Bad Boy Billionaires: India: High on gas, low on fizz
The Netflix docuseries is a half-baked attempt at retelling the tales of the downfall of India’s notorious business tycoons.
A tale of greed and fraud committed by two émigré Indian business moguls, and a man who called himself the “guardian of the world’s biggest family” — that’s what the controversial docu-series, Bad Boy Billionaires: India, on Netflix is all about. The four-part series, slated for release on September 2, was stuck in a legal tangle for a month. On Monday, Netflix made three of the four episodes — on liquor baron Vijay Mallya, Subrata Roy of Sahara group, and jeweller Nirav Modi — available on its app for viewers. The fourth one on Ramalinga Raju, founder of Satyam Computer Services who was convicted in a case of fraud, is on hold as the case is pending in a Hyderabad court.
Flamboyant dreams crash-land
The series opens with ‘The King of Good Times’, centered on Vijay Mallya and his £1bn fraud — how he allegedly misled banks about the fortunes of his “baby”, Kingfisher Airlines, and filtered the cash to fund his former Force India F1 team and other projects.
The episode explores the rise of Kingfisher Airlines, and how the venture went belly up in a few years, making Mallya public enemy number one. Known for his flamboyant lifestyle, Mallya was an aviation magnate and brewer, who transformed Kingfisher beer into a global brand.
The makers have turned the spotlight on how Mallya used to host extravagant parties — a terrific 50th birthday in his Goa villa with Lionel Richie and his 60th at the same venue with Enrique Iglesias (which, his son, Siddharth Mallya feels, they “could have done without”). As one source put it, “The sh*t really hit the ceiling after that (Mallya celebrating his 60th birthday even as over 900 Kingfisher Airlines employees were yet to receive their payroll).”
His life took a 180-degree turn when he had to quietly board a plane for London in 2016 after Indian authorities filed charges relating to the collapse of Kingfisher Airlines. In a nutshell, his life is a classic example of how greed, fraud and corruption led to the demise of an empire.
Jewel of a scam
The second episode, ‘Diamonds Aren’t Forever’, is about Nirav Modi, whose dream was to build a multinational jewellery brand, something on the lines of Tiffany’s. Like his bedazzling jewellery, even his words were beguiling. In the beginning of the episode, Modi, in an interview, says, “To be a jeweller, it’s all about having trust, right? Because when a person is spending lakhs and crores on jewellery, it’s about… A brand has to embody trust (sic).” In short, he was talking about ethics and morality in business dealings. Supremely ironic, coming from a man who was anything but trustworthy!
Modi had a sudden ascent. He was catapulted into the big league with his brand of jewellery emerging out of nowhere. He built a fortune of about $2 billion according to the Forbes list, hired top model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the face of his brand, and set up shops in some of the hotspots across the world, such as New York, London, Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing, Singapore, Hawaii. Soon, he found himself at the centre of a $1.8bn fraud, and, as one of the voiceovers suggests, became “the symbol of corrupt India”.
In the third and final episode, ‘The World’s Biggest Family’, we see ‘Saharashri’ Subrata Roy “challenge the whole world to find a single fraud”, even as his company had been systematically violating the law. From dizzying speeds of success to a downfall nobody could have imagined, this episode, the longest in terms of run-time, shows how the common man, who had invested in Sahara’s ‘pyramid scheme’, was hit the hardest. The scheme promised people that their investment would ‘double or triple’. Though the episode shows how Roy convinced over a million people that they were working for ‘the family’, it doesn’t give too many details on how the money reached the privileged few at the top of the ‘pyramid’.
At the end of the three episodes, you realise how the rich get away with doing things the common man can’t even dream about — borrow money, seek loans and more loans, and then spend a fortune fighting their battles in courts. In an absolute display of arrogance, Nirav Modi, after being cornered by a journalist in London, smirks, looks at the person in the eye, and says nonchalantly, “Sorry, no comment.”
In a few scenes, you also feel that people known to the tycoons or close to them are still spellbound by their antics and lifestyle, despite the mountain of debts left behind by them. In the Nirav Modi episode, Vishesh Verma, the advertising director who shot Modi’s ads, says with a chuckle, “I saw the leather jacket he was wearing, and the shirt he was wearing. It looked bad*ss.” He was referring to the time when Modi was cornered by the journalist in London.
Likewise, in the Vijay Mallya episode, Siddharth Mallya says, “They need a political pawn, they need a man to make an example of.” Towards the end of the same episode, novelist Shobhaa De adds, “Vijay is a bit of a kid…it’s the kid in him that gets him into a lot of trouble.”
Misdeeds of the three powerful businessmen wrecked thousands of homes, but the series merely scratches the surface of their multi-billion scams. At times, I reached for the fast-forward button to bypass some of the interviews because they didn’t tell me anything new. Barring a few events, one doesn’t get to see much of the untold or unreported stories — of those who paid the price of the tycoons’ greed, whose meagre savings went up in smoke, or those who were not paid their salaries. Even the title ‘Bad Boy Billionaires’ seems to romanticise irresponsible behaviour, and comes off as a cool sobriquet. ‘Criminal Billionaires: India’ would have been more apt.