Badass boy who misses home
Dylan Mohan Gray's film on Indian liquor baron Vijay Mallya tries getting behind a man everyone loved, and then grew to hate
I HAVE only met Mr Mallya once. I sat barely a foot away from him in a court in London at one of his hearings," says Dylan Mohan Gray, director of the just-released film, Bad Boy Billionaires. "I had been talking to his son, Siddharth, a lot, as he was representing the family and is also in the movie, so Sid introduced us. It was strange saying hello—especially as I had been sitting in an edit room for months going through hundreds of hours of archival material on him. It was surreal to meet a person I felt like I knew so well by that point. It was like we had history, but yet had never met."
The Netflix docu-series on infamous business tycoons, also features a segment each on the controversial jeweller Nirav Modi and Sahara founder Subrota Roy. Ray's film, The King of Good Times, follows Mallya, who continues to be the chairman of United Breweries, and his meteoric rise as the owner of Kingfisher Airlines. It also goes into the making of his larger-than-life party boy image, and the inevitable crash that comes with reckless confidence, and uncontrolled ambition. After borrowing indiscriminately from government banks, the airlines was closed down in 2013. By November 2015, the amount owed had grown to $1.35 billion. In March 2016, a consortium of banks approached the Supreme Court to stop Mallya from going abroad, but he had managed to leave the country. In April 2016, a Mumbai court also issued an undated non-bailable arrest warrant against the businessman. He continues to live in London while his lawyer contests the warrant with a higher court. He has been accused of defaulting on the loans, money laundering and misappropriation.
Along with the wronged parties, which include the Kingfisher staff who were left in the lurch with unpaid salaries, Gray has got Mallya's friends, including designer Manoviraj Khosla and author Shobhaa De, to shed light on the man.
Dylan Mohan Gray
We point out to Gray how no one seems to have anything nice to say about the liquor baron. He pauses and says, "Well, most of the employees we spoke with said they were very fond of him before the crash. The ones I spoke to said he was inspiring, respectful, highly knoweldgeable and a good, generous boss. But after what he did, they felt a deep sense of betrayal, and even close friends, like Shobhaa De, who has known him for 40 years, have strongly criticised him for leaving his employees in the lurch. I definitely didn't want to make any excuses for him [in the film]. And neither did I want to create a crude black and white narrative, which is equally false."
The Canadian filmmaker, known best for his 2013 documentary Fire in the Blood, which depicted the intentional obstruction of access to low-cost antiretroviral drugs used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS to people in Africa and other countries, said that he was clear that he wanted the film to tell the truth. "This film wasn't made with any agenda to revise people's views. It set out to tell the story of a human journey. I let the contributors express themselves, and ultimately the audience decides what to think about it. Of course, there is a lot of crafting on the editing table. I don't need to buy into people's view, but if I believe they are speaking their truth, there is validity in those voices."
What's evident for the viewer, is Mallya's lack of remorse. Gray says the man has two homes in London, and his lifestyle continues to be lavish. "People close to him said that he did express regret. They said his view was that when times were good, he helped everyone, so then when things turned bad, he felt everyone should bear some of the burden." Gray thinks that the party that Mallya threw in 2017 in Goa to bring in his 60th birthday, that had a performance by pop star Enrique Iglesias, was one of his gravest mistakes. "For him, the party was a private matter, his private life and personal money. People often forget that the money borrowed from public banks was not by Vijay Mallya the individual, but by Kingfisher Airlines, the publicly-traded company. But the fact remained that his airline employees hadn't been paid for months."
By 2015, Kingfisher Airlines owed the banks $1.35 billion. The salary arrears of its staff accumulating since 2012 amount to Rs 300 crore
For now, even as Mallya remains in London, his legal options appear to be exhausting fast. "He has said he wants to pay up and settle the case. But there doesn't seem to be any political will for that to happen. In many ways he is an ideal person to make an example of as having made off with taxpayers' money, even though there are many who have done that, and continue to do it, on a much greater scale. As a key character in our film says, the public sector banks are free-flowing taps for politicians and industrialists. In that sense, many view Mallya as a human shield for much bigger fish. It is easy to pin the bullseye on someone so colourful—someone who showed off his wealth, parties and embodied drinking culture, all without shame or guilt. Even though he is now seeking asylum in the UK, I am told he wants to come back— that he misses his home country, and wants to make a deal which will allow him to return. But it feels like the political capital expended on him thus far, would make that impossible" Gray says.
Gray's phone has been buzzing nonstop since the documentary dropped. "Clearly many Indians, especially those of a certain age, already know a lot of the Mallya story, so they watch the film with a certain sense of territoriality. But of course Netflix is a global platform, and for international audiences these are unknown stories. They are flabbergasted by the numbers alone! For example, when Sahara claims six -and-a-half crore people invested in its chit funds, this is equal to the whole population of the UK. And even for most Indians under the age of 35, this is a new story, a new narrative. If anything, they only know Mallya as a flashy rich guy who got into trouble." His last word on Mallya could serve as a lesson for the most ambitious minds. "In the end, he was probably someone so accustomed to privilege that he was completely out of touch with the real world where people actually need to pay rent."
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