Reportage

The Interpreter

By RAHUL BHATIA | 1 June 2012
MANOJ PATIL FOR THE CARAVAN
The control room that Ronnie Screwvala built under Mumbai’s Sea Lord apartments, the fourth building to get his cable service.

ONE

THE OPPRESSIVE AFTERNOON HEAT OF APRIL withdrew in the shade of the covered parking garage underneath Sea Lord apartments, leaving behind a pitiless Mumbai damp that stopped at the misshapen door to a chilled room filled with cables; inside, three men lay sleeping under pictures of their gods and a grim white fluorescent light. Thirty years ago, a quiet and well-mannered young man named Rohinton Screwvala, who lived in a tower just down the leafy road leading to the sea, convinced the manager and residents of Sea Lord to let him build the room in which these men lay, and let him weave pipes in ducts drilled through slabs and staircases, and let him run hefty cables in those pipes to their homes, where he sent up dramas, soaps and movies in a way that had not been done before.

Two tightly-packed apartment towers loomed above this room and the rest of the garage, on either side of a driveway that sloped down to an open gate. There were 80 flats spread over 18 floors in each of the towers, their windows now mostly obscured by scaffolding erected to rejuvenate a facade worn down by the sea wind. Sea Lord, which stands sentinel to the exclusive South Mumbai enclave of Cuffe Parade, was the fourth block of apartments in the area to allow Screwvala in—making it the fourth residential building in the country to receive cable television.

Screwvala, who was only 25, persuaded the residents that his programming would be family friendly and his wiring unobtrusive. With a team of saleswomen and technicians, he set up televisions outside building entrances to showcase his offerings, and the word spread “like wildfire”, the president of the local residents association recalled. At first, about 30 apartments in Sea Lord subscribed to his service, called Network, a rudimentary operation that consisted of a projector, a television, two videocassette players and an imported modulator that measured the integrity of the signal. In time, almost the entire building signed up for Screwvala’s service, which rapidly expanded to take in more than 15 other buildings in Cuffe Parade.

Each cluster of buildings had a control room where a technician played programmes on videocassettes. There would be noticeable gaps between shows; it took the technicians time to eject one cassette and insert the next. But in other respects, by every account, the operation was run smoothly. Television schedules were created for each building on a loose sheet and then disseminated, with programme lineups that began at 7 pm and ended at 12:30 am. Viewers recalled watching Dallas, Dynasty and Star Trek, among other programmes. On nights when the same show was scheduled for broadcast from different control rooms, the tapes were delivered on foot from one building to the next.

The price for a Network connection was R200 a month, a reasonable amount in the early 1980s for well-heeled residents who had previously been restricted to the morally conservative government channel Doordarshan, which delivered news selectively and entertainment parsimoniously. Screwvala was scrupulous about the quality of his service. He met with residents regularly to gauge their viewing preferences; his technicians swabbed the length of the fragile tape reels in each videocassette to ensure a clean image. Demand grew, and soon Network’s reach spanned across South Bombay’s most prosperous addresses: Colaba, Napeansea Road, Breach Candy, Hanging Gardens. To the have-nots, it felt as if Bombay had been divided into those with cable, and those without. “We used to hear about it where we lived,” the film writer Kamlesh Pandey said. “Oh, they’re watching American sitcoms. Oh, they’re watching American soaps.”

Network was funded by Suresh Nanavati, who owned the special-effects powerhouse Western Outdoor Advertising, according to Hemant Mhatre, a technician with the company who was assigned to help Screwvala implement the cable project. Mhatre told me that the idea of a cable network was not new to Bombay. Nanavati, who was then Screwvala’s father-in-law, was the chairman of a prominent hospital, and Mhatre recalled that the building had been wired to broadcast taped programmes for patients. Screwvala had simply expanded the idea’s geography.

At the end of 1982, about a year after Screwvala began providing cable, his monopoly over private television in South Bombay came under threat. A young cable operator, Siddharth Srivastava, was offering the same service that Screwvala provided, but at a steep 40 percent discount. Screwvala was furious, according to Ashok Kanwar, the president of the local residents’ association. As far as Screwvala could tell, he was there first, and the other guy was an opportunist trying to move in on a market he had created singlehandedly. For three months, both cable operators met Kanwar every other day to sway him. “I never let them meet me at the same time,” Kanwar said, smiling. Srivastava’s price was his argument, and Screwvala raged against “people trying to edge into his business”. The residents were naturally attracted to the lower price, but at Sea Lord, Kanwar said, they stuck with Screwvala for “ethical” reasons—though he also mentioned that Screwvala lowered his price in response to the intrusion. Screwvala ran the cable outfit for a few more years, before his attention waned; he had greater ambitions. By 1988 he had sold the company, and it floundered under its new management.

