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Corporate Nov 14, 2011

Flying on empty: The good life of Vijay Mallya

By Shiv Visvanathan

Once in a while, there emerges a person who is a harbinger of a new trend. As an image, he becomes both archetype and stereotype, representing the original or classic essence of a persona and its consequent banalisation. One thinks of Amitabh Bachchan as the angry young man, Sunil Gavaskar as the unrepentant cricketing professional, Sam Pitroda as the diasporic technocrat dreaming new utopias for India. Such personae can emerge in any field from crime to industrial innovation. As role players, there is an equivalence between Dawood Ibrahim and Narayana Murthy. Both exemplify the innovative essence of their respective fields.

Vijay Mallya is another such invention. I am not too interested in his actual business acumen or the turbulence in his airline; I am interested in the presentation of his public self. Vijay Mallya is a post socialist creature. He lacks the timidity of old wealth and he refuses to apologise for it. He would rather be the unrepentant intelligent playboy. He sees wealth as an entitlement, a private life presented as a public good. He likes alcohol and calendar girls at least in calendars. His house has to be larger than 'life size', his life has to be larger than the usual life style even by the standards of the super rich. He presents himself as a commodity and behaves like one.

Mallya is the playboy at 50+, almost obsessive about attention.AFP

Now comes the crisis that has engulfed his airline. If this is his trial by fire, then Mallya is sticking to his guns. He sounds unashamed claiming that the pursuit of profit cannot always be a public good. In a moment of crisis he appears an unrepentant creature seeing his airline as one more scandal to be brushed aside.

In a sense, the Kingfisher crisis shows Mallya to be a virtual reality play. The real Indian reality play is not about power and aggression. It is about the machismo of consumption. Consumption constructs the person as a spectacle and Mallya's career is presented as a string of spectacles. He is not an original in the sense of a Howard Hughes or a JP Morgan. He is a more gossipy version constructed on a nukkad scale, a Stardust or Cine Blitz version of a millionaire who enjoys the cattiness around him and projects himself as a poster boy, a pin up for unashamed consumerism.

He is the playboy at 50+, almost obsessive about attention. If his own achievements cannot produce that sense of awe, then the spectacles he creates become the Viagra of his cocky self. The Kingfisher Calendar, the attempt to buy the sword of Tipu Sultan, membership of Parliament and the investment in F-1 creates a playboy for the world. Consumerism has to be conspicuous and inspire raw envy. This much he successfully does as he stands between Lara Dutta and Deepika Padukone. In that very act, he conveys cornucopia, a surplus in a true consumerist sense rather than passion and desire.

But now one senses an incompleteness about him, a sense of having arrived but not fully acclaimed. There appears a seedy coating or a vulgar tadka on what is a search for sophistication. He is not quite Ratan Tata or even Narayana Murthy. He does not seek to be correct or act as a fable of rectitude. He seems content that he makes it to Cine Blitz because Harvard Business Review seems too far away.

Now we suddenly see the ordinariness of Vijay Mallya. The man himself looks ordinary. He is a bit like his calendars, too self conscious, a trifle vulgar, a copy book imitation of some lost original. He looks like a droll caricature of the corporate class, a Gatsby of local comic books. What one misses is the sense of concern, of caring and a code of responsibility. He lacks the honour to apologise; becoming brash, or turning into a petulant schoolboy blaming government and oil prices for Kingfisher's crisis. The spectator wonders if he is durable or just a brittle, badly behaved pin up of this decade, a B-grade movie that has outrun its time.

In an odd sense, he is a colourless man with colourful extensions, a dream house, a yacht and beautiful women. Suddenly, the crisis of his airline becomes a metaphor of his life. It is not just his airline that appear bankrupt. Mallya as a fable of the good life appears empty. Creating brand names might be easy but possessing character is rare. As one obtains details of the battles between Param Uberoi of Pernod Ricard and Mallya, one realises it is Uberoi who is the winner and the better strategist. Uberoi lets his brands do the talking.

Sometimes, a company slogan might become an embarrassment, an obituary to its empty claims. I remember Union Carbide used to claim "Something we do will touch your life" and the Bhopal Gas disaster followed. As his debts mount, 'Live the Good Life' may prove to be equally ironic, a belated comment on Vijay Mallya and the Kingfisher story.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.


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