Netflix’s Bad Boy Billionaires: India is slick but doesn’t cut deep enough into the crimes of the uber-rich
There’s some smart storytelling on display in Bad Boy Billionaires: India; if only the stories themselves reached for our gut, perhaps in the way Netflix’s own show Dirty Money often did.
The stories of billionaires in India, it turns out, aren’t all that different to one another. Who would have thought? (Hint: Everyone)
Netflix show Bad Boy Billionaires: India – an anthology series documenting the successes and shenanigans of some of India’s most infamous ultra rich – caught an eyeball or three with its rather sensational trailer, and then got caught up in a legal battle with Ramalinga Raju (of Satyam in-fame) right before its planned release on the streaming platform.
The show is finally out, without the Ramalinga Raju episode, leaving you with three other bad billionaire antics to binge on – that of liquor-airline-sport baron Vijay Mallya, celebrity diamantaire Nirav Modi and head of ‘the World’s Largest Family’ (their words), Sahara India’s Subrata Roy respectively.
Dutifully backed by the treatment and scale necessary to match the enormity of the scandals surrounding the subjects in question, the show is slick in feel and quick in pace. Familiar, and mostly credible, faces step in to offer some perspective, while sharply cut archival broadcast footage from some of our favourite TV news channels is somehow used to simultaneously lend authenticity and escalate the drama. (Yup, TV news puts the ‘moron’ in ‘oxymoron’.)
Yet, the show simply doesn’t go deep enough. It remains content with serving a sort of saucy chronology of events, rather than cutting open the underbelly and shedding light upon the system that enables the ultra rich to game it, violate it, sometimes mutilate it, and still get away with it, leaving in their wake a million sufferings of all shapes and sizes.
Take the Vijay Mallya episode, for instance. Because the man lived so much of his life in the public eye, staking a claim for the spotlight at every turn, much of his story will be familiar – wealth, ambition, booze, airplanes, race cars, models, celebrities, parties, the works. (You almost expect Shobhaa De to turn up and give her cent-and-a-half, and of course she does.)
Mallya’s episode shows us the inheritance from his father that started it all, his love for a lavish lifestyle, his desire to be a global figure, his audacious borrowing and spending, Formula 1, IPL, his unpaid airline employees going on strike – everything that has played out in headlines over his lifetime. Directed by Indian-Canadian documentary filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, the Mallya episode sheds little new light on the billionaire’s excesses.
Surely, there’s more that we don’t know, and that’s where the episode (and show) falls short. It just doesn’t offer enough of a fresh perspective or insight. (In comparison, Gray’s 2013 documentary Fire in the Blood is a scary, scathing look at how Big Pharma has the ‘Global South’ in its vice-like grip.) Here, the cinematic B-roll, lovely drone photography and dramatised scenes are great visual aids, but they cannot compensate for the lack of genuine discovery.
Instead, the makers take a daring decision, something that remains a common feature through all episodes, and the show’s most interesting and debatable narrative choice. Among the talking heads, there’s always one voice in there that appears to be an emotional advocate for the poor billionaire in question.
In Mallya’s case it is his son Siddharth. For Nirav Modi, it is advertising director Vishesh Verma, who shot a lot of Modi’s splashy jewellery ad campaigns, while for ‘Saharashri’ (#eyeroll) Subrata Roy, the voice of emotion is one of his close aides, Vivek Kumar. (The other two episodes are directed by Johanna Hamilton and Nick Reed, respectively.)
So, on one side, news snippets combined with voices such as Raghu Karnad and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta gives us a historical or social perspective of the story, while on the other, a ‘voice of emotion’ steps in, not to offer a spirited defense of the ostensibly indefensible, but instead to offer us an exalted, rosy-eyed view of the Whole Sordid Affair™.
While the attempt to provide ‘the other side’ with a platform is an admirable one, I’d have preferred a balanced argument where both sides offer cold, hard facts or even incisively articulated opinion, instead of their cheesy, chewy feelings. If the show remains watchable throughout, it’s because it looks good, and while each episode details the billionaire’s rise with gusto, you’re on tenterhooks about the fall – that precise moment when things start to go wrong for the subject of the episode, before the whole edifice comes crashing down for the world to see.
There’s some smart storytelling on display; if only the stories themselves reached for our gut, perhaps in the way Netflix’s own show Dirty Money often did. Over two seasons, Dirty Money offers a stinging indictment of names such as Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Donald Trump and even Jared Kushner. Bad Boy Billionaires: India is rather tame in comparison. If these three episodes are anything to go by, Ramalinga Raju really has nothing to worry about.
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