Zarina Mehta doesn’t like to be interviewed or photographed. She is relieved that she will be visually represented as a caricature rather than a photograph. She is reluctant to revisit her storied past as one of the three founders of United Software Communications (UTV) and the driver of such channels as Hungama TV, UTV Bindass, UTV Stars and UTV Action on her watch as chief creative officer (CCO) of the UTV group.
Yet she has arrived ahead of the scheduled time at the coffee shop of the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai to subject herself to the question-and-answer ritual. “The only reason I am doing this interview is because I want the brightest and the best to join me,” she says.
Mehta isn’t recruiting for any of her channels—she resigned in July and that is now history. Rather, Mehta is looking for talent for her latest project, the Swades Foundation. The philanthropic venture, whose philosophy is “I can do anything”, will focus its attention on pulling rural Indians out of poverty.
She doesn’t want Swades to be a donor agency. Swades will invest time and money in changing villages and then move on rather than foster dependency, she says. “We are not going to give to other charities,” she says. “Rather, we aim to spend Rs 350 crore over around seven years. We will empower communities and then exit—that is the strategy.”
Mehta has ordered an Earl Grey tea, but as she warms to the subject of Swades, the beverage goes cold. Referring regularly to a diary containing stapled notes, she outlines her goals for the organization, its four-pronged strategy, and its challenges.
Swades is the new name for Society to Heal, Aid, Restore and Educate (SHARE), a charitable foundation set up by UTV in the wake of the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 (Swades is also the name of the 2004 movie directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and produced by UTV, in which Shah Rukh Khan plays a scientist who returns to India to work in a village).
Most of Mehta’s 27 years in television have been spent producing shows and launching channels at UTV. The 50-year-old professional founded the company in 1990 along with Ronnie Screwvala (to whom she is married) and Deven Khote after working on television shows while studying economics at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. In 2011, The Walt Disney Company increased its existing stake in UTV to just over 50%, and completed the process of converting UTV from an independent company to a Disney subsidiary in February.
However, Mehta says her decision to swap UTV with Swades has nothing to do with the Disney deal. “I had applied myself to the industry for several years,” she says. “I loved building channels from ground zero, but I had come to a point where I wanted to apply myself to different problems. I deferred my decision for three years. Then Ronnie said, ‘We already have a foundation, why don’t you join it?’”
Easier said than done. Mehta found that she had a lot of reading to do, experts to consult, and learning to achieve. “I have met more people in the last three months than I have met in my life,” she says.
Among the items on her reading list, which she repeatedly refers to, is Bain & Co.’s “India Philanthropy Report” for last year, which found “a significant rise in private donations to philanthropic causes”, and that “India was a leader in private charitable giving among developing nations, with donations totalling between 0.3% and 0.4% of GDP” (gross domestic product), according to the company’s website. The report also found that “more than 70% of the donors were novices, with less than three years of philanthropic experience”, and that “more than a third of those surveyed were 30 years old or younger”.
Mehta jokes about not being able to work with people above the age of 25—Hungama is a children’s channel, while Bindass targets young adults—but adds that there is a great deal of youthful vigour that needs to be marshalled into action. “Our problems as a country are enormous to the point of being humiliating,” she observes. “But there is now a possibility of contributing to the country in ways that were not possible before.”
Swades has a team of 70 people, of which around 40 are already on the ground, working mainly in the test-case town of Mhasla in Raigad district, Maharashtra. Mehta, who has been making the 3- to 4-hour drive from Mumbai to Mhasla once a month, says that along with providing people with improved amenities, efforts must be made to increase their income levels. She outlines an ambitious, wide-ranging programme for change: Swades will enter a village with water, then build toilets, then provide livelihood and finally focus on education.
“We want to double the family income every three years,” she says. “I want every Swades community member to have health insurance. We want to provide education that is relevant to the people. Every family should have a bank account. We want to connect farmers to the markets. Every child will have an email account, and we will create a buddy network with urban children.” She also plans on setting up a community radio station and deploying communication systems, such as television sets and mobile phones, in Swades’ programmes.
A second cup of Earl Grey tea has been ordered, but Mehta pays scant attention to it. A determined bunch of flies descends on the table, but she isn’t bothered. Instead, she recounts how she has been interested in education ever since she worked on The Mathemagic Show, a quiz-based programme that was aired on Doordarshan in the early 1990s. Mehta cites the lasting influence of her teacher Shirin Darasha, the well-reputed educationist and principal of JB Petit High School for Girls in Mumbai, who died in May. “She was a transformative teacher,” Mehta recalls. “She showed us the world.” Mehta tried to pick up some teaching tips herself at a 10-day course conducted in June by the non-profit Teach For India.
The worlds of television and social work seem widely divergent, but Mehta also senses parallels. “Television has its own pace, while this is more relaxed,” she says. “But the processes are actually similar. You have to understand the needs and aspirations of audiences, build up relationships and then figure out what to do.
“Once you know your audience, there is nothing more precious. But television has a slight arrogance. Here, forget about it. It’s of no use to anybody.”
She is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. “This is going to be the toughest thing I have ever done,” Mehta says. “There will be problems, and it will take time and money. We’re going to make many mistakes. It is fine. It is far more important to get this right.”