When we were young, an old saying kept repeating itself from people who had it made: making your first million is always the hardest.

From the experience of these gentlemen, it was always smooth sailing from then onwards… that is, if you discount sleepless nights of expanding or sustaining businesses, or dismiss the folklore that money always attracts illnesses (newsflash: illness happen to the rich and the old just the same).

But what if you’re born with a silver spoon? Your millions already made? How do you grow from that … or rather: arrested by burning megalomaniacal ambition, who do you turn into?

The three culprits in the new Netflix documentary Bad Boy Billionaires: India will likely be prime candidates for harrowing life lessons (the series originally had four episodes; one was pulled out on court orders).

There is cautionary life lesson in Bad Boy Billionaires: India. But watching the drama unfold of the undoing of these uber-rich swindlers makes for thrilling viewing

Of the three, each is divided into one episode, Vijay Mallya — the purported ‘king of good times’ — I already knew about. The third, Subrata Roy — or rather, as he preferred to be called, Sahara Shri (Sahara means support, Shri means respected) — I had heard about and seen in the campaigns on Indian television back when the channels were allowed here. The second, Nirav Modi, I may have read of.

What I didn’t read were the astronomical numbers associated with these people.

Ever so often, a screaming news anchor (the kind that populate even the nooks and crannies of Indian media) would flash an incredulous number that, at first glance, looked as if it came out of an uber-rich family of an Indian saas-bahu daily soap: 11,000 crores anchor one screams; 74,000 crores, a bulletin reports.

With loans mostly pilfered from government-owned banks, seeing Mallya or Modi bypass the checks and balances of the system with underhand tactics wasn’t a novel revelation. Like any ambitious man in power and the spotlight, they had the desire to go big.

Roy, the owner of the Sahara Group — the Sahara India Pariwar — is in a different (and if you believe the findings of the documentary), more sinister-minded league.

Roy started young, riding a blue Vespa scooter into small towns, where he gave low-income underprivileged people an eye-opening offer: invest just 10 rupees daily in a ‘chit-fund’, see your profits grow and earn three times on interest.

A little background on this first: chit-funds are basically unregistered banks, or in legalese: RNBCs (residuary non-banking companies). As privately-listed companies, their internal matters are hard to scrutinise by the government. The scam, however, is bigger. Every participant in the fund is deemed an employee of the Sahara Group (ergo, the Pariwar — family — aspect), and as employees they have to persuade others to invest meagre sums daily, otherwise the chain would stop, and one’s own rate of interest would not go up. This is called a pyramid scheme, and it’s one of the smarter cons in the world. Now back to the story.

Money started piling in and, in two decades, Sahara became a power-brand, owning cricket and Formula-One teams, launching airlines, television networks, real-estate ventures, IT, you name it.

Like most billionaires, Roy shifted to a gargantuan estate with miles-long pathways, helicopter pads and a house that mimicked the design of the American White House. Sporting dyed hair, a constant uniform of white shirt with a sleeveless vest and shades, Roy walked with the swagger of a South Indian movie villain. If one isn’t convinced by his look, arial shots of his real estate, and the billions he filched from the still-running chit-fund, legitimise the image.

Engaging documentaries do that: they legitimise their points of view.

Unlike popular convention, documentaries don’t just report facts; it’s a creative art form that carries forward the filmmaker’s conviction … or in more commercial ventures, “document the values” of the conglomerates that have hired them. But that’s a debate for another day.

Roy’s story, in the climatic episode, stood out from the others because he cheated people from low-income households. The chit-funds he established never paid anyone back, no matter how hard one pleaded, or if family members died in hospitals. It’s a harrowing display of one’s lack of compunction.

Roy falls hard, when he is forced to publicly register his companies in a new bid to grow his endeavours, but the tactics he employed even then are, literally, out of a South Indian movie. His 50-odd minute episode goes by in a flash (actually, every episode is just as engaging).

Although, mostly the same, each episode is handled by a different director; one can see the difference — however minute they may be — in the rhythm of the story, the cuts, graphics, the use of text and transitions. The directors, in episode order, are: Dylan Mohan Gray (The King of Good Times); Johanna Hamilton (Diamonds Aren’t Forever), and Nick Read (The World’s Biggest Family).

There is an absolute lack of fake dramatics in the stories. For the most part, they don’t need any.

Mallya, who owned the Kingfisher alcohol brand, was done in by flamboyance. He spent millions of dollars on lavish weddings for his children (an act that did him in), expanded into the airline sector with a sexy outlook (his airhostesses were models), while silently conning the banks and his employees (he didn’t pay them).

Modi, on the other hand, is loved by his employees. Coming from a family of diamond vendors, Modi, mostly an introvert, turned his brand into a big show overnight, using the celebrity of international models, actors and actresses from Hollywood, Bollywood, South Korea and Hong Kong to expand his appeal. He wanted to rub shoulders with the Cartiers of the world. His biggest con was purposeful inflation of the cost of his diamonds, and bribery of a bank’s employees.

Like I said in the beginning, there is a cautionary life lesson here: the bad always go belly-up.

Modi, now in jail, is fighting extradition in England; Mallya, whose airplanes lie rotting in a graveyard of dilapidated planes, absconded from India. Today, he also fights the courts in England. Roy, ‘a thorough patriot’, came out of Indian jail after a few years, visibly old. His company has yet to pay its employees.

A quick Wikipedia search would give one the backstories of these uber-rich conmen. But watching the drama unfold is something else. Thrilling and thoroughly recommended.

Streaming now on Netflix, Bad Boy Billionaires: India is rated 13+ (TV-14). There’s nothing atrocious in the series, other than the people headlining each episode, or their smart cons

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 29th, 2020

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