Unknown, Rich > Famous, Vulnerable

Updated: 07 October, 2020 07:35 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Subrata Roy are on Netflix because they would have once loved to. Just not this way!

A screenshot of Bad Boy Billionaires: India on Netflix
A screenshot of Bad Boy Billionaires: India on Netflix

Mayank ShekharThe only time I've taken up a job, knowing nothing about the person hiring me, was while being interviewed inside a swanky multi-storied spa that a gentleman from Bhopal owned in Bombay. Yeah, that's where he met me, sitting in a den of an office, within that spa — flanked by a young woman on either side — asking if we could start a newspaper from scratch, in two weeks' flat!

Because the astrologer told him so. There was this typically Indian upstart/start-up swag about his well-groomed, bejewelled persona. Something he repeatedly verbalised with, "Arrey, don't worry, sab kuch ho jayega". Meaning, putting together a newsroom, production nuts and bolts, distribution, marketing, et al, before Dussehra!

On the advent of which he'd be on his way to the life of a media baron, swimming inside a charmed circle, subsequently heading towards a seat in the Rajya Sabha… We discussed these plans a couple of times over drinks.

I was mostly struck by the sweet man from Bhopal's twinkling eyes — one surely settled on the 'king of good times' Vijay Mallya; the other on 'Saharashri' Subrata Roy's! Those two were truly new India's top inspirations from the new millennium — giving you a reason to be rich, quick; to be famous, of course. What's the point otherwise?

Somehow we did pull off the newspaper launch (don't ask me how). But the paper itself, shortly thereafter I'm told, began to fold up; partly because the Bhopal man's ambitions didn't match his execution, and I'm guessing, he ran out of money.

But more so, because this is post-2012. Which is roughly the cut-off point for when the Indian economy's party had ended. After having peaked in 2011, which is the one time GDP hit a frickin' double-digit growth — making us dream of slaying the Dragon!

That's when there was a buoyant belief among entrepreneurs/investors, that you only had to set the ball rolling. The momentum of the market would take over. Betting big displayed courage. Everybody played ball. There was such a thing as 'India story'. Pink (as in business) press were full of it.

It's not a surprise that post-2012 is also the timeline for Netflix's breezy, sharply edited documentary series, Bad Boy Billionaires: India, that shows the rouge, rise and fall of alleged robber barons, gone overboard. Namely, Mallya, Roy, and diamantaire Nirav Modi — profiled over separate episodes that serve as fine Caravan-type cover stories, although hardly in-depth enough for a deep-dive, investigative series/drama.

Why particularly pick Mallya (from Bangalore in the south), Modi (from Surat in the west), Roy (from Gorakhpur), though? Coincidentally they also represent the four corners of India (Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, very close to Bihar, is both north and east). Sub-consciously signifying therefore that quick-buck crony capitalism as a phenomenon is all-pervasive in India!

The same businesses fund the pink press that could expose them in a scam (won't). Likewise, they directly finance the politics that's supposed to protect the vast unwashed masses (can't). Roy's money came from chit-fund investments in villages and small towns, that he could pass on for flashier investments.

Both Mallya and Modi allegedly siphoned off depositors' money from government-owned banks. Mallya stopped paying his employees in India, but continued to pay the ones abroad; because you can get away with it here, not there.

What also set these three media/showbiz characters apart is they made the money all about themselves — blatantly shining torchlight to it — caring not once for the schadenfreude that might follow, if they failed. For, how could they fail? And that's why they've had it worse, with far more to lose. Because if it's all about your image, the loss of it is the worst form of punishment already meted. Cases in courts carry on forever.

Most intelligent blokes of Indian business would rather be anonymous and rich, than famous and vulnerable. Compared to the attention-seeking Mallya's $2 billion loan default, India-watcher James Crabtree points out in Bad Boy Billionaire, that tycoons in India owe around $150 billion in bad debt. Any idea who?

Thanks to economic journalist Vivek Kaul, I only first heard of Brij Singhal of Bhushan Steel, whose default is more than R56,000 crore! Do you know what the brothers Shashi and Ravi Ruia (hence the company name Essar) look like? No. And their bank default is close to R49,000 crore.

That man from Bhopal I briefly helped set up a newspaper walked away without paying salaries for months to young and old men and women, who'd even moved from other cities to work in Bombay, with no way to pay rents, let alone manage other essentials. God knows where he is. Mallya, Modi, Roy are on Netflix, because they would have once loved to. Just not this way!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 07 October, 2020 06:57 IST

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