How have Vijay Mallya's troubles with Kingfisher Airlines affected his lifestyle and myriad non-business interests? Indulekha Aravind, Malini Bhupta and Probal Basak ask his friends and business associates
Vijay Mallya has a close friend in Delhi. Let’s call him G. He holds Mallya in high esteem and the two businessmen talk to each other frequently. But in the last 10 days, ever since news broke out that Diageo would acquire Mallya’s United Spirits, G has held back from calling his old friend. “I don’t know if I should congratulate him," says G. “After Kingfisher Airlines [was grounded], he seems to have lost the Midas touch." The loss of business and the bad press Mallya has got on Kingfisher Airline, G fears, will crimp his friend’s flamboyant lifestyle. Mallya, it hurts G to admit, will have to lie low for a while.
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Even if he doesn’t, it will be a long wait before the media warms up to him once again. The famous tag of “king of good times", used equally for Mallya and his Kingfisher beer, has been punned mercilessly in newspaper headlines to highlight the trouble in his airline. Mallya’s recent comments, and tweets, reveal his angst. On January 10, almost nine months before Kingfisher Airlines’ licence was suspended, he had tweeted: “Looks like certain media houses are on a paid and highly motivated mission to discredit Kingfisher (Airlines) and encourage shift of traffic (to other carriers)." On October 28, when he came for the Formula One Grand Prix at Greater Noida in his private Airbus (there was speculation that he wouldn’t do so, as the jet may be impounded by his cash-strapped airline’s creditors), he let out another broadside: “You believe Indian papers have any credibility?"
G insists Mallya is upset, not bitter. Then how does he explain the digs at rivals? On August 26, he retweeted twice journalist Barkha Dutt’s outbursts at delays on IndiGo flights. On March 14, Mallya had taken a potshot at Captain G R Gopinath, from whom he had bought Air Deccan, a primary cause of his airline’s woes: “Ask [the] media — why no expert reaction fr[o]m Capt Gopinath on [the] railway budget. He has great surface transport experience [for] both passengers and cargo." Mallya's office did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.
In a way, the low profile that G fears his friend will now have to keep has already begun to take effect. In late October, Forbes removed the billionaire tag from Mallya’s name as his net worth had fallen from $1.1 billion to $800 million, thanks to his troubled airline. Mallya reacted on Twitter on October 25: “Thanks to the Almighty that Forbes has removed me from the so-called billionaires’ list." It would cause, he hoped, less “jealousy, frenzy and wrongful attacks". For over six months now, his tweets have abstained from highlighting the good life he is so fond of. On February 6, Mallya had tweeted about his stay at the luxurious Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel in Hyderabad. On May 4, his Twitter followers learnt that he was dining at Atmosphere on the 123rd floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. “Magnificent view," he had tweeted. “[I have] never been so high up in my life." There were no such tweets after that. “There was a need to scale down his lifestyle engagements after the [Kingfisher Airlines] crisis," says adman Suhel Seth. “He was seen as clinical about the young men and women he employed."
But there is no stopping his son Siddhartha, 25. In April, he had hired celebrity-management firm KWAN to find him brands to endorse. Mid-September, as Kingfisher Airlines was gasping for breath and its employees demanding their dues, saw him walking the ramp for designers Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra, arriving in Goa for the shoot of “The hunt for the Kingfisher calendar girl 2013", playing volleyball on the beach with 12 bikini-clad women and requesting all to vote for him for the “GQ most stylish man of the year crown" — it went to John Abraham. Earlier this month, he was busy asking all fellow US citizens to vote in the presidential elections. Seth says he has told Mallya “to tell Siddhartha to stop tweeting and hosting calendar launch events".
Beyond the headlines and hubris, Kingfisher Airline’s spiral seems to have accentuated Mallya’s spiritual side. He was always known to have a strong religious streak — admitted to considering Tuesdays and Saturdays inauspicious, had his new aircraft circle the Tirupati Balaji temple and made the annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Sabarimala. But ever since the crisis began, Mallya has increased the frequency of his visits, earlier confined to festivals and special occasions, to the shrine at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and the Kollur Mookambika and Kukke Subrahmanya temples in Karnataka, says a source. Earlier this year, he made an offering of a gold-plated door that cost around Rs 80 lakh to the Kukke Subramanya temple and has promised to donate another. He also had a tantric pooja conducted at his residence in Mumbai a few months ago by a team of priests specially flown in from Kerala. This had been preceded by a yajna to ward off evil at his residence in Bangalore, says the source.
