Story of Ronnie Screwvala- one of India's most successful Filmmaker.
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Have you heard of Ronnie Screwvala? We are sure, you would have read this name in the credits right at the beginning of many Bollywood movies. Ronnie Screwvala is one of the biggest names in Bollywood. Not only is he a film producer, but also a first-generation entrepreneur who is known for founding UTV motion pictures. He started the company in the year 1990 with a little capital of 37,000 rupees and a small team in a tiny basement office in Mumbai.
Over a career spanning 35 years, he has constantly demonstrated the rare combination of creativity and innovation which coupled with a strong business acumen has led him to revolutionize multiple industries, and still continues to go about it.
Ronnie has been named on Esquire's List of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century. He has been listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by the Time Magazine for the year 2009. He was also listed as 25 Asia’s Most Powerful people by Fortune Magazine.
Today we are going to tell you 10 things you didn’t know about Ronnie Screwvala.
1. Ronnie was probably the country’s youngest businessman
Ronnie was born to a parsi family and he grew up in a small apartment house on Grant Road, Mumbai which was located just opposite to one of city’s top movie halls. The hall hosted red carpet premieres of movies and therefore always had glamourous personalities from the likes of Amitabh Bachchan to Rajesh Khanna, Waheeda Rehman visiting the place.
His veranda was an ideal vantage point for people to gawk and take pictures of their favourite movie stars. Ronnie saw an opportunity in this and sold tickets to people to stand in his balcony. He even wanted to sell snacks to the visitors, but the food service idea was shot down by his grandparents. His age at that time? He was 10 years old!
At the same age, his entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to organise events in his society with local kids and made some money out of that too. Guess, what he did with his first earning? He rented a bicycle and took a girl he had a crush on out on a date (we hope the date lunch was not joined by a baby sitter).
When he was 18, He along with his friends organised a Rock Concert, a first of its kind in Bombay both in terms of theme and scale. Though the concert was a hit, but the friends lost close to 50000 rupees due to incorrect ticket pricing. It took him more than a year to pay back his share of debt.
2. Ronnie brought the laser Tooth Brush technology to India
In the early 80s, Ronnie took a trip to the UK to enhance his Television anchoring skills. His father worked in a personal care company and was visiting London around the same time as Ronnie. He was to visit a toothbrush manufacturing plant and invited Ronnie to tag along with him for a factory tour. During the tour, Ronnie’s eyes caught attention of 2 machines that were soon to be decommissioned and send to scrap. After knowing that the machines could still produce top quality toothbrushes for the next 10 years or more, Ronnie did some quick calculations in his head and with his intuition made a bold offer of buying the machines and ship them back to India. This when he had zero money, zero knowledge of the personal care industry and no clients.
Over the next 4 months, he worked hard to get many brands including P&G and Colgate interested in buying toothbrushes from him which helped him to loan an initial capital from the banks and a company was born. The company manufactured and sold more than 5 lakh brushes in the first year.
3. He is the man responsible for bringing the cable TV revolution to India
Ronnie has been a pioneer in many industries, one of them being cable TV. In 1980s, he introduced cable TV to Indian audiences at a time when there was only doordarshan and therefore it was hard to explain cable TV or “choice” to Indian consumers who have never held a TV remote in their hands, never changed a channel. To do this, he set up hundreds of demos in building lobbies across Mumbai, he also did 1000s of door to door visits, in his efforts to help his potential customers understand the technology. But this was not enough. People were not impressed with the concept and were not ready to buy. Also, cable tv was an expensive affair.
This is when he realized that for people to take a bet on this new mode of entertainment, they will have to use it first-hand. He came up with an idea of collaborating with hotels installing cable tv in their rooms. And this worked. People who stayed in these hotels enjoyed this offering and now wanted the same service upon their return to their homes. The young entrepreneur charged Rs 200 per month for a connection and soon had thousands of households subscribing to the service.
4. He made and then crashed the flipkart of the 90s
You might have memories of those ridiculously funny teleshopping ad shows of the 90s. But they were not so ridiculous neither funny back then. At a time when internet was just introduced and making online payments using credit or debit cards did not exist, Ronnie with his company TSN introduced this new concept of virtual shopping where people could buy products they had just seen on TV using telephones and get them home delivered. Guess what was the most sold product? Shoes, Nope. clothes, NOPE. A roti maker! Yes- the demand of a roti maker was so high that the supplier could not produce enough.
After early successes and broad expansion, TSN took some major losses due to bad business decisions (one of which was online shopping on the internet which was too early for that time). Also, Ronnie’s divided attention between TSN and UTV movie production business (that he had just started) led to TSN’s downfall. Eventually Ronnie had to pull the plug and shut operations. Ronnie incurred some huge losses from this venture that come and bite him till date. Had the team stayed the course, who knows if he would have been the man behind flipkarts or amazon of today.
5. Ronnie is the man behind the daily soaps
Remember Shanti? Yes- it was the first Indian daily soap where the lead was played by the newcomer Mandira Bedi. Before Shanti, there was no concept of anything being viewed 5 days a week. The idea behind introducing a daily soap was to make UTVs content habit forming. Since this was a completely unheard concept in the Indian television ecosystem, the company team faced numerous challenges like- logistics of
1. everyday shooting, developing content with precision and cost efficiency and constant innovation in the storyline. The team took inspiration from south America- which was the king of daily soaps in the early 90s.