Cuffe Parade residents recalled Screwvala fondly, and expressed delight at his successes since then. “When I walk down the street here and he passes by,” Mhatre said, “he still stops his car to talk.” As he discussed Screwvala and Network, Mhatre grew expansive, recalling minor details like the names of the nearby video libraries—Teenage and Shemaroo—where they had borrowed programme tapes. “We used to go there ourselves,” he said. “There used to be a list we would choose from. On Monday we had to show comedies. On Tuesday we had to show murder mysteries. We would make a weekly schedule.”

No rights were purchased for Network’s programming, Mhatre said; another cable operator who ran a similar service in Bombay at the time told me that licensing was non-existent, adding that he had gotten tapes of the latest American television shows from airline crew members who carried them back to India.

Screwvala’s service had something for everyone, even children. Mhatre said that in addition to the programming for adults, Network also broadcast cartoons. “The kind they play on TV now,” he said, looking beyond the screen above him as he remembered. Then, with a little prod, it came to him. “Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck…

TWO

IN 1990, a few years after selling his cable venture, Screw-vala launched another company, a small production house that made advertisements and corporate films. But over the next two decades, UTV Software Communications Limited, as it would come to be known, expanded in almost every direction: it produced TV shows, inflight programming, animation and commercials; it dubbed cartoons; it created television channels; it distributed movies and soon began to produce them as well; it made video console games and did things on the Internet. It went, in short, wherever the ambitions of its restless founder guided it.

By the late 2000s, Screwvala had manoeuvred himself and UTV from Bollywood’s outer periphery to its centre. The son of a Parsi businessman from South Bombay, a graduate of an exclusive school and an actor in English theatre productions—which is to say, the polar opposite of a Bollywood insider—he had decided that the unruly ways of the city’s film industry could be tamed and rationalised, and that he was the man to do it. He learned to speak the language of the insiders while doing business like an outsider; he insisted on written contracts when they were still unheard of, yet inked deals with many of the industry’s biggest names, and produced dozens of movies at an unusually rapid clip in the course of becoming a powerful insider in his own right.

Once he had been accepted, however warily, on the inside, he pitched himself to the outside as the exception to the Bollywood rules he had learned to play by. He made it known, relentlessly, that his approach was superior; that although his ways were expensive, he was building a company for the future. It was a message that resonated with men like Rupert Murdoch and Will Smith, and corporations such as Sony and Disney—and when Screwvala signed deals with these global players, the message was amplified again in scores of news articles about these deals and the man who made them. By force of repetition, and the perception that repetition influenced, Screwvala came to be seen as a man straddling two worlds: he was in this place but not of it. This made him a rare and valuable commodity, a bridge between two cultures.

Last year, the Walt Disney Company, which had earlier purchased a considerable share of UTV, announced that it would swallow his company whole and enlist Screwvala to repair its faltering efforts here. And so this February, the man whose media career began with unlicensed broadcasts of Mickey Mouse cartoons took the reins as the managing director of Walt Disney in India.

BEFORE LAUNCHING NETWORK, Screwvala had abandoned a nascent acting career, which began at the prestigious Cathedral and John Cannon School, where he performed in student productions. In his early 20s, he acted in plays with Bombay theatre stalwarts such as Pearl Padamsee and her husband Alyque—the legendary adman who was known as “God” at Lintas, the agency he ran. Padamsee remembered Screwvala as a young man bursting with ideas and an energy that theatre could not contain, and said proudly that Screwvala once played his niece in a production whose name he could not recall; he also played Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Cassio in Othello. At his Breach Candy home, seated below posters of his old shows, Padamsee said he could tell even then that Screwvala “was a taskmaster and paid attention to detail. People with the zeal to succeed have that.” As Padamsee -recalled it, one day Screwvala just stopped turning up for rehearsals, and when Padamsee enquired about his absence, Screwvala said he was starting a company—a toothbrush manufacturer. “We thought it was funny that he left and started making toothbrushes,” Padamsee said. Screwvala ran that company for more than two decades, alongside Network and then UTV, which he built at a pace that bordered on reckless.