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Mallya was the toast of Bangalore till the 1990s. There was none bigger than him in the world of business. Then the information technology revolution began to happen in the city. Mallya was eclipsed by IT czars like Azim Premji and N R Narayana Murthy. Mallya was never one to give up without a fight. “Only a handful of people have heard of Infosys. But ask any man on the streets and he will have heard of United Breweries," he had told Business Standard in the summer of 2003. Things have changed since then. “In the last 10 years, Vijay Mallya had deracinated himself from his Bangalore identity. So the turmoil barely caused a ripple here," says Prakash Belawadi, Bangalore-based theatre personality and keen observer of life in the city. “This was also because he was shabbily treated by successive state governments. He had kind of given up on the city."
In Bangalore, Mallya had come to be seen less and less on the party circuit over the years. “He was one of the first to host pre-launch parties, which were legendary, and he was definitely one of the biggest celebrities in the 1990s. But the action has shifted to Mumbai and Goa, and these days he seems to be mostly abroad," says fashion designer Prasad Bidappa, a close friend. In keeping with his interest in fashion, Mallya had also launched the Kingfisher Fashion Awards in 2000, significant at that time because there were not many awards for the fashion fraternity, says Bidappa. But all of that took a backseat after the launch of the airline. Another Bangalore-based fashion designer and close friend, Manoviraj Khosla, who still designs Kingfisher merchandise and does work for the Kingfisher calendar, says, “I’m sure the crisis has taken a toll on him but it is difficult to say to what extent."
Mallya’s parties, a Mumbai socialite insists, have now moved abroad, to his vineyards in South Africa and his yacht (the Indian Empress) in Monte Carlo. His yacht party in May was attended by, amongst others, Antonio Banderas and Bernie Ecclestone. “Despite the crisis," Seth insists, “Mallya hasn’t changed one bit. He enjoys his life and is unapologetic about it." His friends in Mumbai swear by him. “Mallya is terrific with his friends in terms of time, commitment and affection," says socialite and entrepreneur Queenie Singh. “He remembers your birthday and comes to meet if he is in town. He knows your children, what they do and he asks about them when you meet him." When Singh was opening her jewellery outlet at The Dorchester in London, she asked Mallya to be there. “He took an earlier flight and came straight from the airport," she says. “He never minimises his friends." Shobhaa De, the author, calls Mallya the most intelligent individual she has ever met (Shahrukh Khan comes a close second). “He can never become an untouchable," she says. “He is way too charismatic, even with his back to the wall."
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Despite all the turmoil at his airline, Mallya seems to be trying to insulate some of his other interests as much as he can. At the Vittal Mallya Scientific Research Foundation in Bangalore, set up in 1987 and named in memory of his father, it is business as usual, says a senior research scientist, requesting not to be named. “Mallya has taken personal interest to ensure that our funding is not affected. Even during the height of the crisis, he ensured he made time to talk to our director," he says. “Because of his efforts, morale at the institute has remained high and there has been no attrition."
But G, Mallya’s friend, says that many activities funded until now by United Spirits may get affected as Diageo will focus on ramping up profits. This is perhaps what makes Kolkata’s football lovers jittery. McDowell’s Mohun Bagan is sponsored by United Spirits, while arch rival Kingfisher East Bengal is supported by United Breweries. Anjan Mitra, the secretary general of Mohun Bagan, feels the sponsorship gives tremendous coverage to United Spirits’ McDowell’s whiskey, so there is no reason for Diageo to snap the ties. Diageo, it is expected, will not tamper with United Spirits’ IPL team, the Royal Challengers.
There is no evidence so far that the trouble with Kingfisher Airline, and the sale of United Spirits, has dampened Mallya’s enthusiasm for motorsport. He is the chairman of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India, which oversees motorsport in India. “Vijay has always participated very actively in the principal decisions of FMSCI and continues to do so, and his airline business has in no way affected this. In fact, he has just confirmed his presence at our next annual general body meeting next month," says FMSCI President Vicky Chandhok. Sahara Force India, the Formula One team he owns 42.5 per cent, too is unlikely to be affected.
Another passion has been horse racing, with Mallya owning a stud farm at Kunigal in Karnataka. There has been some belt-tightening here but not at the behest of Mallya — the farm, says a source, has not imported any thoroughbred, the cost of which can run into crores, for the past couple of years, though it’s otherwise business as usual. The two principal derbies in the Indian racing calendar, held in Mumbai and Bangalore, are both sponsored by Mallya, with the prize money at this year’s Mumbai derby going up to over Rs 2 crore. At the Karnataka State Cricket Association, though, he's a largely absent member.
It will now be decided if Mallya is really the king of good times.