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Web Series on Financial Fraudsters Hooks Indian Audience  

Documentary filmmakers show gritty tales of real-life scamsters in the face of threats and litigation.

“Bad Boy Billionaires,” a recent Netflix web-series on one of the biggest corporate scams in India, released on Oct. 5. The documentary has shifted the spotlight on real-life characters belonging to the country’s corporate elite and their fraudulent means to make it to the top.

Created by film director Dylan Mohan Gray, the documentary’s central character is Vijay Mallya, the fallen liquor baron of India, who owned the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines.

A car-lover who bought a Formula One team — a first in India — while his airline venture was deep in debt, Mallya is known for his flamboyant lifestyle. He is now in the UK, facing an extradition trial, as he owns roughly Rs 9000 crore ($1.2 billion) to banks.

The IMDb rating of docu-series is 8.1, above the average of seven for Indian films. These ratings allow users to rate films on a scale of one to 10.

The Indian financial ecosystem, majorly banks and other financial institutions, has lost nearly INR 185,644 crore ($25 billion) to fraud in 2019-20, which was 159 percent more than the previous year, according to the recently published annual report of India’s banking regulator, the Reserve Bank of India.

While the show has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Indian corporate ecosystem, it has also exposed the problems documentary filmmakers face when making such documentaries.

“I was given a choice of characters to make a film. In all honesty, my personal safety was a factor in that decision,” said Dylan Mohan Gray, director of the episode on Mallya in “Bad Boy Billionaires.”

“Things are actually getting worse rather than better for filmmakers who tell true stories about powerful people in economic and political circles. When I say it can be dangerous, I mean it can actually be dangerous in terms of one’s personal safety.”

Gray chose Mallya because the latter had always been open to criticism, making him less vengeful if a story was made on his real life.

Apart from Mallya, “Bad Boy Billionaires” features three other corporate personalities who are now facing court cases over frauds—Nirav Modi, Subrata Roy and Ramalinga Raju,

Modi, a diamond merchant and his uncle Mehul Choksi, allegedly defrauded banks of over Rs 13,000 crore ($1.7 billion) with forged documents.  Modi is a jail in UK at present, facing extradition trial.

Roy is accused of illegally raising money through a ponzi scheme from millions of people. India’s Supreme Court had remanded Roy in a civil jail in 2014 over the group’s failure to repay dues estimated to be Rs 25,781 crore ($3.5 billion) to India’s market regulator, the Securities Exchange Board of India. Roy came out on parole after spending over two years in prison in 2016. Roy claims that he had cleared most of the dues.

Raju, who founded one of the biggest IT companies in India, Satyam, later taken over by Tech Mahindra, is accused of falsifying accounts to the extent of Rs 7000 crore ($ 950 million). In 2015, Raju was sentenced to seven years’ jail term. In 2017, a metropolitan sessions court in Hyderabad granted him bail.

Netflix has not yet been able to release the episode on Raju after a court restrained it from releasing it after a petition filed by Raju.

Earlier Choksi filed a court petition demanding a personal screening of the “Bad Boy Billionaires” series on Nirav Modi prior to its release.

Roy too had filed a suit to stop the release of the trailer and the series on him. He had also initiated criminal proceedings against Netflix.

In 2014, a book on Roy by Tamal Bandyopadhyay, Sahara: The Untold Story, too had to face legal tussles.

Roy had filed a Rs 200-crore ($32.3 million) defamation suit against the author and also obtained a stay on the publication of the book. Later, the book had to include a disclaimer, which said it was “based on a particular notion, wrong perceptions supported by limited and skewed information, among other things.”

Web series on scams surrounding fallen poster boys of corporate India, who once thrived on a corporate-political nexus, are selling like hot cakes in India.

Scam 1992, another web series available on streaming platform SonyLIV, revolves around the story of Harshad Mehta. Mehta shook the Indian stock markets with a massive fraud in 1992. The ten-part series has also tasted success, with an IMDB rating of 9.6.

These web series on scams also come at a time when the freedom of speech and expression is being undermined in India.

Recently, Tanishq, a jewelry brand, was forced to pull down its advertisement showing an inter-religion marriage as it drew criticism from various Hindu nationalist organizations.

Filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray at work. (Courtesy of Dylan Mohan Gray)

Gray believes the threat of making a film on the powerful cuts across political and religious lines and is opposed due to the fear of scrutiny.

“There are fears that the film will never see the light of the day. It’s not a landscape that encourages scrutiny and investigation,” he said. “Some of the responses on social media to our series asked us why we didn’t show the true extent of the political nexus, among other things. It seems people are living in a dream-world when it comes to what will make it to the public realm, especially on a major mainstream platform.  The environment is very constricted in terms of exposing corruption.”

Gray believes Netflix has done a service to the filmmakers and to the freedom of speech and expression, by airing his docu-series.

“Now, that we have done these films, it will be easier for others to make films on prominent living characters. This will open up that space,” he said.

With the advent of streaming platforms, the Indian audience is moving towards more real-life stories — a factor which might transcend the legal complications associated with them.

Bollywood, despite being one of the biggest film industries in the world, sees its films filtered by the censor boards, where the appointments are mostly political. In the case of stremaing platforms, however, the censor board has no say yet.

“Everywhere, there is a fascination for real-life stories,” said Daipayan Banerjee, founder, Black Kettle Studio, a Mumbai-based content company. “In India, we have had many scams. Now, with this streaming boom, real-life stories are coming to the forefront. Also, there is a lot of pressure among companies to create content. Fiction takes a lot of time to make. With non-fiction, it is easier and cheaper to have a fascinating story.”

India has a large population of people who are financially illiterate. Therefore, the real nature of these economic offenses is often hidden in plain sight due to the technicalities of the issues.

“Translating the economic offenses to the common man is tough,” said Shutapa Paul, an independent commentator and author, who interviewed Roy in Tihar, and features in the docu-series.

She says that narratives of scams or “bad boys” make for an interesting watch as they involve interesting, dynamic, enigmatic characters. These characters might not have always started off with the intention of defrauding banks or people.

“Most of them were prosperous businessmen creating value for their employees and investments before being bitten by the ambitious bug that made no distinction between right and wrong,” Paul said.

However, the filmmakers believe it is difficult to make any story or narrative on the scams which have occurred under the watchful eyes of the incumbent Indian government.

“It will be much more difficult. There is no question in that,” said Gray. “Inherently, there is a lot of danger in making films about powerful people, even about those whose stories are old. Unfortunately, in India, people would legally challenge these films despite knowing that it would draw more attention to the projects. This is because they can’t accept the idea that these films might be made without their control or authorization.”

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta)

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