The speed at which UTV grew reflected Screwvala’s ambitions. One former employee, Ajay Vasu, said—only partly in jest—that “Ronnie kept starting something every six months”. Screwvala was possessed by what UTV could become, and so he was everywhere, in everything, familiar with problems personal and official. Various former division heads said he knew their every move, and that he remembered, ominously, the rationale behind those moves.

He checked the condition of the official cars personally. He checked the office regularly for tidiness. He was rumoured to carry the company’s consolidated cash flows between his ears. This omniscience was imposing, but its ultimate purpose was to impose order. And although he gave his employees room to practice business how they desired, it was to an end that he desired. If his wishes were not met, either through faulty projections or casualness with his time, as various heads of his company’s divisions discovered, he inflicted on the guilty a rare and memorable annoyance.

But to be lost, or to start off not knowing, was no sin at Screwvala’s company. He favoured the ways of the deep end, and so people who had nothing to do with direction became good directors, and a person who had never handled a dubbing project in her life became an expert at it.

Screwvala would later say that he had no mentors, an assertion former employees agree with. He certainly seemed to do things alone. In UTV’s early days, after he left the cable business and before his first marriage ended, when he worked out of Western Outdoor’s office at Fort in South Bombay, he would describe to his small team how large the company would one day become. All the company did then was produce commercials, corporate films and TV shows—and it still shared office space with the staff from his toothbrush concern—so most of his employees thought these visions contained more than a whiff of fantasy. At least until the day when Screwvala asked them all to report to work tomorrow smartly dressed, without specifying a reason—and then walked into the office the following day with Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation would later invest $5 million in UTV.

They bore his “action plan strategies” and corporate retreats with good humour, and some believed it was “his Parsi thing”. But he was also the hardest worker around, and he demanded that they stay late until their work was done. It became a habit, so even when their assignments were complete, they’d pop in to see if anyone else needed help. They were young and unattached, and afflicted by the restlessness that possessed Screwvala, who seemed to have set the rest of his life aside in order to spend every waking minute expanding UTV’s reach and influence and, with it, his own standing.

Several former employees said that the unavailability of cash was a perpetual problem at the company. This did not affect salaries or pay dates, but division heads had to work with tight budgets because Screwvala funneled revenues back into the company to facilitate its expansion into new streams of media. This served two purposes: it gave Screwvala the “scalability” he desired and, he later said, it spread the risk

One employee said Screwvala “could give you a dozen solutions to your problem in a minute”. (He later solved his own problem with the traffic snarl outside the company’s current office by ordering his driver to set out alone and get to the far end of the jam; he would follow an hour later, chauffeured to his waiting car by motorbike.) This penchant for order extended to how his employees thought about decisions. A number of survivors told me he repeatedly demolished their reasoning; when one demolition job provoked a verbal outburst from the head of his dubbing department, Eliza Lewis, he just shrugged it off. “You could swear at him,” she told me, “and he would take it.” It was a stark contrast to the prevailing attitude elsewhere in the industry, where deference to egos and sentiments was of disproportionate importance.

From the beginning, Screwvala took pride in an ethos whose codes were stricter, and whose practices were almost ostentatiously professional. A former programming director at a satellite channel recalled that she spent her hectic first days on the job parrying gifts and other enticements from a stream of television producers, except for Screwvala and his wife (and UTV co-founder) Zarina, who said they had come only to offer programme ideas and not to purchase favour. “They’re very much like an ad agency,” the director Rensil D’Silva, who recently left his advertising career to focus on films, told me. “They’re the same animal. It’s reassuring.” This, along with his habit of relentless “overexplanation” (as Screwvala himself once put it), marked him as an outsider to the industry, but it made him a friendly face to investment bankers and Western media conglomerates.

DISNEY HAD BEEN INTRODUCED TO UTV in the mid-1990s by Lalit Modi, then just a businessman who owned the marketing rights for Disney programming in India. Screwvala came away with an assignment to dub Disney’s cartoons into Indian languages, but, importantly, a connection had been formed. When UTV moved from a basement office in Worli to larger premises in the Mumbai neighborhood of Saki Naka, the new space had dedicated dubbing studios where Disney cartoons were Indianised—and the rooms were occupied all day long and most of the night.