The cast and crew of Shanti were expected to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. If this was not hectic enough, the cast was expected to come prepared with the dialogues for the next day’s shoot. All this for 1 year straight, without any breaks.
Initially the show did not gain much traction but after 6 months of its launch, the show gained immense popularity and became a grand success with Mandira Bedi becoming the queen of the television of the 90s.
UTV has produced or distributed close to 50 movies- most of which have been big box office successes. But do you know what was the first movie that UTV produced?
“Dil ke zharokon mein”. We are sure you would have heard of the name of this movie, but would not have seen it. Its okay. Nobody saw it. Made at a humongous budget of 10cr, it was the biggest flop of the year. This may as well been the end of the story for Ronnie and UTV, but he stayed the course and the rest is history.
6. For Ronnie, its always been about people
A few years into running UTV, Ronnie was looking to expand and scale the movie production business- but this would not be possible without an outside investment of money, expertise and resources. Ronnie wanted UTV to have an independent identity and therefore with an initial reluctance, he started looking to find the right partner to produce movies together. Ronnie has always believed that the most important assets of any company are not money, neither technology but its people. In his trademark style of working with the best colleagues and partners, his first phone call was to Yash Chopra. He informally pitched the idea to Yashji, but was humbly rejected. Next stop was Amitabh Bachchan. After a couple of detailed meetings, things didn’t work our there as well. Then is when Ronnie considered exploring potential partnerships with hollywood studios. Starting with Sony and then with FOX, after months of negotiations, things did not work out with either of the two companies and he had to let it pass. After months of struggle, Ronnie did find the right partner for UTV in Disney.
7. Ronnie brought Hungama into the lives of the Indian Kids
.During one of the regular brainstorming sessions, Ronnie’s wife Zarina came up with an idea of launching a desi kids channel.
While most experts shot down the idea by claiming that there was no scope for creativity or innovation as the kids genre in Indian television was already crowded with six other channels- all competing for eyeballs. His research team also suggested that the kids adored Cartoon network and might not move to a new channel.
The team introduced 2 Japanese cartoon shows in India- Doremon and Shin-chan. During the initial months, the shows did not fare that well on TV, but then became instant hits with the kids. Interestingly Shinchan was hated mothers, but here- the kids were the consumers, so this was not a problem to worry.
When the channel was launched, it raised a lot of eyebrows but within 18 months, Hungama TV quickly climbed the ladder and became the number 1 kids tv channel in India. Soon after, Ronnie sold the channel to The Walt Disney Company for a whopping $30 million dollars.
8. Ronnie is 2000 not out
After working hand in hand with Disney for years, Ronnie finally sold his entire stake in UTV to Disney in 2012 for a whopping 2000 crores. After exiting the media business- 50 years old at the time, the super successful Ronnie could have taken an early retirement and live a more peaceful life, but Ronnie being Ronnie, his urge to take up new challenges, disrupt new markets and creating things of value led to the start of the second innings of his entrepreneurial journey.
Ronnie co-founded upGrad, an online education company focused at providing rigorous industry-relevant programs specifically for working professionals.
Ronnie also became a writer in 2015 with his first autobiography titled “Dream with your eyes open”. The book was very well received by the readers.
His love for telling stories brought him back into the movie making business with his new company RSVP movies. The production house released its first creation- “Love per square foot’ in 2018 and since then has come up with some brilliant creations like Lust Stories, Karwaan, Uri- the surgical strike, the sky is pink and ghost stories.
9. Ronnie is the real-life Mohan Bhargav
Ronnie and his wife Zarina Screwvala founded the Swades Foundation that operates with the single-minded focus of empowering rural India. With Swades, they have taken the mammoth task of uplifting 1 million people out of poverty every 5 years. With a 300+ strong team and 1000+ volunteers in the Swades family, the foundation strives hard to find and execute solutions to the multiple challenges that rural India faces. The name of his foundation was inspired and derived from the Shah Rukh Khan starrer movie “Swades” where the central character Mohan Bhargav, an NRI working as a scientist at NASA returns to his homeland and feels pity to see the condition of the village he is staying in. This is when he decides to stay back and bring about a positive change in the lives of the people in the village.
10. Ronnie found himself in the Kabaddi ring at 52
What if we told you that Screwvala started playing Kabaddi at the age of 52 years. Sounds insane, right? Well not that much. Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra group exchanged some conversations with Screwvala about his interest in setting up a Kabaddi league in India. Excited by this idea, Screwvala jumped upon this opportunity and became the first owner of a team by bagging ownership of the team Mumbai.
The team was named U Mumba. With some big names in the game and national broadcast by star tv, the age-old sport became a national sensation and the second most popular sport in India in a span of less than 2 months.
So this was the story of Ronnie Screwvala. Let us know in comments of what you think about this story or if you would like us to cover any other personality or topic in the field of arts and media.
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Edited by Anubhav Gaur
Founder, Skyshot Media