The Last Tycoon, the new show on Amazon Prime, is a sumptuous dip into 1930s Hollywood, often dubbed the golden age of American cinema. This was the time of colossal stardom when screen gods and goddesses could reach, for the first time, the far corners of the world on colour film in simple-minded tales that spoke to honesty, goodwill and love.
The situation on the sets, though, could not be more different. Based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, the show is set on a fictional studio that is facing financial difficulties since the death of its most bankable star Minna Davis. Kelsey Grammer stars as Pat Brady, the studio’s mercurial owner. The Depression has made matters worse and so has the presence of Adolf Hitler’s emissaries in Hollywood, smooth-talking men using the power of pelf to censor movies.
Brady’s blue-eyed boy, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) is the quintessential movie man – his golden touch can rescue any film from disaster and everyone on the lot – from the writers to Brady’s daughter Celia (Lily Collins) – is eager to please him. A Jew, he also happens to be the husband of Minna whose memory shapes his days and colors his visions. It is his wish to make a grand tribute to his dead wife, a project that Brady is happy to bankroll.
Enter the Nazis. George Gyssling (Michael Sibbery) won’t allow the studio to make a film on a star who was married to a Jew, and with Germany being the second largest foreign market for Hollywood films, every producer in Los Angeles is eager to appease him. The Last Tycoon expertly brings out the capitulation of Hollywood moguls to a bunch of bullies who hold the purse strings.
There are other political overtones. Unionisation is a dirty word on the lot, but secret meetings organised after hours to demand better wages see an increasing number of studio personnel mark their attendance. When Brady decides to cut everyone’s salary by 30% to tide over the financial crisis, he is met with strident arguments denouncing capitalism, forcing him to ultimately rescind the pay cut.
Even so, the show is much more than politics. Focused almost entirely on Monroe’s joys and pains, it still manages to branch off in several directions each of which yields satisfying narrative arcs. Celia grows from a girl with a crush on Monroe to a woman who fights to come into her own as a producer, much against her father’s wishes. Her mother Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt) battles intense loneliness and ends up having an affair. When that ends, she dissolves into quiet desperation, making for some of the best acting you will see this year.
And there is Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott) from Wisconsin, come to Hollywood with dreams in her eyes, working as a waitress in a diner close to the lot. She catches Monroe’s eye, and her Irish accent and resemblance to Minna ensure that a romance blossoms. Is everything as innocent as it looks? As with a parallel storyline about a biracial actress who passes for white, The Last Tycoon teems with secrets that are waiting to explode.
Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight
Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.
Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.
In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.
One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.
Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.
Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.
It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.
Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.
The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.
The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.