Main Aur Charles (“Me and Charles“) — a fictionalized account of the life of serial killer Charles Sobhraj by writer-director Prawaal Raman — explores not just the life of a charismatic criminal but the human tendency to hear only what we want to hear.
The real Charles targeted Western tourists in countries across Southeast Asia during the 1970s, often killing them to steal their money and passports. Raman’s version briefly shows two of those murders in Thailand, but the majority of the story concerns Charles’ 1986 escape from a Delhi prison.
With the help of several co-conspirators — including his girlfriend Mira (Richa Chadha) and fellow inmate Richard (Alexx O’Nell) — Charles (Randeep Hooda) walks out of jail in broad daylight. He escapes despite having less than a year remaining on his sentence and a relatively cushy life behind bars: books, a chess set, liquor, and parties with foreign women, all the fruit of bribing the warden (Vipin Sharma).
The police chase Charles from Delhi to Mumbai to Goa, where he shacks up in a hippie commune. Even when he’s recaptured, Charles wears the same smug grin, as though the cops are doing exactly what he wants them to.
The “Main” from the title — Inspector Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain) — doesn’t become a major player in the story until after Charles is back in the clink. It’s Kanth’s job to figure out how Charles managed to escape and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Kanth also becomes fixated on how a smart woman like Mira could fall for a conman like Charles. Even if she refuses to believe Charles a murderer, it’s hard to ignore the parade of women he’s slept with, some since they’ve been together. As Mira puts it, “He can escape, but no one can escape him.”
Charles’ magnetism is undeniable, especially with Hooda maxing out his own considerable charms in his portrayal. The conman chooses his targets carefully, identifying women primed to fall for his focused amorous attention. He uses his worldly air to impress men, promising them friendship and protection in exchange for their assistance.
That air of worldliness — characterized by Charles’ tendency to switch between languages, all tinged with a French accent — rankles Kanth. Why do so many people fall for this guy? It especially burns him when his wife (Tisca Chopra) becomes overly interested in the case.
Hooda is an ideal choice to play such a seductive conman, and Chadha shines as his willing victim. I’d love to see their intense chemistry in other romantic dramas. Hussain is also very good as the frustrated detective.
One persistent problem in the movie is the way Raman uses his camera to depict women. There are too many closeups of specific body parts or shots of women’s bodies with their heads out of frame. Mandana Karimi’s character Liz is introduced via a closeup of her buttocks. Liz and other “headless women” aren’t just anonymous victims but Charles’ valued accomplices, so there’s no narrative justification for erasing their identities and reducing them to body parts.
Then again, one has to wonder how or if this movie would even have been made had Charles exclusively targeted Indian women. The unwritten rule in Bollywood is that the bodies of white women and women of mixed Indian heritage (like Karimi) can be objectified in ways that the bodies of Indian women can’t. The ethnicity of Charles’ victims enables Raman to present the story in a spicier way than would otherwise be possible, making his choice of camera angles feel like additional degradation.
Problems aside, Main Aur Charles is an engrossing film with solid performances and satisfying narrative payoffs. Watch it for Hooda and Chadha, for sure.