Ask Vijay Mallya about his new close-shaven crew cut and he promptly says, “It’s aerodynamic, to go with my personality.” Even though he is looking to find humour in everything these days — in politics, in feeling 26 at 56 years of age, in irony, in failure — the anxiety is palpable. From the many cigarettes he smokes to a fleeting ‘Hi’ to Priyanka Chopra and a talk on failure and entrepreneurship at THiNK, everything is making Mallya sweat a bit. In between sips of his espresso, he looks at a small visiting card worth of notes he has made on entrepreneurship. This time, he is prepared to answer questions. The otherwise outspoken Mallya is carefully calculating the weight of his words for the session, where questions are bound to be asked of Kingfisher Airlines’ battle with bankruptcy.
Did Mallya exceed his own ambitions? Was getting into aviation a wrong move? “If the airline business was that hopeless, you would not see the Tata Group investing in not one but two airlines,” he says. Mallya instead blames the government for doing very little to help the sector, suggesting that this industry’s fate is dictated by the authorities, fuel prices, taxation and lack of foreign investment. Such as the doubling of the price of oil, the biggest cost input for airlines, in 2008, which he says was a major factor in Kingfisher’s demise. “We were as affected as Air India was, but we didn’t have government support. When we went to the banks to say we wanted to restructure, they said no.” He admits his larger- than-life persona of being a liquor baron cost him. Hurt him as well as his business. “Because it was the UB Group, Vijay Mallya, we are not going to show any sympathy. Pay up or else.”
Mallya’s persona remains a mystery to those who know him, and even those who don’t. Is there a gap between the image of Vijay Mallya and the truth about him? For the first time, he admits, the perception of him rolling in money and being a “king of good times” may be just a case of a mistaken moniker. “I cast myself in the advertisements, because, well, I came for free. What the media got horribly wrong is that I said Kingfisher is the king of good times, but they interpreted it as if I was the self-styled king of good times. I didn’t make an effort to change that. After all, publicity sells.”
Even though he swears by his god-fearing and humble approach to life, Mallya points out that his extravagance is a brand he has consciously tried not to shed. Having taken over as chairman of the UB group at 26, after the sudden demise of his father, Mallya revived a dormant brand of beer called Kingfisher and eventually turned it into a liquor conglomerate. “I lived my age. Which youngster doesn’t like a Ferrari? But my contemporaries were Dhirubhai Ambani, Rama Prasad Goenka and other business leaders. I lived my age. I lived my life and then got branded as someone very flamboyant.”
Mallya may have seen failure, but he is far from giving up. His stints are sensational, gutsy, and full of glitz and glamour. What he certainly doesn’t reflect is a sense of spent energy. Even if it’s hard to buy the argument that he may not have a big part to play in his own mistakes.
Occasionally, Mallya’s diamond studs reflect the stage lights onto the audience in the dark auditorium. They almost seem to be his wings of confidence reflecting a voracious appetite to experiment, much to the disgust of those who don’t have his gumption or glamour or simply disagree with his model.
In what has been one of his more honest interviews, Mallya says sharply what others have mostly kept politically correct. “I am sad to say that most of my friends, captains of industry, don’t want to invest in India. Look at how we treat multinationals. This isn’t an inviting enough environment for investment.” Some years ago, he says, he told a forum of Indian-Americans that they should go back to India in search of opportunity. Today, he regrets those words.
For now, with all his ups and downs, a business storm and some unworthy grandiosity, Mallya has left the decision of a new impression to others.