Interviews of key people like Sidhartha Vijay Mallya, Shobha De add little value to giving any insights to the subject of the episode.

Vijay Mallya surrounded by reporters in LondonScreenshot/Netflix
Flix OTT Friday, October 09, 2020 - 12:36

Netflix has been building up Bad Boy Billionaires as an "investigative docu series" and has run into several controversies and legal entanglements. Among the 'bad boys' featured is liquor baron Vijay Mallya, who is currently absconding from India. Suitably, the episode is titled The King of Good Times and is directed by Dylan Mohan Gray.

The King opens with one of Mallya's extravagant parties with high profile guests extolling his generosity and passion for all things grand. This sets the theme for the rest of the episode. Footage from his lavish parties go on to establish how his glamorous guests adored Mallya. But the pomp, as we go on to realise, wasn't incidental but deliberate.

The documentary does a fine job of capturing the early years of Mallya with interviews of his childhood friends like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairperson and Managing Director of Biocon Limited. For a brief while, we catch a glimpse of his childhood and the formation of his flamboyant personality. (Flamboyant is a word you come across often in the episode). These insights from those who've known him for a long time add perspective to his business and personal styles. The archival footage used as well as interviews of a younger Mallya help viewers, who have only known the businessman through news channels, understand him better. 

The difference in personalities between Vijay and his father, Vittal Mallya, and their business styles is clearly established. While his father was mostly low profile and conservative, the narrative also speaks about Vijay Mallya coming out of his successful father’s shadow to become wealthier but in complete contrast to him. Vijay Mallya’s need for public recognition and how he carefully built an image as a flashy, unapologetic and self-obsessed businessman is well portrayed.

And it's not just his father. We also see how this image set Mallya apart from his contemporaries. The narration draws a parallel between the changing Indian economy and Mallya’s growth in business. At a time when most successful businessmen were publicly conservative and modest about their wealth and lifestyle, Mallya broke the mould by flaunting and advertising his excessive lifestyle. And once he saw the effect it had on the Indian middle class, his life became the centrepiece of his brand, Kingfisher. He then leveraged the aspirations of the middle class to make luxury seem more accessible. 

While talking about his venture into the airline business too, the episode has copious interviews detailing how he was so closely involved in building Kingfisher into a ‘world-class’ brand where ‘only models who were handpicked by Mallya were employed as air hostesses’. 

However, the focus on the years post 2010-11, when his business empire started to crumble, seems to just touch the surface of how a series of miscalculations and callous business decisions devastated the lives of Kingfisher’s employees and stakeholders. While interviews with Mallya’s friends mostly blame the public sector banks more than Mallya himself for piling up his debts, more time could have been spent on how Mallya accomplished this. How did he manage to convince bankers to loan him huge sums of money with some very unconventional collaterals? Using the Kingfisher brand, an intangible asset, as collateral for loans is a good case in point.  

An interview with Neeraj Monga, a former analyst with Veritas Investment Research, the company that initially blew the lid off the financial misadventures of Kingfisher succinctly gives the viewer a picture of the financial trouble that the Kingfisher Airlines was in, without simply bombarding the audience with numbers. Interviews with two of Mallya’s former employees give an overview of the hardships that hundreds of Kingfisher’s employees in India had to face, but the impression one is left with is that there is a lot of talk and glorification of his opulent lifestyle, and the documentary just skims through the troubled years.

 Clippings of Vijay Mallya’s interviews between 2011 and 2015 show just how he continued to be stubbornly defiant even as revival plans seemed to be failing. A close aide of Mallya reveals how even when everyone wrote him off, Mallya refused to accept defeat. Reasons for his downfall like ‘he was too ambitious, too optimistic’ seem to be pushed by those close to Mallya to create the perfect setting for his son, Siddhartha, to declare that his father was just a political pawn and a mere scapegoat. 

In fact, the interviews with key people like Siddhartha and Shoba De provide little insight on the subject of the episode. At some junctures, the interviewer seems to have just given a platform to them to repeat what they have been saying all these years without any astute questions. Other interviews, like with his friends Stanley Pinto and Manoviraj Khosla, mostly serve the purpose of eulogising Mallya and downplaying his economic offences as 'missteps'. Or perhaps that's what was intended with these interviews, to show how they can still characterise him as a political scapegoat, an unfortunate victim.

Having gotten many people close to Vijay Mallya to appear in the documentary, the director could have pushed them to reveal more of what is not in the public domain. More prodding on part of the interviewer could have perhaps resulted in a better understanding of Mallya's confidence and charisma, both of which were responsible for his rise and fall. 

As it stands, anyone who has followed the Mallya story closely will find that The King of Good Times paints a too-sympathetic picture of a man whose bad business decisions affected the lives of hundreds of people. Vijay Mallya threw a lavish birthday party in Goa even as he was labelled a 'wilful defaulter' by the banks. In the documentary, Siddhartha terms this 'bad for optics', but as a journalist and viewer, I just wanted to scream: No mister, it was tragic and cruel.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.