After Disney’s joint venture with Modi came to an end, the company set up its own Indian operation in 2003. An executive at Sony Entertainment Television named Rajat Jain was hired as the company’s first managing director, and during his tenure—which began with rumours of an amusement park—the company launched two channels for children. But the broadcasting business struggled: the new channels, Disney Channel and Toon Disney, performed abysmally, lagging well behind the Cartoon Network and Hungama, a kids’ channel Screwvala and his wife had launched in 2004. Some of Disney’s most popular American programmes, like Hannah Montana, were targeted at tween girls, but it would take the company a few more years to realise that tweens were not a market category in India.

“The positioning was driven by Burbank,” a former Disney employee who recently left the company explained. The company’s California headquarters received a real-time broadcast of Disney Channel as it appeared in India, and there were conference calls between Burbank and India three times a week to discuss the channel’s programming and presentation.

In 2006, Andy Bird, the chairman of Walt Disney International, met Screwvala in the US and offered to purchase Hungama and buy a stake in UTV. Screwvala was for the deal, because he believed it would give UTV cash to fund his itch for constant expansion. His company’s management was less certain. They had certainly sought investments, but Disney had indicated a frighteningly deep involvement. The executives wondered if their control would be compromised, according to a paper by two academic researchers who were present during an internal discussion at UTV at the time. One board member said, “We are not putting Hungama up for sale. We were looking at a strategic investor in UTV with no thought process of exiting Hungama TV. If anybody had come with an outright purchase deal for the channel, our answer would be a flat ‘no’. But when we started discussions with Disney, we realised that we couldn’t proceed without resolving the Hungama issue as Disney was in the kids’ space. We couldn’t have partnered with them in all areas while competing in one.” Disney paid $30.5 million for Hungama and also purchased a 14.9 percent stake in UTV for $14 million, giving Screwvala’s listed company a valuation of just under $100 million. The headlines focused on the sale of the channel, with the investment relegated to a footnote. In hindsight the stake purchase was more important, for it gave Screwvala the cash to scale up, which he considered more vital than retaining complete control.

(Through a spokesperson, Screwvala and his senior management team declined numerous requests for interviews over the course of four months. In fact, when I spoke with Ronald D’Mello, the former chief financial officer at UTV, he told me that Screwvala had asked him not to respond to my questions. “He requested me not to get involved,” D’Mello said, adding that Screwvala was “very uncomfortable with any of his ex-colleagues talking about him.”)

The purchase of Hungama gave Disney clout, particularly because the channel came with Doraemon, a hugely popular Japanese cartoon about a boy and his robotic cat. Riding on the popularity of the cartoon, Hungama continued to post better ratings than Disney’s branded channels until an executive named Natasha Malhotra dictated terms to a reluctant Burbank, saying that she wanted Doraemon on the Disney-branded channel too. The move worked; television ratings shot up instantly. As the former employee put it, “Doraemon saved us. Disney should have a maatha teko outside the front door [a shrine to Doraemon].”

When Disney eventually purchased UTV in 2011, the employee said it appeared as if “they were taking over Disney”. The perception was accurate, at least in terms of numbers: UTV was much larger than Walt Disney India, with three times as many employees. It had made more inroads into more businesses, and had far deeper connections than the studio from Burbank, which many locals believed to be hapless and out of its depth. Disney had the resources, but UTV had charted the territory. And like an omen, Disney’s redesigned business cards and letterheads arrived in May with UTV’s logo on them, but without the familiar countenance of Mickey Mouse that its older employees had grown fond of.

It was an understanding that Disney sorely needed: it had struggled to find an audience for its television channels, while its sputtering movie division fared even worse, releasing a series of high-profile flops; in 2011, Walt Disney India recorded losses of R658 million. Its first managing director, Jain, had recognised that force-fitting Disney’s global values to Indian tastes was futile. “The challenge we have is to continue to understand [India’s] diversity,” Jain said in a 2007 interview. “It is about taking the brand into India. About taking [Disney’s] stories into India. We don’t want to recreate everything from scratch. But we can’t simply transport and replicate everything. The way to tackle this is to understand local consumers.”

But Disney was unable to do this. “For all we’ve done,” the former Disney employee said, “we’re still a brand popular only in large Indian cities and towns. We haven’t been able to break in.”

