That Bad Boy Billionaires: India was created should hardly come as a surprise. If Latin America has an infamous history with narcotics (and the successful Narcos on Netflix), then India has had quite the troubled past with financial scams. The real, pleasant surprise is that Bad Boy Billionaires, after a month of legal tussles with various Indian courts, was finally allowed to stream at all.
For months, Netflix teased audiences, promising to explore “the greed, fraud, and corruption” that surrounded some of India’s most famous tycoons – jeweller Nirav Modi, liquor baron Vijay Mallya, industrialist Subrata Roy, and entrepreneur Ramalinga Raju. Full disclosure: Bad Boy Billionaires doesn’t offer particularly new insights on these business magnates. But it works as a good refresher on the scams – and the environment that allowed them to come to be.
AT A GLANCE
- Starring: Siddharth Mallya, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, James Crabtree, Mick Brown, Shobha De
- Directed by: Dylan Mohan Gray, Johanna Hamilton, Nick Read
- Rating: * * * (3 stars)
In the first episode, we revisit ‘The King of Good Times’ Vijay Mallya and the rise and fall of his kingdom. It’s a good, strategic move to start with him, the person who put the ‘bad boy’ in ‘bad boy billionaire’. And with his reputation, Mallya also brings along prominent interviewees like childhood friend Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (quite the surprise), journalist Vir Sanghvi, author Shobhaa De, and even his party boy son, Siddharth Mallya.
Unfortunately, ‘The King of Good Times’ episode and Bad Boy Billionaires on a whole doesn’t pack the necessary punches to truly grip its audience. With a subject like this, there are two treatments that would be satisfying – a full-on throw down of the tycoons and their awful, manipulative scheming; or a strong, unwavering defence of their practices as part of a profit maximising, capitalist mentality. In trying to toe the line of objectivity, Bad Boy Billionaires simply becomes a re-hash of existing media reports (with the addition of glamorous footage and intriguing infographics).
On its own, each episode – ‘The King of Good Times’, Nirav Modi’s ‘‘Diamonds aren’t forever’, and Subrata Roy’s ‘The world’s biggest family’ – can feel like 60-minute montages of the tycoons.
When watched together, though, there’s something to be said. Each episode highlights the role of India’s public banks, and how the scams boil down to the contrivance of bank officials. Why weren’t Mallya’s finances properly ascertained before the damning Veritas report? How was Nirav Modi able to bribe officials for six years before it came to light? As much as we can loathe the bad boy billionaires, it’s hard to deny that they are part of a larger, corrupt system in India.
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Interviewees like James Crabtree (the author of The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age) are welcomingly insightful in this regard. As Modi’s diamond chapter comes to a close, Crabtree’s voiceover reminds us of the double standard in the way corruption is viewed. After all, corruption in “developing” countries like India can only be possible with the help of international financial systems (think shell companies and tax havens) of “developed” countries.
To its credit, Bad Boy Billionaires also takes into account political and economic factors. When the 2008 recession struck, Kingfisher’s ‘good times’ evolved from bad to worse. When Prime Minister Modi was elected to power in 2014, his anti-corruption stance meant that Nirav Modi had nowhere to hide. In this house of cards, if even one of these elements hadn’t taken place, who’s to say how the tycoons might’ve fared?
For those outside India and unaware of these scandals, they’re a shocking case study of what happens when the system fails. Would an Australian company ever get away with not paying its employees for over 6 months? Would Sahara’s pyramid-scheme ever work in Canada’s business environment? The odds are slim. Also, considering two of the three directors aren’t of Indian heritage, it’s likely Bad Boy Billionaires is, indeed, meant for that global audience.
Despite all these criticisms, though, the series is worth at least one watch. It may not bring new facts to light, but Bad Boy Billionaires is available for streaming precisely because of that fact – it used information already in the public domain. The fourth episode on Satyam’s Ramalinga Raju remains stuck in legal limbo, but fingers crossed it’ll see the light of day too.
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