Vijay Mallya: From Indian idol to evil seth

Vijay Mallya is everyone's favourite whipping boy these days. The good time king is indeed an emperor with no clothes. First his lack of business acumen was laid bare as his empire started falling apart. Now with the suicide of his employee's wife, he stands exposed as heartless. It's hard to remember that not so long ago, he was the king of the hill, our iconic corporate hero. Even for my mother.

The day I understood the old socialist mindset in India was truly dying when my mother announced she liked Vijay Mallya. She had decided she would fly nothing but Kingfisher anymore. She loved the service, the smart airhostesses, the fancy food. But most of all she liked the king of good times himself, exuding larger-than-life bonhomie.

"Vijay Mallya himself welcomes everyone aboard," she said admiringly. The first time I flew Kingfisher I found the little videotaped welcome spiel by the big boss a little creepy especially the bit where he assures us he personally selected every member of the service staff. I felt like I had strayed into Playboy mansion with Hugh Hefner welcoming me.

The man who was the poster boy of the goodies of capitalism has become the ultimate Bollywoodish caricature of the evil seth.

But I put aside my qualms. The service was excellent especially after a lifetime of indifferent Indian Airlines. When American friends complained about how shoddy United Airlines and American Airlines were becoming, I boasted "You should come to India and fly Kingfisher." You couldn't say that with confidence about too many other things in India. The braggadocio of Vijay Mallya gave the rest of us bragging rights as well.

Mallya seemed pitch perfect in tune with a new aspirational post-liberalisation India where bikinis, booze and racing cars were A-OK. He taught us that you didn't need to apologise for the good life, you only needed the balls to live it.

That good life has imploded. But what's mind-boggling is that its messenger is still partying like it's 2004. Vijay Mallya, once pitch perfect, is now completely tone deaf. As his airline thrashes in its death throes he was busy tweeting about his golf swings while his son, who calls himself the "purveyor of fine mischief" on Twitter, chortled about the #KingfisherCalendarHunt in Goa.

@sidharthamallya : Just spent the morning playing volleyball with 12 bikini clad models on the I understand why people hate me. HA!

You got that right, dude. As Firstpost's Anant Rangaswami wrote then:

One is not suggesting, for a moment that Messrs Mallya, father and son, go into mourning and stop living the good life. But can they abstain from updating the 'good times' that they're experiencing?

The suicide of the Kingfisher technician's distraught wife has just thrown matters into even sharper relief.

One of his pilots told the Economic Timesthat while Mallya seems to still have time for cricket, racing and yachting, he's yet to pay his condolences. "The management has blood on their hands. They were trying to brush the suicide under the carpet since the morning," Vikrant Patkar, a KFA pilot told ET.

Mind you, Vijay Mallya was happy to pontificate about "a disgraceful degradation of the highest platform of our democracy" after the scuffle in the Rajya Sabha in early September. At that time he demanded "a strict code of conduct." Of course, that applies to everyone but him.

So does Mallya have blood on his hands? Legally, perhaps not. Economic despair drives many people to suicide as do bad examination results and failed relationships. One cannot haul every boss, every teacher, every ex-lover to court for abetting suicide. But Mallya is such a prisoner of his own machismo, so enamoured of the idea of going down in a blaze of glory, he is unwilling to even acknowledge the pain of employees who haven't been paid their salaries in seven months. Worse, TheVijayMallya rubs in his golfing and dining into the faces of his employees who are getting kicked out of their homes because they cannot pay their rent.

His last tweet was all about his own vainglory.

The media are having a great time slamming me. Let them continue their wild and inaccurate speculation. I will prove all of them wrong.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. This Nero actually helped set his Rome on fire. Now he parties while his employees go on candlelight marches.

The man who was the poster boy of the goodies of capitalism has become the ultimate Bollywoodish caricature of the evil seth. He was a staple villain of socialist India in Hindi films - the fat cat industrialist who laughed Ha Ha Ha at his workers' misfortunes, put profits above propriety and lolled in his den with his diamond rings and Vat 69 and assorted molls while the hero's widowed mother scrounged for chapatis. In Mallya's case, life is imitating art many times over.

However there is one critical difference between the two. We knew that Bollywood seth was a villain the moment he showed up on screen and glowered through his outsize shades. But we lionised Mallya because his celebration of excess felt liberating to a generation that had grown up in a penny-pinching straitjacket.

These days Mallya has few friends who want to speak up for him in public. We want to see him hauled to court in sackcloth and ashes. And the chorus is growing louder by the day. But I suspect it is as loud as it is not just because Mallya's sins are so outlandishly egregious, but because we don't want to remember about how much we once wanted to become him.

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 12:30 PM

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