ONE OF SCREWVALA’S FIRST ACTS after arriving at Disney in February was to call for a town hall meeting in the largest banquet hall at the Renaissance Convention Centre, a business hotel beside Mumbai’s Powai Lake. Figures and plans rolled off his tongue, and he seemed assured, amused and at home talking to the large crowd. He was described by the Disney employee as “sharp” and “on-the-ball”. Many knew him already, of course, for more than two-thirds of the thousand people in attendance were from UTV. The rest caught a glimpse of why Disney had bought out Screwvala’s stake in UTV, for a price that valued the two-decade-old media company at more than $900 million—marking a ninefold increase in value in the five years since Disney first took a stake in 2006. One media analyst summed up the deal with a sentiment I heard more than once: Disney didn’t just buy UTV, he told me, “they bought Ronnie.”

At the town hall meeting, Andy Bird told the audience that Disney’s plans to acquire UTV had begun to take shape more than a year earlier: on 26 January 2011, he recalled, the company’s head of business development in India, Nitin Chawla, had proposed the buyout. Since 2006, Disney had been steadily increasing its investment in UTV, and the two companies had grown increasingly close: Zarina played a key role in integrating Hungama into Disney, while Bird had taken a seat on UTV’s board.

By 2011, Disney held more than 50 percent of UTV’s stock, but Screwvala had retained control. At the end of July, Disney publicly announced that it would purchase the half of UTV that it didn’t own, and offered $454 million for the stake. The deal was barely a monetary blip for the $80 billion company from Burbank, but it was by far Disney’s largest-ever acquisition outside the US. The size of the deal underlined its importance to the people from Disney and UTV inside the room, as well as their peers in industry outside. But practically every person I spoke with said they found the valuation inexplicably high.

“Someone there sure loves writing Ronnie big cheques,” a TV executive said, his smile tight with meaning. Another media analyst ventured, “The high price might be for larger ambitions, because the current operations don’t justify the high price.” This was a question that arose persistently during interviews: had Disney overvalued UTV at $913 million? In 2009, Disney had paid $4.3 billion to buy Marvel, whose rich stash of intellectual property has generated a series of global blockbusters—most recently The Avengers, which grossed $1 billion worldwide in its first three weeks. Was Marvel only worth five times more than UTV?

IN THE FOLLOWING WEEKS, Screwvala made frequent visits to Disney’s headquarters in Central Mumbai. He merged the franchise marketing division with the consumer products division, reasoning that the best way to build franchises was to put them on consumer goods such as stationery, home products, toys, electronics, apparel, and even grocery items like soap and shampoos. He appointed new heads for Disney’s movie and broadcasting divisions, filling both jobs with old hands from UTV. Staff began moving out to UTV’s offices at Saki Naka in North Mumbai, where they sat so close to each other that it violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Disney’s international corporate guidelines on minimum workspace requirements. By the middle of April, the new company had a more settled feel about it, although uncertainty still remained. The former employee came away convinced that the biggest hurdle the companies faced was aligning their work cultures. He described Disney as a “slow-moving” tanker, where proposals vanished for months into corporate darkness before they were resolved. “You’re like, Dude! Get Moving!” he joked. Whereas at UTV, he continued, “they promise clients first and then do their research to see if a job can be done! Disney would never do that. If a client asked us for something, we would tell them that we’d get back to them. That’s going to be a challenge.” But he also felt that Screwvala would be good for the company. “He’s a doer. Disney needs that. We need scale.”

What Disney also needed was a working movie division—which explained, in part, why it bought UTV. Its own films had faltered. “Movies are a touchy subject at work,” the former employee told me. “We’re dying to break into Bollywood.” The company could not forge relationships, and peers in the industry said that Disney’s leaders were incapable of making decisions. Disney’s staff in the movie division found themselves caught between a headquarters that was a little too involved, and an industry that was unimpressed by Disney’s global reputation.

The employee said that while UTV’s everyday working practices were unusual by Disney’s standards (“they’re a typical Indian company”), the knowledge they had purchased was necessary for Disney to make films profitably. Screwvala, partly because he didn’t have a Burbank to report to, had managed to make himself central to conversations about Bollywood in the past decade, and created the perception that his company was more professional than anyone else. Less than 10 years after it began operating, UTV’s movie division contributed almost half of the company’s income, making it by far UTV’s most valuable revenue stream. In 2010, the movie division earned UTV R3.15 billion; that same year, Walt Disney India as a whole had revenues of only R1.78 billion.

By purchasing UTV, Disney would acquire knowledge of the industry’s mysterious workings, leaving behind a disastrous past where its movies and approach met with little success. Disney would no longer be an outsider; it would be at the heart of a film industry that was insular, parochial and resistant to organisation. It could manage this because Screwvala had done the hard yards; beating a path to doors that mattered, flattering the men who opened those doors, and flattening their apprehensions with charm and the heft of his wallet.

