After watching the three episodes from Netflix’s investigative documentary series Bad Boy Billionaires: India, one can understand why the show got embroiled in a controversy after two of the industrialists secured court orders staying the airing of the show last month. Each of the three episodes is almost an hour-long and depicts a ‘villainous’ portrayal of the three billionaires – Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Subrata Roy respectively. As their progressive plans started to go awry, they got embroiled into the quagmire of greed and chicanery. It’s not only their reputation that got entangled into this maze of stratagem but also the hopes and future of all individuals, who were monetarilly associated with these ‘Thugs of Hindustan’. While Netflix has been able to stream three episodes of the series, a fourth on software tycoon, B Ramalinga Raju, remains in the litigation process.
Like any conventional work of non-fiction, the narrative devices in Bad Boy Billionaires: India are used in the form of talking heads, newspaper clippings and archival footage from popular news and talk shows, and advertisements, etc. All in order to create that ‘crutch’ for engaging its viewers. The interviewees comprise journalists, analysts, writers, employees, and even friends among others. And as they speak, we embark on a journey with our ‘infamous’ subjects. We try to understand their sanguine yearnings as well as their hideous camouflages. The opinions expressed can be broadly divided into three categories- scrutinization, victimization, and sympathy towards the perpetrator. But aren’t all the pieces of information readily available in the public domain? Yes, they are but the entire series is presented like a compendious visual insight on the subjects that will save a good length of time from browsing Wikipedia or surfing YouTube channels.
The first episode, The King of Good Times (dir: Dylan Mohan Gray) doesn’t require any extra information regarding it’s subject (Vijay Mallya) because the title is a tagline that has been immortalized by the ursine liquor baron throughout the nation since the mid 1990s. Being the only child of his parents, Vijay Mallya was mollycoddled by his father, Vittal Mallya, the chairman of United Breweries, with expensive toys like electric trains, a battery-operated Ferrari, etc, etc. But it was only after the untimely death of his father due to a massive heart attack, that the 28 years carefree old Mallya assumed the mantle of running the brewery business. What follows next is a chain of events through which Vijay negotiates with his circumstances and devices canny strategies that will eventually hurtle him to the stature the most charismatic but uncrowned ‘king of alcohol’. He blatantly displayed his flamboyance and left no stone unturned to make Kingfisher as the most popular liquor brand in India. But it was his highly ambitious project of running the Kingfisher Airline and its subsequent sustentation that eventually slumped his traction into obloquy. The episode spends a good length of its running time on this aspect to chronicle the fall of Mallya.
The second episode, Diamonds Aren’t Forever (dir: Johanna Hamilton), begins with the jeweler extraordinaire, Nirav Modi, responding in an interview, ‘To be a jeweler, it’s all about having trust, right? – A strong statement whose cogency will shred to pieces as the episode proceeds. Nirav a third-generation diamantaire, humbly acknowledges that he had learned the ropes of the trade under the tutelage of his uncle, Mehul Choksi. In 1999, Nirav Modi split away from his uncle and started his own company, Firestar Diamond, employing 1,800-2,000 people in his factory. His fame spread far and wide – from being the first Indian jeweler to feature on the cover of Christie’s auction catalog to opening multiple outlets of his luxury brand across the world. But then the situation takes a nosedive when one of the officials of the Punjab National Bank’s Brady House Branch in Fort, Mumbai retires and Modi’s empire, built on a huge foundation of deceit, collapses like a house of cards.
The third episode, The World’s Biggest Family (dir: Nick Read) narrates the tale of a civil servant’s son, Subrata Roy, riding on a Lambretta scooter, going door to door in order to convince the rural folks to invest in his schemes, in the late 1970s. He wins their trust and goes on to become one of the most powerful business tycoons of the country and gets christened by his employees as Sahara-shri in the process. Roy’s story is strikingly different from the others in the series in two aspects. Firstly, his money laundering didn’t involve money loaned from the government banks; rather his investors were the common people. Secondly, this episode highlights the ill-effect of the Sahara scam on the lives of his investors and strikes an emotional chord with the viewer.
The documentary series can be interpreted as a modern-day fable that charts the journey of individuals who had a virtuous zeal when they began their careers. But as they ascended the ladder of fame and success, their minds got infested with an uncanny sense of power. They bit off more than they could chew and the resultant cost — to thrive on infamy. But if one delves into the unerring nature of financial shenanigans that the subjects are accused of, one can’t help but think that was all of it possible without the underpinning of any political party? If not, then definitely the laws of the land are hugely partial towards certain sections of our society, especially those that rule the roost. Meanwhile, the ‘bad boys’ themselves are presented with a high glamor quotient and an overawed guise. They are pushy, extravagant, thriftless and ruthless. For them, the government rules and regulations are mere dictums that didn’t come in the way of their progression. And as their swaggering choices backfire, they are reduced to shameless fugitives who do not have iota of contrition.
Each of the episodes are beautifully filmed while the abundant aerial shots provide the viewer with a larger than life expanse of different locations and lifestyles. In the richly framed and well-lit interviews, the expert interviewees crisply deliver their viewpoints with elan and an elegance in line to match the objectives of many of the current ‘Netflix’ documentaries. That everything within the frame should look good irrespective of the murkiness of its content. This, however, takes away a lot from the series. Thankfully, the interviews of the common people – who have suffered at the hands of our protagonists – are framed with a sense of empathy and intimacy that makes the viewer feel for them be it the ex-employee of Kingfisher airlines, the former clerk of Punjab National Bank or the investors of the Sahara group, who lost their money.
All in all, Bad Boy Billionaires: India somewhat effectively succeeds in chronologically revealing the occurrence behind some of India’s most sensational financial scams in the recent past. But I doubt if the series can be labelled as ‘investigative’. It is certainly not one of the best documentary series available on the streaming platform but nonetheless is an admittedly engaging one.
Web Series, Documentary, Color