By Hardik Rajgor Oct. 07, 2020
Netflix docuseries Bad Boy Billionaires gives us a glimpse into the rise and fall of India’s three fraudsters – Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Subrata Roy. It lays bare the lacunas in our system, how the rich exploit it, and makes you wonder if red tape is a burden only the common man has to bear.
Bad Boy Billionaires finally released on Netflix after being mired in a legal battle for over a month. Netflix quietly dropped three episodes featuring the stories of India’s three tycoons – Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Subrata Roy, who have been accused on charges of fraud, money laundering, and defrauding public sector banks. The fourth episode on Satyam Computer Services founder Ramalinga Raju still remains unavailable as the matter is being heard in the Telangana high court.
The docu-series doesn’t tell us anything new about these scamsters or their alleged crimes, but it is the way the narrative is woven together that is quite gripping. The story-telling begins with the rise of India’s “bad boys”, followed by details of how their fortunes came crashing down. The commentary throughout the series is provided by close friends, former employees, and journalists who bring their own perspectives to the events that took place.
The episode on Vijay Mallya is aptly titled “The King of Good Times”. It begins by telling us about the “charismatic” man who threw lavish parties and was able to sell alcohol, considered a taboo in many Indian households, with flair, and then elevated the brand by starting Kingfisher Airlines. An ironic bit from this episode is when a reporter asks Mallya about how he feels being compared to Donald Trump and Mallya replies, “I’m not yet anywhere near bankruptcy.” Oh, how the tables turn. What will leave viewers fuming, is the tone-deaf commentary by his son Siddharth Mallya, and “close friends”, including Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Shobhaa De.
Mallya is constantly described as someone who was just “flamboyant”, with an “ego”; they’ve called him “childlike” and an “idiot”. It’s an attempt to whitewash his crimes – the fact that while the Kingfisher staff was unpaid for months, he hosted a grand 60th birthday bash featuring Enrique Iglesias. An employee’s wife died by suicide because his family had no money. The “good times” were only restricted to his personal life. For people who worked for him, the times were turbulent.
Bad Boy Billionaires lays bare the lacunas in our system.
The episode on Nirav Modi, titled “Diamonds aren’t forever”, has little original footage and a lot of clips from his store openings and brand advertisements. While the influence of his uncle Mehul Choksi and wife Ami Modi is briefly touched upon. The filmmakers don’t dig deep into the story of Choksi, now himself a fugitive, who had a big part to play in the wrongdoings. A heartbreaking moment arrives in this episode when a Punjab National Bank clerk describes his ordeal in jail for merely “doing his job”, and how they were mere pawns in a game played by their big boss, who is walking around freely in London sporting an ostrich-skin jacket and arrogantly saying “no comment” when confronted by journalists. Yes, Nirav Modi is very much a free man. The ordinary people’s lives he touched not so much.
The most gripping and impactful episode features Subrata Roy, the chairman of Sahara India Pariwar. Titled “The world’s biggest family”, it captures the rise of a young Subrata Roy in the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, as he gets the poorest people in India, who are alienated from the formal banking system, to invest in his “schemes”. The episode also captures the cult of Subrata Roy, from the dress code, to the trademark hand signals and people touching his feet and lying down in front of him. One has to undoubtedly be a larger-than-life figure, to get one in 17 individuals in the entire country to put their faith in you. And then cheat them. It’s heartbreaking to see ordinary people – from villages and cities – getting ensnared in Roy’s trap.
The arrogance of Subrata Roy is also visible, sending 127 trucks worth of documents to the regulators, or calling officials “sarkari gunde” for taking action against him. The powerful always believe the party will never stop, until it does.
Bad Boy Billionaires lays bare the lacunas in our system. Public sector banks kept giving loans to unviable businesses, regulators were always behind the curve and there’s nothing that cannot be done by giving a few bribes here and there. It also points out the severe contradiction in how differently rules apply to ordinary people and how they apply to the rich. While the farmer is hounded for loans unpaid and a person defaulting on an EMI can have his life turned upside down, these tycoons robbing the country of thousands of crores continue to live luxurious lives, backed by powerful lawyers who can take the judicial system for a ride.
The series leaves us without any hope or a positive takeaway. But then, it is merely capturing reality.