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June 28, 2013 7:28 pm
It’s the space that impresses you when walking into the south Mumbai home of Ronnie Screwvala, one of India’s most prominent media entrepreneurs. A towering arched ceiling with dark exposed wooden beams dominates the otherwise sparsely-furnished main room, while light floods in from the wide fifth-floor windows. The view isn’t bad either, over the lawns of the Breach Candy Club next door – an exclusive colonial-era establishment known for its large, India-shaped swimming pool – and towards the Arabian Sea beyond.
“When we were looking for a house, there were two things we really wanted,” Screwvala, 56, explains. “A high roof, which is almost impossible to get in Mumbai, and a really, really large bedroom.” The effect was achieved by knocking together neighbouring apartments, and gutting their interiors to create two cavernous main rooms, which were decorated in simple whites and pastel shades by Zarina, Screwvala’s second wife.
The location, however, wasn’t in doubt. “I’ve stayed in this part of town my whole life: school here, college here, lived here, girlfriend here, married here, everything here,” he says of the area around Breach Candy, the plush neighbourhood from which the club takes its name. “This was always where we wanted to be.”
Only the floor-to-ceiling shelf of DVDs in Screwvala’s office provides a clue to his professional life. An early pioneer in India’s nascent cable industry, he went on to build a series of businesses in television production, before moving on to movies, eventually becoming one of the most powerful executives in the country’s film industry. His prominence was confirmed last year when UTV, the company he co-founded, was bought out by Disney in a deal worth $454m – one of the largest international purchases by the American company, and a sign of their faith both in India’s fast-growing media market and Screwvala’s own entrepreneurial instincts.
His position as the head of what is now called Disney UTV comes with plenty of Bollywood glamour, but for all that, Screwvala hails from what he describes as “not even middle-class, a lower-middle-class background”, growing up in the small historically-Zoroastrian Parsee community, in what was then Mumbai. “Parsee culture is definitely one of strong business acumen, high ethics, and an element of philanthropy,” he says, of a heritage that rubbed off on his own commercial dealings.
His parents now live in a separate apartment downstairs, but he recalls growing up in their much smaller previous home. “My parents used to play cards on Saturday . . . all the friends would come across. So it was like one massive Parsee gathering . . . and the value system kind of creeps in.” His surname is Parsee too, a common Indian portmanteau that combines an ancestral profession with the word wallah, meaning vendor. “I have spoken to my dad and my grandfather, and we guess at some stage we used to sell screws,” he says, with a smile.
In person, Screwvala is energetic and charming. A dog-lover, he gives Sprite, the family’s amiable golden Labrador, a hearty pat as he pads across the living room. His conversational style, meanwhile, displays much of the restless energy that marks out his career. Even while studying commerce at university in Mumbai, he wanted to start his own ventures, an ambition that was far from popular with his parents, who wanted him to study accountancy in Britain. “Everyone [in India] believed that you only wanted to be an entrepreneur if you didn’t get a good job,” he says. “It reeks of instability.”
Instead he started a theatre production company, won a role as a teenage presenter on India’s sole national TV station, and even launched a company making toothbrushes, which he eventually built into the largest in the country. But it was media that proved most attractive, starting with cable television, a radical concept in India’s one-channel era. “Nobody knew what a remote was,” he recalls of the time in the early 1980s when, at the age of just 25, he began installing video machines in the basements of Mumbai’s high-rise buildings.
“There was no TV set in India that was sold with a remote. You had to get up and put on the switch, that was it,” he recalls. His service, which he called Network, offered a second channel playing western and Indian TV shows on a loop for four hours each evening. The first building he cabled up was the one in which he himself lived. “It started there, and then it grew like wildfire,” he says. “In about four years we had cabled up I would say 60 per cent of Mumbai.”
Screwvala eventually sold that company, beginning a succession of production outfits making everything from soap operas to documentaries. These eventually morphed into UTV, a company that went on to win investment from Rupert Murdoch before floating on India’s stock market in 2005 and moving into filmmaking – a progression that was under way when Screwvala moved into his current home in 2007.
He recalls one story in particular about the early days in the building, when UTV had begun to experiment with international films. Screwvala’s first movie had been, he admits, “an absolute bomb”, but later efforts did better, including one called The Happening, directed by M Night Shyamalan, the Indian-born director of The Sixth Sense. “We were breaking out creatively. We were greenlighting scripts that nobody else in their wildest dreams would greenlight,” he says. “And I remember I got a call from M Night one day, and he said ‘I’m coming to India’, so I said ‘let’s throw a dinner for him, let’s have the whole of Bollywood over!’”
The only problem? The apartment’s decoration had barely begun. “There was one sofa and one bed. And so in 15 days this house came together: paintings, furniture, everything. We had 180 people here to come and say ‘hi’ to M Night,” he says of the gathering, which included many of India’s biggest film stars. “Everything in this house is seven years old, but not a single piece of furniture has changed since then.”
Screwvala’s ambitions have proved more adaptable, not least since he sold his company, exchanging some entrepreneurial freedom for the challenge of expanding Disney’s business in India. The company has no plans to bring one of its famous theme parks to Mumbai or New Delhi, but he sees plenty of room for growth nonetheless. He also plans to devote more time to the Swades Foundation, which he co-founded with his wife, in which he is investing $90m over the next five years to improve sanitation, health and education in rural India.
Even so, much of that same old entrepreneurial restlessness still remains: “I see myself doing a lot over the next 25 years,” he tells me. “From a media perspective there’s an incredible amount to do for the next half decade, for sure.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
An alcove off the main living room gives the apartment’s best views over the Arabian Sea, providing the ideal spot for a spacious lounging chair. “It’s quite a prized possession,” Screwvala says. “There is always a contest for it on the weekend, between my daughter and myself, to just settle down here and get a foot massage,” he adds, referring to his daughter from his first marriage, who often visits.
The family picked up the unusual curvy seat in Dubai, and had it shipped over before they moved in. A pile of work files sits at its base, belying its role as one of the places Screwvala comes to relax. “So this is an important spot,” he says, “and this is a coveted chair.”
Elsewhere around the house more subtle connections with India’s film world are on show, including a large carved chess board. Screwvala shares the occasional game with Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, with whom he has made a number of films. “I know how to play chess. Occasionally my daughter and I would do that, or when Aamir comes over, he and I play,” he says. “But I haven’t yet beaten Aamir, so that’s a bad thing.”
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