THREE

DISNEY WAS NOT ALONE in its struggles. For as long as Indian cinema had existed, Westerners hoping to thrive in India’s enormous market had seen failure. Among the first was Adolph Zukor, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary whose stock in life had risen quickly after his arrival in the US in 1889. He was already a Hollywood mogul by the time he organised a consortium of American, British and Indian bankers and raised $3 million to create an extension of his prolific film company, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later known as Paramount), in British India in 1920. His venture in Bombay, the Indian Famous Film Company, began talks to take over 25 of the country’s most prominent theatres. Zukor wanted to create, distribute and exhibit movies, which would give his company a hand in everything of tangible worth in the movie business from start to end. All this struck fear into the natives, for the new company threatened to revolutionise their practices and dominate the unorganised movie business because it would be run with “American methods and American equipment”. But just eight months after it began, the company withdrew from India in 1921 without a single movie to its credit. The director of the company’s Indian operations, Tartington Baker, later said simply that their “plans did not turn out well”.

Zukor landed in the midst of growing concerns over the prevalence of Western, and particularly American, silent feature films, and their “demoralising effect” on a nation sensitive to foreign influences. After a 1927 riot in a Delhi theatre (where the biblical epic Moon of Israel suddenly offended Muslim sentiments two years into its release), the government agreed to look into claims that foreign films were “subversive of religion and morals”. At this point, foreign films comprised about 85 percent of the film footage shown in India; censor boards examined 5 million feet of film, and determined that of the imported footage, 80 percent was American. That year, a committee created by the government to look into the industry’s practices recommended that exhibitors should be ordered to show a designated number of Indian films, but non-Indian studios opposed this. So the government instead agreed to a few of the panel’s other recommendations to give the nascent industry a helping hand: railway concessions to film production units and rationalising stifling import duties.

As India’s local movie industry began to grow, the demand for Western fare declined. Between 1931 and 1935, the number of Hindi silent features released each year increased from 24 to 153. After World War II, Hollywood was relegated to a corner as local concerns took centre stage; by 1948, there were only 10 distributors of Western films in the country, down from 27 a decade earlier.

The growth in local films was in part fueled by legions of would-be filmmakers, a development that caused considerable grief to established producers and directors. Production costs—which included actor salaries—rose quickly, and there was genuine, if misplaced, concern that a large number of people attracted by the trade were rushing into making movies without considering the substantial risk of failure. (It was said that in the early 1950s, some stars earned in excess of $300,000 a year.) Many films were made by so-called “single-shot” producers, who made one feature and then vanished. Actors in demand did multiple films in wildly different genres at the same time, and often on the same day—a practice that was widespread until the 1990s.

The studios from California were largely invisible during this time, but their stories lingered as plagiarised adoptions. Hindi films in the post-war years were especially prone to themes that looked vaguely familiar. “One Indian film produced in 1946, Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani,” the New York Times reported, bore a “remarkable resemblance to the theme of Keys of the Kingdom”. Paramount won a Bombay court case against an Indian producer who had copied the 1954 Danny Kaye comedy Knock on Wood, releasing it under the title Begunah. “Hollywood supplies a great deal of the Indian movie industry’s raw material in plots and ideas,” the New York Times noted in 1957, “without having anything to say about it. Local producers watch imported features with an eagle eye and frankly plagiarize the more popular productions scene by scene. One producer explained that he saw nothing ethically wrong in this, as otherwise the Indian masses who do not understand English, and have few chances to see foreign films anyway, would be denied these masterpieces.”

This was the role Hollywood studios continued to play in India—as exhibitors of movies watched by shrinking audiences, struggling with hostile taxes imposed by a protectionist government—until the early 1990s, when the government loosened its controls on the economy.

IT WAS IN THIS NEW WORLD that the studios came to life. At first they marketed and distributed only movies which had been made abroad, and then distributed Indian movies as well. But distributing films, particularly those not made in India, was only modestly profitable. That was not where the serious money lay. At the same time, the proliferation of multiplexes and the rise of lucrative new revenue streams, such as mobile ringtones, tempted the studios to produce their own movies in India. Columbia Tristar, Warner, Fox and Disney set up production divisions in the mid-2000s and began to make or acquire big-budget movies soon after. Almost immediately, they learnt that producing movies in India was a complicated and tense affair.

