By Hannah DiPilato
Last month Netflix released a new documentary that gives an inside look at the corruption and greed of some of India’s most prominent billionaires. The first episode tells the store of Vijay Mallya’s extravagant life that takes a drastic turn.
Vijay Mallya was born to Vittal Mallya, an entrepreneur who founded the United Breweries Group. When Vijay Mallya was only 28 years old his father died suddenly and Mallya had to follow in his father’s footsteps and run a business empire.
When Mallya took over his father’s business he shook everyone up with his lifestyle. In an interview, he was compared to Donald Trump to which he responded he was “nowhere near bankruptcy,” an ironic foreshadowing to his future. He also talked about having many enemies.
Alcohol is not viewed in India as it is in America and in some states of India alcohol is banned. Due to this negative stigma, Mallya needed a different way to advertise his brand. He became a pioneer for different kinds of advertising. He used surrogate advertising to promote his company while keeping the sale of alcohol disguised, instead he advertised soda. The brand was still high profile even if the beer wasn’t what was being advertised. In 1996 the World Cup was hosted in India and Kingfisher launched a campaign with a catchy jingle that was a memorable success.
Vijay Mallya’s genius was making his lifestyle the centerpiece of the brand. He became known as “the king of good times” and this became Kingfisher’s tagline. He knew how to build his image off of this to make everyone desire the lifestyle he was living. According to Sid Mallya, Kingfisher became “more than just a beer, it became a lifestyle” and everyone aspired to live like the king of good times. Vijay Mallya was one of the first people in India that wasn’t afraid to live lavishly and use his money unapologetically.
In 2003 Mallya survived a devastating helicopter crash. The ride was only supposed to be a short 45 minutes and Mallya’s executive assistant, Tushita Patel, recounted the terrifying crash in the documentary. It was her first helicopter ride and she thought she was going to die. Mallya survived the crash and said, “Miracles do happen, there’s obviously a message from above.” He believed he would use his “second life” to the fullest.
Mallya became one of the world’s largest liquor producers, but that wasn’t enough for him; he wanted to be recognized all over the world as more. In one recording he explained he wanted to be “a catalyst for change.” He had an urge to be number one, the boldest and brightest and he would do whatever he could to get there.
The next year in 2004, Mallay got in touch with Alex Wilcox to help begin the next Kingfisher adventure. Here is where Kingfisher airlines began. Mallya created a promotional video that showed how luxurious and unique flying on Kingfisher airlines would be. Mallay appealed to the rising middle class of India, larger than the population of The United States, and knew this would be the perfect consumer for this new flying experience. This was beneficial to Kingfisher as another way to advertise and promote the flamboyant lifestyle.
On Sid Mallya’s 18 birthday the airline was officially launched. At first, the airline was a rapid success. The brand focused on high-frequency and low-cost eliminating serving meals and first-class like many other airlines. The airline sent the message “everyone is welcome here.”
Although the company was thriving, in 2005 Mallya went behind the back of Alex Wilcox and spent billions of dollars on new planes. The airline was no longer going to be the same low-cost service it once was, this was not what the market wanted. The desire to expand the airline began to put Mallya in debt as he borrowed money from the bank. Mallya continued to expand and eventually, Wilcox could no longer help Kingfisher airlines; the two men had different expectations for the future of the company.
Mallya’s debt continued to grow as he continued to buy into more companies. In 2008, the global economic downturn stopped people from traveling, Kingfisher airlines was not making what it needed to, daily, to survive. The company continued to fall into a pit of large debt through 2009 and 2010. The reports of the business numbers were published and scrutiny of the company was heightened. The flights were even running out of food and the crew was giving away their meals to customers. Although things were bad, Mallya thought he could save his airline.
By 2011 Mallya was doing everything to save the airline. The workers of Kingfisher were severely underpaid. Many went on strike and the wife of an airline worker committed suicide because of the financial stress. Mallya begged his employees not to turn to the press, but eventually, his true character was revealed. He could have paid off some of his debt out of pocket but refused. Eventually, the license of Kingfisher Airline was suspended, the money had run out and the airline closed.
When Mallya’s 60 birthday came around in 2015, he did not shy away from another profligate party. This party created a negative view towards Mallya and he was seen as a theft that did not care about the lives of his employees. This tipping point led to an investigation into his finances and prosecutors believed he was hiding his finances. Allegations against him included money laundering and fraud.
Mallya fled to London with no plan to return against the orders of the government. He said, “I disprove the narrative that I stole money.” He was charged by the UK court for money laundering, conspiracy and cheating. Some argued there are worse criminals that need to be caught, while others declare he is a thief and needs to be prosecuted. His son Sid concluded because this was a “lifestyle brand, he was easier to target.”
Mallya has sold most of his business and as of summer 2020, he remains in London where he continues to fight all charges against him. You can watch the documentary on Netflix along with the next two episodes of Bad Boy Billionaires: India.