Despite its flaws and lack of political context, the new series on Netflix is a much-needed breakthrough in documentary making.
Subrata Roy and Vijay Mallya at a news conference in New Delhi, October 11, 2011. Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files
Somewhere towards the end of the second episode of Bad Boy Billionaires, on the fugitive businessman Nirav Modi, Manoj Kharat, a clerk in Punjab National Bank, says, “My life is over, I am half-dead anyway.” Kharat was the man who entered data given by his boss Gokulnath Shetty in the Fort branch of the bank, from where Modi’s empire was funded. The letters of undertaking kept on being issued from this branch, with no backing of collateral or security.
It was on the basis of these LoUs, totally amounting to an astounding $1.8 billion dollars, that Modi built a network of stores in New York, London, Hong Kong and Beijing, held lavish parties, bought top-end homes and art. The many models he signed up to show off his designs too were indirectly paid for by this bank and thus, finally by small depositors. The cream of Mumbai society attended his soirées where the champagne was flowing; no one really asking where he was getting the money from to expand so quickly. As we see repeatedly in this series, the cream of society – rich and dense – doesn’t ask questions, it just goes with the flow.
Kharat was jailed for three months – “It is another kind of hell,” he says. He is a mere footnote in this larger story of glitter and dazzle. There is every likelihood that he and his boss, middle-class office-goers – were never invited to those parties even though they were facilitating Modi’s illicit fortunes.
Each of the three released episodes in the series, on Modi, Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy, show the stories of those who suffered the most while the men became richer and richer – small income men and women, trying to increase their modest amounts in the hope that it will give them a better life. Each of the stories is heart-rending.
But this is ultimately a series about the rich and famous. Netflix would never have bought a pitch about a series called Manoj Kharat, or for that matter, Punam Gupta, the articulate agent for Sahara’s chit funds – which was little more than a Ponzi scheme – who found it difficult to access the funds she had got her neighbours in a Mumbai slum to deposit with the company. But all three episodes have given a platform to the voices of those who have suffered a lot, while telling the stories of these scamsters – there is no other word for them. Sahara’s is the most interesting story, and the sharpest made episode, with Mallya following – for all his diamonds and the scale of the fraud, Modi is a dull, every day scamster. The documentary on him is in the same vein, being little more than a montage of his promotional films.