'Is Vijay Mallya the devil incarnate? I don't think so': Dylan Mohan Gray on his segment in Bad Boy Billionaires
Dylan Mohan Gray, who directed the Vijay Mallya segment of Netflix's docu series Bad Boy Millionaires, says, 'I didn't want to enter with any preconceived notions. Even now I don't see him as a 'hero' or a 'villain'. I see him as a complex individual.'
Dylan Mohan Gray is not very fond of the word 'series' being used to describe Bad Boy Billionaires (on Netflix).
"I look at these as individual films, so I prefer anthology," he says during a phone conversation as we discuss his much talked-about film - King Of Good Times, the pilot that charts the fall from grace of liquor baron, Vijay Mallya. "A lot of people want these stories to unfurl like a 360-degree expose on a scam, that's not exactly what these are. It's about a human journey. But is he the devil incarnate? I don't think so," Gray says.
Having got widespread recognition for his 2013 debut, Fire In The Blood — a film that explores pharmaceutical MNCs using patent monopolies to obstruct the availability of generic versions of AIDS medicine in third-world African and Asian countries — Gray is no stranger to institutional apathy. And yet, the more he immersed himself into the research around Vijay Mallya, the more fascinated he became with the many contradictions. From the largely positive reception to some relatively irrational feedback ("why did you let Vijay Mallya's son speak?"), Gray opened up on the controversial documentary. Edited excerpts:
What attracted you towards the Vijay Mallya story?
My first impression was - flashy rich guy, a playboy-type; I've been living in India through the entire saga, so I felt that the story was fairly well-known. And once I started digging deeper and deeper into Mallya, I found that this person is not who he pretends to be in public. He's quite different. And the story isn't well-known. As someone who was vaguely familiar with what the story was, I found that it had been mis-portrayed in many ways. Here, I was confident that I could get a lot of (visual) material, which I wasn't confident about in the other cases. When I started talking to people, I found that they'd been quite — don't want to say brainwashed — but they were really indoctrinated by the media. I also found that there was a significantly higher level of interest in Vijay Mallya, than there was in some of the other names that were being discussed. Also, if you look at the character of Vijay Mallya, I was able to get much closer to the man compared to some of the others, because he's known to be comfortable with being critcised.
Did you consider interviewing Vijay Mallya himself?
Yes, we looked at it. But there were legal problems considering his case was still ongoing. I think it would have been beneficial to find out about his early life, because there was very little archive material (audio/video/print) with respect to that. People can obviously fill in the blanks, like for example Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has this immense amount of credibility, but I would also have liked to hear from the man himself.
If he was in the film, people might say that he's using it as a platform to defend himself. I understood that both these sides will resist any attempts to humanise this figure. So it was a balance that we had to strike. I didn't want to enter with any preconceived notions, except for the impression I had of the man, which was already pretty negative. And you know, even now I don't see him as a 'hero' or a 'villain'. I see him as a complex individual.
Is there anything during your research about Vijay Mallya that took you by surprise?
Many things. First of all, we always see this side of him where he's the party guy, he hangs around with young women. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and sort of coasting along, surrounded himself with 'yes men'. But all these things turned out to be false. As everybody will tell you, that he has an absolute photographic memory, he's extremely knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. He's really into breeding horses and trading them, and we shot an entire segment on this that we didn't end up using in the film. He's got hundreds of horses, and he remembers every race result of all the horses by heart. He knows the name of virtually every employee that has worked for him, he remembers their phone numbers. Even someone with the credibility of Vir Sanghvi will tell you that Vijay Mallya will meet you after 25 years, and still remember your phone number. He speaks about seven languages. He slept very little, he would call his employees through the night.
And that's something that really made me curious as to why would he go around parading this playboy image, when he also craved a certain amount of respect for his intellect. For eg: he arranged an honourary doctorate from a little-known institute in California for himself, so that people would call him Dr Mallya. If you want to be respected for your intellect, but at the same time you're also putting on a façade of a lightweight party-boy, it's a little strange. People always kept saying that he got the alcohol business handed to him on a platter by his father, and that in India it's difficult to lose money in alcohol, which also has an element of truth to it. So, he took it upon himself to start something new, which was his own. He had a great business plan, he hired excellently. Then the initial success went to his head, and apart from that there were also factors outside of his control, like the 2008 Wall Street crash, a huge jump in crude prices, the taxes levied on the aviation industry. There was a miscalculation, and that's something he should have known. It was really an ego trip, while most others just stood around thinking maybe he really is the man with the Midas touch - which wasn't true.
As a documentary filmmaker, do you set limits to how deep you'll go once you start going down the rabbit hole?
This was an interesting experience for me, considering this was a film that I wouldn't have made on my own. Netflix came to me, and I had to think what I could do to tell this story in a compelling fashion. What was interesting to me about the Vijay Mallya story was that it could be a vehicle for discussing many things (India's drinking culture, prohibition, liberalisation). Netflix was really particular about the role of Kingfisher Airlines being highlighted in the whole scheme of things. This film is as much about the airlines as it is about Vijay Mallya. It's not a Vijay Mallya biopic, it's not a film about the banking practices in India per se, it's about the dream project - Kingfisher Airlines. There were other things that I felt strongly about, but were not in the final film. It was critical to Netflix that the film be around one hour. My cut, which was about 85 minutes, covered a few more narrative threads.
You touch upon how some of the fury against Mallya might be political vendetta. As a filmmaker, how do you mount a documentary of this nature, without diluting the protagonist's wrongdoings?
To be honest, there was no set agenda to paint him as a victim or a criminal. It's a murky story, and as someone who's researched the guy quite comprehensively, we sifted through many facts, asked a lot of hard questions, read through the court judgements, which ran into thousands of pages. The case is subjudice, so nobody knows if he will come back to the country. But it's not an open-and-shut case as it has been portrayed in the media.
That's the only thing I can say with certainty. There's a lot of bluster around the case, if I were in his shoes, would feel equally aggrieved about. But then he's in this situation because of his own actions. People ask why you didn't name politicians, that's obviously never going to happen unless we can substantiate it with proof.
What was your reaction to the legal proceedings against the show? Were you expecting it? Were you surprised?
Well, I wasn't part of it. Since Netflix was the one in court, fighting it. But what I can say, is that long before I even got attached to the project, there were numerous consultations with lawyers from London, India, Singapore. As my experience in the past has taught me, legal matters can be quite strict and the legal system in India has always tended to favour the powerful people. I think there was definitely some expectation that there would be challenges, it's kind of obvious when you're talking about rich and powerful people.
What is it like being a documentary filmmaker in the post-truth era?
Documentary filmmaking has always been a challenging vocation. And yet, some are saying that this is the golden age of documentaries. It's partly because of the dearth of investigative journalism in newspapers and TV. That responsibility has been partly passed over to documentary filmmakers. The intent is to offer a nuanced portrait of a man, rather than guiding them to a pre-set conclusion.
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