative agency CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) raided a top jewellery outlet in Mumbai. The men arrived at the branch and the leader of the team produced a search warrant. Security cameras were turned off and they collected cash and samples of jewellery from the outlet. The leader of the gang then promptly left the scene, never to be seen again. It was later revealed that the leader, known by the name Mon Singh, had posted an ad in the newspaper previously and recruited the team of fake CBI officers after conducting an interview. The case has remained unsolved.

The Bollywood film Special 26 is directed by Neeraj Pandey. It features a gang of tricksters who pose as government officials and rob prominent politicians and businessmen of their black money. When the real officers learn about these gangsters, they launch an investigation to trap them red-handed.

The movie has Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Jimmy Sheirgill, Anupam Kher and Kajal Aggarwal in lead roles.

Shahid (2013)

A still from Shaid, left, and a file photo of Shahid Azmi.

Shahid Azmi, a native of Mumbai, was first accused of violence as a teenager during the Bombay (now Mumbai) riots of 1992. Years later, he was booked on terror charges and spent 7 years in jail. While in jail, he took a law degree and started practising as a criminal lawyer once released. He focussed on defending the cases of those who he thought were falsely accused of terror charges. He was shot down in 2010 at the age of 32.

The Bollywood drama directed by Hansal Mehta traces the fascinating true story of this committed lawyer and human rights activist.

Rajkummar Rao plays the role of Shahid Azmi while Prabhleen Sandhu, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and KK Menon were the other main actors.

Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016)

Raman Raghav
A still photo from Raman Raghav 2.0, and file pictures of Raman Raghavan

Raman Raghav was a serial killer active in Mumbai in the 1960s. A homeless man himself, poor slum dwellers and people sleeping on pavements were his main targets. Police once picked him up and let him go as they couldn't find any evidence against him. He struck again, police succeeded in arresting him after a manhunt. In his confession to the police, he admitted to killing 41 people, but it is thought that the actual number of victims could be much higher. Raman Raghavan was spared the death sentence and he died in jail in 1995.

There were a couple of films that portrayed the life of Raman Raghav and the one directed by Raman Raghav 2.0, is the latest among them. The Bollywood film stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vicky Kaushal and Sobhita Dhulipala in lead roles.

Bollywood director Sriram Raghavan also directed another eponymous film on Raman Raghav.

Rustom (2016)

A still picture from Rustom, left and a file photo of KM Nanavati.

The murder of the wife’s lover by the husband caught the fancy of Indians in the mid-1900s. KM Nanavati was a commander in the Indian Navy who had settled down in Mumbai with an English-born wife and their children. The wife fell in love with Prem Ahuja, a friend of Nanavatis while the husband was away for long periods of time. On knowing about the affair, Nanavati confronted the paramour and asked whether he is willing to marry her and accept their children. When Prem Ahuja answered in the negative, Nanavati shot dead Ahuja and surrendered himself to authorities. The incident happened in 1959.

The Bollywood courtroom drama Rustom is largely based on the real-life story of KM Nanavati and the incidents discussed above.

The incident received unprecedented media coverage and inspired several books and the 1973 film Achanak and the 2019 web series The Verdict, besides Rustom.

Directed by Tinu Suresh Desai and written by Vipul K. Rawal, the film Rustom stars Akshay Kumar, Ileana D'Cruz, Arjan Bajwa and Esha Gupta in lead roles.

Not a Love Story (2011)

Not a Love Story
A sill from Not a Love Story, left top, file photos of Maria Susairaj, left bottom, and Emile Jerome Mathew.

Indian media executive Neeraj Grover was found dead in 2008 in Mumbai. Upcoming actress Maria Susairaj and her boyfriend were accused of the murder and arrested. At that time Neeraj was helping Maria to get a break in the industry and was on friendly terms. Neeraj was last seen visiting Maria’s apartment. Police found that Lieutenant Emile Jerome Mathew, Maria's boyfriend, murdered him as he could not bear their closeness.

This real-life story apparently inspired Bollywood director Ram Gopal verma to make Not a Love Story in 2011.

The crime thriller stars Deepak Dobriyal, Mahie Gill, Zakhir Hussain and Ajay Gehi in lead roles.

The Good Nurse (2022)

The Good Nurse
Stills from The Good Nurse and file phot of Charles Cullen

Charles Cullen was a nurse who worked in several hospitals and nursing homes. He would bounce from different medical centres to another after being investigated over misconduct allegations. Over 16 years, he would kill patients using his weapon of choice - Digoxin. Cullen would also inject saline pouches with lethal doses of insulin. Cullen was arrested in December 2003 through the efforts of Amy Loughren, a nurse that he befriended. He confessed to between 30 and 40 killings, but the actual number is believed to be closer to 400, making him the most prolific serial killer in US history.

