It’s been a long time coming and after crossing a few legal hurdles, it finally released this week — Bad Boy Billionaires: India is streaming on Netflix. The original four-part docu-series — now just three episodes, thanks to a court order — narrates the stories and crimes of billionaire fugitives Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, as well as the mighty fall from grace of Sahara chairman, Subrata Roy.
At the outset, let me make it clear that I sat down to watch Bad Boy Billionaires with great expectations. After all, Netflix’s love affair with everything Indian is well-known and thus the hype and build-up surrounding the docu-series was understandable.
Adding to the build-up was the legal trouble that the show ran into, with disgraced Satyam chairperson Ramalinga Raju successfully petitioning the courts to grant him permission to preview his episode — on the Satyam Computers Scam — before it releases, for fear of defamatory content.
So, when Netflix finally secured permission to release the show sans the Satyam episode, saying that I was excited was an understatement. Did the show live up to expectations? Yes. Did it tell me something that I did not particularly know before? Not really.
That’s the first fact of Bad Boy Billionaires that you might need to remember before watching: if you’ve been following the Kingfisher, Nirav Modi and Sahara scams over the years, the docu-series is a recap of news you’re probably already aware of. It doesn’t inform you per se, as much as it jogs your memory. And what a jog down memory lane it is.
The Mallya episode, aptly titled The King of Good Times traces Vijay Mallya’s origins. It ably and comprehensively rewinds the clock to the beer baron’s childhood — from being the only child of the reticent and low-profile Vittal Mallya, to turning into the undisputed king of good times.
With commendable use of archival footage (Netflix has truly mastered the art of turning archives into goldmines of content), the episode narrates how Mallya was keen on breaking taboos surrounding the alcohol business, how he probably took it a step too far by starting an airline in pursuit of making Kingfisher larger than life, and how one particular shopping spree at Airbus would bring about his — and the airline’s — downfall.
As much as the episode is a mega-recap, it goes so far as to show us a side of Mallya many of us may not have been witness to — a quietly confident man who idolized Donald Trump and loved the spotlight. Featuring interviews with Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Shobha De and former Kingfisher Airlines CEO Alex Wilcox among others, the series makes generous use of these big names to throw light on Mallya’s miscalculations. Wilcox, in particular, provides some great personal insight on Mallya shopping for aircraft after aircraft against the former’s advice, which eventually led to his debt trap.
The Subrata Roy story, as told by Netflix, is as engaging. The narrative of The World’s Biggest Family paints an eerily unsettling picture of how Roy ran Sahara like his own personal cult, after building his company on the meagre savings of poverty-stricken millions who believed they were investing in a chit fund.
Featuring interviews with journalists like Shutapa Paul and Sharat Pradhan, known for his exhaustive reporting on the Sahara scam, the episode details Roy’s run-ins with SEBI even as he built a pyramid scheme thanks to Sahara’s never-ending list of “investors”. The highlight of the episode is Pradhan’s insightful into Subrata Roy’s defiance and daring, even as it paints a real human story at the heart of the Sahara scam — one of the employees who believed their boss was a Demigod, and of duped investors who have by now lost all hope of securing whatever little principal amount they invested in Roy’s chit fund.
Continuing to bank on a vast repository of archival footage and content in the public domain, The World’s Biggest Family details how Roy’s decision to take two Sahara companies public, and thus opening his business to public scrutiny would eventually be his downfall.
It’s the same case with the Nirav Modi episode too. Titled Diamonds Aren’t Forever, the episode is an account of human suffering at the heart of a billionaire’s fraud. Even as the episode ably narrates the suspiciously rapid rise of Nirav Modi and his questionable borrowings from the Punjab National Bank, it shows how low-level bank clerks and managers were made the fall guy for the establishment’s failure to follow due process in issuing letters of undertaking to Modi.
The highlight of Diamonds Aren’t Forever is not only Nirav Modi’s archive interviews on his business and early beginnings, but also with the Daily Telegraph’s Mick Brown, who is credited with successfully pinning the fugitive billionaire’s location in London, before confronting him. While Diamonds Aren’t Forever is admittedly the least-interesting of all three episodes, the fact that it still manages to keep you glued to the screen says an awful lot about the content and quality of Bad Boy Billionaires: India.
Netflix’s latest docu-series is a must-watch if you’ve spent a sizeable part of your adult life following these high-profile scams, which have more often than not resulted in their protagonists going unpunished and on the run. For the uninitiated, the narrative still manages to do a great job of educating you about why Mallya, Modi and Roy are the quintessential bad boys of Indian business.
First Published: IST