Bad Boy Billionaires and Beyond: in conversation with Dylan Mohan Gray

Marwa Kazi Mohammed 

When I was binging Bad Boy Billionaires over the last weekend, I had no idea I would be sitting in an interview with the director of the project. I didn’t have any reason to have as many questions and theories popping up in my head as they did, but that’s just the kind of series that Bad Boy Billionaires is. It leaves you wondering, pondering, and pensive. And to think that it wasn’t even certain to come out due to legal setbacks by the billionaires themselves was, perhaps, the obvious but most intriguing part of the controversy surrounding it.

Photo: Collected

So when me and my fellow interviewer Israt Ayshee sat down on a quiet Tuesday afternoon With Mr Dylan Mohan Gray, director of “The King of Good times” episode on Vijay Mallya,  naturally the first question we had was how expected these legal battles were and how they were fought. 

Mr. Gray had his own legal obligations to maintain while talking about this, yet he was splendidly candid, “We spoke to many lawyers while making the series in anticipation of legal problems. The Indian legal system has tended to be fairly hospitable towards powerful people, so to have been able to get this released marks an important milestone for filmmakers”, Mr. Gray cleared out his position in the legal matters, “I wasn’t directly involved with any of it really. The legalities were handled by Netflix. Netflix has the resources, and more importantly the will to fight these battles on behalf of independent filmmakers like us.”

The trailer for the series was released in August and the series was originally supposed to release on the 2nd of September. However the trailer was taken down soon after it’s release as the docuseries went to court. Our next question addressed this and asked Mr. Gray on how the team felt when this happened, which was met with a slight chuckle by him, “The response to the trailer was amazing. I am not a part of the legal proceedings at all but we were optimistic and hopeful that the hurdles would be overcome more quickly than proved to be the case. However despite the legal issues and having no promotion at all because it was released with no notice, the viewership in India, and in many other countries too has been quite unheard of, especially since the series released on a Monday morning quietly. That’s really been remarkable.”  And Mr Gray was spot on in his statement. The series is on top 10 in a number of countries including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and at 7 on Netflix world, solely based on word of mouth. 

Big bad Billionaires had an interesting choice of characters cast. Despite many more convicted billionaire frauds such as the Goyels or the Singhs, we particularly wanted to know why these four characters were chosen. And Mr. Gray indulged us, “This actually goes to the origin of the project. As I understand it the series was initially supposed to be a feature on Vijay Mallya. But Netflix preferred an anthology series. So the producers worked on identifying four characters. The on the series research was done in the UK, by the production company’s team there, and then we were exposed to an exclusive piece of information, Out of the 4 initial characters, we ultimately could not make a film about one of them, because the archival material crucial for that film was controlled by a body which was not willing to cooperate. So a new protagonist needed to be identified and eventually Ramalinga Raju was the choice for that fourth film.” 

Mr. Gray was the director for the episode on Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher, India’s liquor tycoon and the king of good times with a flamboyant playboy image. As per the statements of Mr. Gray, he chose to direct the episode of Vijay Mallya after his own research. When we requested elaboration as to why, Mr Gray presented a very surprising reason, “Vijay Mallya was said to be open to criticism. Even people who were very close to him, the closest people in his lives were openly critical of him, and Mallya was apparently okay with that. Even appreciative of it. So I felt that I would be able to get more honest, open opinions about him. Because people wouldn’t be afraid of offending him in the way they might be with other powerful figures. Which likely isn’t the case, when you go to UP or Bihar and ask people about Subrata Roy. The people may hate him, but they will not speak against him because those figures remain very powerful even after suffering setbacks and the fear is still there.” 

Photo: Collected

In further conversation with Mr. Gray, we explored more about his subject, the man Vijay Mallya himself known to be a living embodiment of extravaganza. But Mr. Gray had some interesting, and astonishing insight here as well, “Vijay Mallya’s playboy image was one he himself carefully cultivated, but from my interviews with numerous people, they said he was always very respectful. The women that I spoke to, didn’t have anything scandalous to say about him. On the other hand, Vijay Mallya arranged for himself to be given an honorary doctoral degree and expected people to call him  “Dr. Mallya”. I mean, if you care so much about being seen as intellectually serious and then why cultivate a totally conflicting image of yourself?  It’s a dichotomy. But that’s what happened.”

From an audience point of view, we personally thought Mr Nirav Modi didn’t have as much public disdain towards him as Mallya and Roy. In fact his workers still believed him to be “God-like.” When we asked Mr Gray about this stark difference, we discovered otherwise, “Even many of Mallya and Roy’s former employees still love them. It’s just that when you think your boss is a terrible person and he does something terrible, it’s much easier to accept. But when you think your boss is great and you love him, the betrayal is much stronger, and therefore so is the subsequent hate.  Still, even to this day, many people love Vijay Mallya, many people still consider Subrata Roy to be a deity- like figure, and so on.”

Most of these stories of fraud are very well known, or so we thought before watching the series. I mean what 90’s kid didn’t grow up watching Sahara Channel, or singing the very catchy kingfisher jingle? But the series provided a plethora of information and narratives that we hadn’t seen before, things that weren’t portrayed on mainstream media. Thankfully Mr. Gray echoed our thoughts as well, “The stories were far more interesting than I initially thought they would be. Most people know these people owe money, presumably obtained in shady ways, but they aren’t as aware of how exactly they did it. I would attribute much of this to so-called news channels in India, which I think in itself is a very generous moniker, because they are mostly hate or propaganda channels.  Informing the public accurately is not their priority, rather the underscoring of particular narratives is.”

Despite the individualistic nature of the docuseries that holds individuals accountable, it leaves you pondering about the system that facilitated them. And we found Mr Gray sharing that sentiment with us as well, ” The bank is the one holding the money, and they are responsible for safeguarding it.  If they loan money improperly, they have to bear responsibility for that. So these crimes are much larger than it appears, with a lot more context. You know it’s actually not a crime to not pay your employees in India, unlike other countries. If this was illegal in India, most of the rich people would be in jail especially during this lockdown. So in that context, Vijay Mallya did something which was ethically clearly wrong, but not in fact illegal. It really makes you think about the system.”

Living in a time of widespread censorship, we wondered if the feature was affected in any way because of the legal setbacks it faced. Mr. Gray, again, responded very candidly, “The legal proceedings did not affect the content. They are still the features the directors made, unedited, and unchanged.”

As content creators and audience, that statement makes us hopeful. And Mr. Gray reaffirmed our hopes, “The legal cases are a net positive for filmmakers and the platform at the end because it makes up the case law for such projects in the future. In the end it definitely opens up a space for creating more content like this which tells true stories of powerful people who are still around.” 

And surely at a time when the truth is often held hostage by ‘security reviews’ and censorship, the overall success of a highly sensitive and controversial series such as Bad Boy Billionaires is a crucial beacon of light in these troubled waters. Torun wishes them success in their future endeavours. 

Interview by: Marwa Kazi Mohammed, and Israt Sabiha Ayshee

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