Ronnie Screwvala: Bollywood to Hollywood


June 25, 2008


Film | Individuals

Screwvala lives with his second wife, Zarina, and his lookalike labrador, Sprite, in an upscale apartment block in Mumbai. They are currently having another apartment renovated that will look out over the Arabian Sea. It has mogul written all over it. Zarina is easily a match for Screwvala. She is a successful television executive and helped co-found UTV. They met at work but she winces when I suggest it was an “office romance”. “I guess,” she says. Nor is she happy to have her picture taken with Ronnie. “We’d never do a Hello!” she says. She will talk about Sprite. “I had him trained but it didn’t seem to work: it seemed like I was wasting all this money. But suddenly he seems to listen,” says Zarina. I assume we are still talking about the dog.

Ronnie – Big Ron, as he’s called behind his back – is an imposing figure with, by all accounts, a short fuse. He speaks English beautifully but likes his metaphors mixed. “With all things being equal at that crossroads in my life, I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says at one point. Jokes and sarcasm keep his crew in line. I attend a meeting of his directors and one tells him that the video crew loved the music to a film’s he’s making. “Oh, that’s earthy,” says Screwvala. “Maybe we should screen our movies to the canteen staff?” Another director tells him a film was “the best-lit movie” he had seen. “What! The ‘best-lit’ movie,” laughs Screwvala. “There’s a lot of new language being used today.”

Born in Mumbai, his father was a successful executive who headed the British firms J L Morrison and Smith & Nephew, owner of the overseas rights to Nivea cream. The Screwvalas are Parsis, members of India’s small and close-knit Zoroastrian community. Parsis have long held influential positions in Mumbai’s business community and Screwvala’s father wanted him to train to join their ranks. “Dad was keen I went to England to be a chartered accountant.” But “at the last minute I snitched out of that one”, he says.

Instead he took a job as an advertising copywriter – “I needed a decoy” – while he looked for business opportunities. He spotted his first one on a trip to England with his father. During a visit to an Addis hairbrush factory Screwvala spotted two toothbrush-making machines that had been discarded. He bought them for £4,000 – “a princely sum at the time” – then went back to India to get a loan to finance the purchase. He sold the business in 2004 to buy back shares that the media giant News Corp, the owner of The Sunday Times, had taken in UTV. The sum was “a lot more than £4,000”.

While he was keeping the nation’s teeth clean, Screwvala began exploring cable TV. Until cable TV came to India in the early 1980s, the country had only one channel. “No one had a TV remote: there was only one channel,” he says. Screwvala began selling cable subscriptions door-to-door.

In 1990 he founded UTV as a production company to make shows for the state broadcaster. The company has kept expanding. But it is in the film industry that Screwvala has had the biggest impact. India’s film industry is a family affair largely controlled by a few powerful producer-directors with personal ties to Bollywood’s superstars, many of whom are also related. Scripts and budgets have been fluid concepts. In a recent interview, the Indian character-actor Roshan Seth, who played Nehru to Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi, said he didn’t do more Indian films because film producers rarely had scripts, and the ones he got were “awful, simply awful”.

As an outsider, Screwvala has fought to impose order on a chaotic system. “We were not to the manner born,” he says. “We had to start at subzero, not even zero.” He looked outside India for expertise and investors. Disney now owns a 32% stake in the company and Screwvala has close ties with News Corp’s Fox, which is co-producing The Happening. The big western media firms now want in on the booming Indian market. Screwvala is the first to look out.

Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International, says Screwvala is ahead of his time. “Historically this has been a cash-driven, family-run business. He’s brought greater discipline,” he says. “He thinks broadly about the market.”

“It’s normal,” says Screwvala. “It’s not like a French company would think, ‘Let’s just make biscuits for France.’ But India has been a very insulated economy. Ten years ago you had to have special permission if you left the country more than twice a year. You could only take $20 of exchange, so you landed anywhere and you didn’t have the money for the taxi fare.”

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