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Ronnie Screwvala, founder of Unilazer Ventures Pvt. Ltd, believes that liberalization was a slow process. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Ronnie Screwvala, founder of Unilazer Ventures Pvt. Ltd, believes that liberalization was a slow process. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Ronnie Screwvala: The man who gave us the soap opera

Screwvala, at 19, opted out of the stability that a CA's job offered and chase the uncertainty of the life of an entrepreneur

New Delhi: There was a three-month window 40 years ago in which Ronnie Screwvala had to either catch a flight to the UK to study for chartered accountancy—and follow his father’s wishes—or break it to his parents that this was not the life for him.

Screwvala, all of 19 then, opted out of the stability that a CA’s job offered and chase the uncertainty of the life of an entrepreneur. He had made the right choice—59 today, Screwvala is one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs in media and entertainment. He founded the UTV Group on 22 June 1990 and he was managing director of Disney-UTV India until Walt Disney Co. acquired a controlling stake in UTV Software Communications Ltd in 2012.

Back then too, when he was a teenager, Screwvala struck a deal—with his parents.

“So we reached a negotiation. After college I’d take up a job and I’d experience what it is to take up a job, rather than starting out on my own. I said let me just work for six months so that I know myself a little better. So that made sense to them (his parents) because I was still pursuing a professional career and not this hair-brained scheme of turning entrepreneur," recalls Screwvala. He kept his word and did, in fact, work in an advertising agency for three months. Screwvala “hated every bit of it—turned up late to work" and eventually left to start his own business.

Those were the days when entrepreneurship was frowned upon by many Indians, who thought of business as a refuge for those who couldn’t make it as an engineer, a doctor, or a CA.

Growing up in Mumbai’s Grant Road was part of Screwvala’s core experience—a combination of what he calls the good Parsi values of frugality, understanding the value of money, hard work and understanding life “from where you started up and valuing that at every given stage."

“I think it taught me a lot in terms of grounding, we had whatever we needed but there was no sense of any sort of large luxury. I think even today I may have moved up and done a few things here and there, I may be starting my second innings, but actually when I have to lean back on stuff, those would be the days that taught me the strongest lessons."

Screwvala studied at Dunne’s Institute School in Mumbai till the Class VIII. For the last four years of schooling he moved to Cathedral & John Connon School, a premium Catholic school with a different kind of peer pressure.

“Everyone came in a car and I was taking the BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking) bus."

“When I was in Dunne’s Institute and living at Grant Road, my ambitions had already risen sky high because when you are at that level in life you just feel a different sense of aspiration and (want) to break out. I was already in the zone and I thought I was growing to be ambitious." The change from the humble days at Dunne’s Institute to the four years at Cathedral took Screwvala off track a bit. “I think I got a lot more arrogant; you get a swagger about you, all the wrong things in life in many aspects—and I think I got that."

Finding his feet back in college, his love for entrepreneurship only grew. He worked on television programs like Magic Lamp and Young World for state broadcaster Doordarshan and things were falling in place—“Somewhere I was enchanted with the whole concept of entertainment." In the 1980s, Screwvala started off as a local cable TV operator in Mumbai, convinced that Indian television audiences needed more choice. “When you start seeing the array of programmes in television (abroad), that got me in some of my early visits. It was the concept of offering multiple choices which to me sounded like such a brilliant idea."

But back home, when he offered people the choice of a second channel Screwvala found no takers. “People slammed doors to my face in that one year," he recalls.

During the 1980s and early 1990s Doordarshan was the only TV channel available to Indians. On the eve of India’s economic reforms, he founded UTV in 1990 with a princely sum of 37,500, bringing marquee soaps like Lifeline and Shanti to Indian television screens. Following the economic reforms of 1991, India began allowing foreign TV channels to start satellite broadcasts in India.

These channels brought fuelled consumerism with aspirational programmes that were very different from the content put out by the staid state broadcaster.

Since liberalization, the size of the television sector has grown from an estimated 800 crore to over 20,000 crore in 2016. But Screwvala believes that liberalization was a slow process. “I would say that in the 1990s, I don’t think the environment was enough to make anyone ambitious and aspirational. It was a downer, I would think."

This is the ninth part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

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