Director: Dylan Mohan Gray
Cinematographers: Brendan Easton, Luke Menges, Jonathan Partridge
Editors: Dominic Coke, David Fairhead, Tom Herington
Streaming on: Netflix

Some shows arrive before they arrive. Bad Boy Billionaires: India has been in the news over the last month because of the lawsuits slapped on it by the “bad boys” themselves. The Netflix documentary series – detailing the rise and fall of four notorious Indian business magnates – is finally streaming on the platform. With a Bihar District Court vacating its own injunction after Subrata Roy’s plea was dismissed, three of the series’ four episodes – on Kingfisher’s Vijay Mallya, jeweller Nirav Modi and Sahara’s Roy – are now available. The fourth episode, on Satyam’s Ramalinga Raju, is unavailable because of a separate injunction by a Hyderabad court. Given the legal tussle and the general clampdown on artistic expression in the country, it’s natural to pre-like the series for what it signifies: Speaking truth to power, journalistic scrutiny and a dissection of (in)famous legacies.

But I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “investigative”. The narratives tell us what we already know. They simply help the viewers join the dots, and streamline the information into a coherent narrative by putting human faces – from both the inside and the outside – to these stories. It’s also important to remember that one of the reasons these three episodes – ominously titled The King of Good Times, Diamonds Aren’t Forever and The World’s Biggest Family – can exist today is because the once-powerful subjects are either absconding or behind bars. We’d be hard-pressed to find probing articles or films about prominent industrialists and politicians still in power. That’s not to say such non-fiction documentaries are lesser than those that challenge the currentness of the world. But it’s better to view shows like Bad Boy Billionaires and Dirty Money as cautionary capsules of history rather than provocative examinations of systemic rot.

There’s no escaping the fact that, despite being helmed by different filmmakers, the episodes of Bad Boy Billionaires follow a fixed template. They begin with flashes of the end: headlines and dramatic news footage paint the fall, before the episode settles into a quiet rise. The bite-off-more-than-they-can-chew arc is common. The talking heads, too, have a pattern: journalists, social commentators, critics and victims reflect the public perception of the offenders. Family members, celebrity friends and ex-company employees represent the private dimension. One side questions, the other side debunks those questions. One side speaks, the other side sympathizes. What this does is offer a fuller view of a controversial life, while reminding the viewer that loyalty and love have little to do with morality and justice. It’s not easy – or in some cases, necessary – to humanize such high-profile subjects. But the separate viewpoints, irrespective of bias and bloodline, help us understand that no criminal exists in a vacuum. No person is born deceptive.

But I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “investigative”. The narratives tell us what we already know. They simply help the viewers join the dots, and streamline the information into a coherent narrative by putting human faces – from both the inside and the outside – to these stories.

The problem with having a template, though, is that the latter episodes – depending on the sequence we prefer – are inherently at a disadvantage. By the time we reach the second episode, the novelty and magnitude of the language has worn off; we know what to expect, we know how the tide turns. In my case, I went in numerical order – starting with the Mallya story, followed by Modi and Roy – as a result of which I found The King of Good Times to be a far more perceptive take on infamy. The documentary does a better job of lending context to Vijay Mallya’s rise, and therefore painting him as an egoistic visionary rather than just an extravagant con-artist. In fact, for most part Mallya appears as a liberal hero – a rebel with a cause – up against the villainous face of India’s conservative prohibition culture. The narrative is designed to construct Mallya as a reactionary clutter-breaker in an uptight country. The film rarely shies away from suggesting that people like Mallya fight so hard to break the taboos and reverse the regression of an entire land that by the time they succeed, they feel invincible enough to blur the lines between ambition and arrogance. If they survived bureaucratic angst, it’s only natural for them to feel that they can do anything – money laundering, deceit, abuse. 

The Modi and Roy segments are not as curious about the complicity of the environment in the making of a scam. The three directors are all acclaimed documentarians: Dylan Mohan Gray was responsible for the excellent medical exposé Fire in the Blood, Johanna Hamilton is an Emmy-winning filmmaker whose credits include the peerless 1971, and Nick Read was behind the disruptive Bolshoi Babylon. But while an “outsider” gaze tends to provide a more objective perspective of local life, this is a rare case in which Dylan Mohan Gray’s Indian roots might have created just the right amount of distance from a legacy based on the very subversion of Indianness.

But it’s not wise to judge Bad Boy Billionaires as a collection of individual pieces. The pieces, actually, belong to a whole. The recurring themes start to stand out: Two of them defraud government banks, the third becomes a surrogate bank. All three prey on a population’s deep-seated resentment against the status quo – and a distrust of administrations. It’s always the government that goes after them, but it isn’t an act of altruistic justice (millions are still owed money) so much as a bitter act of revenge for revealing its own system of corrupt fools. When we hear Mallya’s son, Siddarth, blame the system’s scapegoat syndrome, it’s not an entirely emotional stance. The three become the proverbial Icaruses who flew too close to the sun, but that crippling desire to see the sun – from beyond the third-world darkness – is perhaps what marks their doomed flights.

The series, by embracing the nature of a post-mortem documentary, also reveals a distinctly Indian trait. For decades, we as a people have suffered from a colonial-era inferiority complex. When Indian businesses or citizens do well in the West, we feel a sense of pride. The pride is not so much a result of patriotism as the age-old obsession to be seen – and recognized, and admired – on the world stage. Validation from the West is still our ultimate measure of success. The Oscars are an example of this thirst to go global. So when we notice jewellers like Modi making a splash in New York and London, when we watch Mallya buy an F1 team, when we see Roy demand the attention of foreign presidents, this pride overwhelms our instinct to rationalise their success.

When they make it, we don’t ask how. We want them – and by extension, ourselves – to turn the heads of the First World. We love when they appear in the “Planet’s Richest People” lists. At the back of our minds, we know it’s usually by crook over hook, we know it’s too good to be true – but we are too blinded by the sun to question its heat. In the process, we become responsible for their journey. For their damning urge to take India to the high streets. If anything, Bad Boy Billionaires: India refuses to separate the “I” from the rest of India. After all, a vulture is often the consequence of a culture. 

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