Making of a scam: Up close with 'Bad Boy Billionaires'

Making of a Scam: Up Close with Bad Boy Billionaires
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This seems to be a ‘season of scams’ for the Indian audience. After a long wait. Netflix has released the investigative docuseries Bad Boy Billionaires after a legal battle that prevented the airing of the part on the Satyam Computers boss Ramalinga Raju. Three episodes, The King of Good Times (on liquor baron Vijay Mallya), Diamonds are not Forever (on diamantaire Nirav Modi) and The World’s Biggest Family (on Sahara chairman Subroto Roy) have been released.

In quick succession, Hansal Mehta who had made movies such as Shahid, Aligarh and City Lights has released his 9-part series on stock broker Harshad Mehta titled Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story on Sony Liv.

Hollywood and American TV had produced a bunch of films based on famous scams and scamsters. Indian screen was late to document the scams that rocked the country in a way that captures the public imagination. Flicks such as Wall Street, Margin Call and The Big Short brought out the details of the big stock market and financial scams that took place in the US.

Harshad Mehta: Criminal or Victim?

Scam 1992 begins with stockbroker “Big Bull” Harshad Mehta’s humble beginning when he barely understood how the stock market functions. It takes you through the years that shaped India into a liberalised economy and the world’s favourite investment destination. Stock market that rode on “sentiments” that are either spontaneous or manufactured acted as a barometer of how the aspirational nation was doing on a daily basis.

Being the son of a modest businessman who had burnt his fingers in textile business, Harshad Mehta knew what failure looks like. Though an eternal dreamer who considered himself as the Amitabh Bachhan of the stock markets, Mehta was quickly sucked into a whirlpool of fame, money and greed. In the messy yet slow world where elite cartels conducted shady businesses by keeping everyone else at bay, he could sneak in and clearly dig out the opportunities to lure those with millions of cash and invest their money to create wealth, for himself and for others. His meteoric rise and the fall from the top created ripples in the Indian economy that lasted for a decade. The crash that he single-handedly made in the stock market was the biggest in history. The scam that he engineered was indeed India’s biggest.

The screenplay of Scam 1992 based on the book on the Harshad Mehta scam ‘The Scam: Who Won, who Lost, who Got Away’ by journalist Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu simplifies the whole scam of which nobody at that time could figure out the details—neither the nature and extent of it nor how they pulled it off. Media and the analysts, depending on where their sympathies lie, called it a stock market scam, financial scam, banking scam or simply The Harshad Mehta scam.

Scam 1992
A still from Scam 1992.

Dalal had published a series of investigative pieces in The Times of India on how Harshad Mehta and others were cleverly using the loopholes in a financial system that was dogged by the slow processes of the ‘analogue era’. Contrary to the current times, the stories were thoroughly fact checked and loose ends were eliminated. Even the word ‘scam’ that was not in circulation in the Indian context was used with abundant caution.

Throughout the nine parts, Mehta delves into just the level of detail required to explain the goings on, without indulging in an overdose of financial jargon. As everyone was learning in the process, including those who were behind the massive scam, it makes a clear case for explaining the modus operandi as it evolves. Every character has his or her own existence. They argue their case well, be it Harshad’s accomplice Bhushan who makes some quick bucks when Harshad was sinking or the RBI governor who has a trick or two on when and how to create the right noises even though he did not quite have the mandate. We are clear what motivates them to do what they do, looking beyond the binary of criminal vs victim.

Actor Pratik Gandhi’s version of Harshad Mehta is self-styled sans melodrama. He has tried not to mimic the original whose interviews and press conferences are available on YouTube. His brother, wife, mother and the rest of the Mehta family come across as rooted and attached to one another, even while Harshad was flying high in terms of wealth and the luxuries he was collecting. Journalist Sucheta Dalal (played by Shreya Dhanwanthary) anchors the story, painfully putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Her colleagues

After Harshad Mehta went behind bars and eventually breathed his last in custody in 2001, India changed the way it conducted business through a gamut of fundamental changes. Reforms were brought in to increase the efficiency of the processes, to fast track the transactions and to eliminate loopholes. However, a new crop of scamsters took birth in the digital era. 

Kings of good times

Nirav Modi, a diamantaire and his uncle and guru Mehul Choksi influenced two junior officers at a Punjab National Bank branch in Mumbai to take huge amounts of unsecured loans by presenting a piece of paper called ‘Letter of Undertaking’ similar to the bank receipts or BRs that Harshad Mehta used to furnish in exchange of huge tracts of money from banks such as SBI and NHB. He then invested this money in the stock market to generate profits. That India's banking and financial markets had gone fully digital and networked didn’t help things.

As we go through the stories in the Netflix series Bad Boy Billionaires, we see that though things have changed for the better, there are still shady wheeler-dealers, corrupt officials and overambitious, greedy businessmen who invent newer ways to trick the system and pocket public money. All the three businessmen who worked on different domains become birds of the same feather when it comes to how they approached public money and made merry with borrowed money. As some of the interviewees in the series suggest, they are babies who loved their toys. In their journey towards lofty dreams, they eventually fell on account of their own hubris.

Vijay Mallya

King of Good Times chronicles Vijay Mallya’s rise from a spoilt son of a billionaire to a self-assured businessman who diversified the family business to airlines, motor sports, derby and cricket. From introducing the first drought beer and creating the pub culture that changed the image of the sleepy, retirement town called Bangalore, to changing the rules of the airlines industry in which low-cost, no-frills flying was the norm, Mallya truly lived up to the tagline of his flagship product.

Director Dylan Mohan Gray shows the man in all his glamour, living in denial despite seeing the writing on the wall. Then you see the other side of the glitter too. When the families of his employees were starving and committing suicide without receiving their salaries for months together, he was throwing a gala event on his 60th birthday with Enrique Iglesias in concert. Some curious bytes by Mallya’s friends, well wishers and critics help in presenting a picture of who he actually was.

Nirav Modi’s beginning and his ascent to the top was not documented as meticulously as the makers had done with Mallya’s, thanks to the secretive world of diamond traders from which all others are kept away. Director Johanna Hamilton presents Nirav Modi as a man wedded to quality and craftsmanship as much as a passion for amassing wealth. Snippets of Modi explaining his creation with the details of everything that goes into making an exquisite necklace or bangle and the employees explaining how well Modi treated his employees stand in contrast to his dubious, collateral-free loans taken against worthless letters of undertaking.

Director Nick Read’s episode The World’s Biggest Family wraps up the first season of this series. In this part, a man who travels through the villages in his scooter and collects small sums of money from farmers and labourers promising them returns that no bank or other financial institution in the country could offer. He built the largest community of small investors in the country (and probably the world too) and called it a family—Sahara India Parivar. The man, Subroto Roy, who was fondly called Saharasri built a business empire of airlines, media empire with newspapers, magazines and TV channels and several other businesses, on the back of the small investments made by three crore in his chit fund scheme. The episode, along with the Nirav Modi one, points to a sentiment that we see being misused today in all the fields, from business to politics: national pride.

Bad Boy Billionaires

All the three tycoons at some point considered themselves larger than life whose momentum simply can’t be halted. They thrived and indulged themselves on public money. While Mallya and Modi made their brands count in the world of business, Subroto Roy was in a journey to build his own cult where he is the King or god to millions.

After watching both Scam 1992 and Bad Boy Billionaires, if you see a balanced view of these scams or even feel sympathetic towards these conmen, you are not alone. You indeed feel sorry for these men who had a good chance of living a dignified life but they had consciously started their downward journey disregarding the risks.

(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here)

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