The Good Nurse is based on Charles Graeber's 2013 novel of the same name. The Netflix film revolves around Loughren and Cullen's budding friendship after he was hired to help her during shifts. Loughren cooperated with a police investigation after multiple mysterious deaths, and Cullen's past came to light. Their friendship was instrumental in his confession of his murders.

Lost Girls (2020)

Lost Girls
A still from Lost Girls, left, and a file photo of Shannon Gilbert.

On May 1, 2010, Shannan Gilbert made three frantic 911 calls from a gated community and disappeared into the night. Initially finding four bodies, police investigation uncovered over a dozen murdered women, none of them was Gilbert's. It would later be known as one of the modern era's most notorious unsolved cases. With the killings taking centre stage, the mother's relentless search and discovery of the body took almost a year.

The Netflix film follows Mari Gilbert, her desperate search for her missing daughter, and the discovery of the Long Island serial killer. This Liz Garbus-directed tale is based on actual events taken from "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery" by Robert Kolker.

Monster (2003)

A still from Monster, and a file photo of Aileen Wuornos, right.

Between 1989 and 1990, Aileen Wuornos killed and robbed seven of her male clients. She was known as one of America's first female serial killers. During her trial, Wuornos claimed that she killed the men in self-defence. She was convicted and eventually executed by lethal injection in 2002.

The critically acclaimed film, directed by Patty Jenkins, focuses on the nine months between 1989 and 1990, detailing the events of her seven murders. It stars Charlize Theron as Wuornos and Christina Ricci as her semi-fictionalized lover.

No One Killed Jessica (2011)

No One Killed Jessica
A still from the film No One Killed Jessica, left, and a file photo of Jessica Lal.

On April 30, 1999, Indian model Jessica Lal was shot and killed after she refused to serve Manu Sharma, a politician's son, at a party in New Delhi. Sharma was arrested and tried for murder. In February 2006, he and his accomplices were acquitted. But within months, public outcry led to his conviction, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2020, Sharma was released from jail after serving 17 years.

The Hindi-language crime thriller No One Killed Jessica Lal revolves around the shocking death of model after being shot by a politician's son at an event.

Director Raj Kumar Gupta was inspired to adapt the case after he saw a headline in 2006. The film follows her sister's long struggle to find justice and her campaign to bring Jessica's killers to jail. It stars Vidya Balan as Sabrina Lal and Rani Mukerji as Meera Gaity.

Narcos (2015-2017)

A still shot from Nacros, left, and a file photo of Pablo Escobar

Pablo "the king of cocaine" Escobar was a Colombian drug lord who founded the Medellín Cartel in 1976. After establishing smuggling routes from Columbia to the US - with an estimated $ 30 billion net worth before his death - he became the wealthiest criminal in history. After a decades-long battle with rivals and authorities, he was killed in his hometown by the police in 1993.

Narcos is a crime drama series inspired by Escobar's colourful life and death. While season 1 and 2 focuses on Escobar's life and his interactions with drug lords, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other entities, Season 3 pick up after his fall with the DEA against the Cali Cartel. The series was primarily written by Chris Brancato and directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha.

‘The Girl Next Door (2007)’ and ‘An American Crime (2007)’

The Girl Next Dorr
Girl Next Door and American Crime, left, and a file photo of Gertrude

The parents of Sylvia Likens and Jenny were carnival workers, and while they were going to work, they left their children in the care of Indiana housewife Gertrude Baniszewski. The parents offered to pay Baniszewski $20 per week for the care of their daughters after believing in the assurance of Baniszewski that the sisters would be treated as their own children.

According to the case, Baniszewski tortured Sylvia Likens to death with the help of her own and neighbourhood children.

Sylvia was beaten, humiliated, and eventually left to die from neglect and severe abuse in a matter of months.

Both movies ‘The Girl Next Door and An American Crime ‘ are based on the topic of this case. While An American Crime talks about the facts of the case, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door is a dramatised account of the event.

'Dirty Harry' and 'Zodiac' 

Dirty Harry
Stills from Dirty Harry and Zodiac.

The case involves the infamous Zodiac, a serial killer, who used to send coded messages to newspapers regarding murders. The San Francisco Examiner newspaper received a letter from the Zodiac in 1969 containing the coded message. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zodiac terrorized Northern California with a combination of grisly murders. The killer also sent bizarre public letters indicating threats, insane demands, etc.

His main targets were young couples and a male cab driver. Zodiac has murdered around 37 people.

The case inspired the 1971 action film Dirty Harry, which starred Clint Eastwood, and it was also the subject of David Fincher's dramatic film Zodiac (2007).