Heard of this chap called Sobhraj? Great guy. Well-read. Well-dressed too. Good cook. And quite the ladies’ man—every time you see him, he’s with a new girl. What’s that? He killed 12 people in cold blood? I heard something like that. But if you get to know him, you’ll see he’s a really nice person.

Such is Main Aur Charles’ position on Mr Charles Sobhraj, serial killer, escape artist and celebrity. Movies have been glamorizing criminals from the days of hand-cranked cameras, but half an hour in, Prawaal Raman’s film is in danger of massively overselling its protagonist. The film’s hardly started when Sobhraj (Randeep Hooda) is described as “intelligent, hypnotic, ruthless and brutal" (he’s called “hypnotic" again later). At one point, he’s compared to Robin Hood. “Whenever I see you, I want to have sex with you," says Mira (Richa Chadha), one of his many, many girlfriends. The film seems to have the hots for him too.

The problem is, for the first half, we’re shown no evidence of anything that marks Sobhraj out as special, apart from his ability to bed a prodigious number of women. The film opens with one of his victims washing up on a beach in Thailand (we’re shown no murders—that would be so inelegant). The scene shifts to Delhi, a couple of years down the line, where Sobhraj is serving a jail sentence. He breaks out of prison and heads to Mumbai, then Goa, changing women along the way like so many peaked caps. After around 45 minutes of very little happening, he’s caught again. So much for the master criminal spiel.

The structural issue with Main Aur Charles is that there is actually a reason for Sobhraj’s apparent unimpressiveness in the first hour, but by the time this is revealed, the film has already lost much of its grip on the audience. It’s not that Main Aur Charles is difficult to sit through even when it’s meandering: There is a fair amount of pulpy pleasure to be had in Hooda’s preening and commitment to a French accent (not much worse than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in The Walk), Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s flashy cinematography, and the consistently overripe dialogue. Still, there’s little doubt that the last 45 minutes or so, when inspector Amod Kanth (Adil Hussain) gets Sobhraj back to Delhi and tries to build a case against him but is frustrated by everyone’s infatuation with the killer, is the strongest part.

It’s difficult to know what to make of a film that casts Chadha as a wide-eyed ingénue (surely there’s no shortage of those in Bollywood) or suggests that Sobhraj is more victim than aggressor, something Mira tries to explain to Kanth without a trace of irony. Are we meant to take this at face value? Or is it just Raman’s way of showing how completely Sobhraj’s accomplices come under his spell? I wish the film hadn’t left it so late before it showed its central character doing something truly clever. Up till then, Hussain’s by-the-book but dogged “Main" is a lot more intriguing than Charles.

Hooda’s Sobhraj is a cipher, a beautiful surface with no indication of the emotions—if any—that are raging underneath. Towards the end, there’s a scene with Kanth and Sobhraj talking in the inspector’s office, the criminal telling the cop about the pleasures of doing wrong. The words themselves are banal, but the look on Hooda’s face in that instant is transporting. It was the only moment when I felt like subscribing to the cult of Sobhraj.

Main Aur Charles released in theatres on Friday.

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