In 2007, when Columbia Tristar produced its first Indian film, Saawariya—a melodramatic adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s White Nights starring Ranbir Kapoor—its executives unsuccessfully tried to negotiate the movie’s release date to avoid going head to head with a noisy reincarnation epic starring Shah Rukh Khan, called Om Shanti Om. They found it difficult to handle egos, I was told by a former executive, and even struggled with the logistics of paying people. Columbia prepared a marketing approach based on a trailer that the director had shown them, only to discover two days before the film’s release—when their mercurial director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, let them see the movie’s final cut—that it looked nothing like the trailer. The movie also had a blue tint; an unexpected auteur’s flourish that left the company’s straitlaced executives weak-kneed. It had cost more than R400 million to produce, and the experience was so unnerving that soon afterwards Columbia exited the production business entirely, and the head of its Indian operations, who had led it for a decade and wanted the company to focus on producing movies, resigned and later took up the cause of combating film piracy. Saawariya finally broke even in 2010, three years after its release.

The studios wanted to approach making movies a particular way, a way they thought proper and organised, with paperwork and clear financial transactions. But the movie industry had largely resisted organiation and, from various interviews, it was clear that hidden cash transactions were  still important to moviemaking, a legacy of high income tax rates decades ago and the entry of underworld financing in the late 1980s. To Bollywood, the studios were simply ‘corporates’, a reviled word that implied coldness, rigidity and an allegedly unhealthy attention to cash flows. There was nothing “personal” about their approach, a well-regarded film writer and lyricist told me. The deeper disagreement, it seemed, was about the methods of a new breed of people in suits more accustomed to numbers than established traditions.

In 2008, the filmmaker Karan Johar, a consummate Bollywood insider whose father was a respected film producer, delivered his own advice for studios hoping to make it in Mumbai. “A gesture of support, or an extension of an apology appeals to us more than those big corporate presentations,” Johar wrote. “We like bold and we like technology, but give us a narration, not a pie chart! We might be a little old fashioned in our pitches, but we make films because the nation’s heart thumps for it. Appeal to that sentiment, and understand our culture. Employ people who understand this about us, as an industry, and as a country. We’re emotional, and we’re more connected than you’d think, but we have our patterns. Try to understand who we are as an industry, what works for us and more importantly, for our audiences. What do they reject with morchas [protests] and embrace with jubilees? When sitting with your analysts, conduct a human analysis, not a business one. Deconstruct us if you must, but understand us at the end.”

Western studios also came up against the intractable problem of Bollywood stars, whose numbers were small and whims large. Warner’s first project in India was a film titled Chandni Chowk to China that starred the action hero Akshay Kumar, who was in the midst of a damaging financial arms race with his peers, sparked in part by the large budgets Western studios offered. Kumar described how he green-lit the film (and his was the only green light that mattered), offering the interviewer Anupama Chopra a hair-raising explanation:

Kumar: Before Warner Brothers came in, Rohan Sippy (a producer) got me a design of me standing like in that pose [the poster depicted Kumar with a conical rice hat obscuring his face, and gripping Shaolin swords embellished with skewered vegetables]. The film was called Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu. He said, “Akshay I want to make a film.” I said, “Okay, what’s the story?” “I don’t have a story.” “Okay do you have an idea?” “I don’t have an idea.” “Alright, you have a producer?” “I don’t have a producer.” “So what do you have?” “I just have this poster, this is the main poster.” His idea was this poster he had made in front of me. This is the first film I’ve done without listening to anything. I told him I wanted to do this film.

Chopra: Purely on the poster?

Kumar: On the poster. You know, sometimes it’s your instinct. I don’t know whether it’s going to be right or wrong. That we will come to know later, when the movie releases. This guy is a chef who goes to learn martial arts. Bas yehi idea tha. [That was the only idea.] Let’s make it on my life and let’s do it. Rohan said, “give me about three months and I’ll come back. He didn’t come back to me in three months. When he did come back he told me that he has a small idea and that he has got Warner Brothers to produce it. And from there it took off.

The movie’s budget was estimated at around R800 million, and it was immediately panned by critics and viewers alike; Rediff judged it a “box office disaster”, and reported that “audiences hated the film so much, some people even walked out of theatres mid-way.”

THIS IS WHAT DISNEY FACED when it confronted the question of whether it wanted to produce movies. So it tried to make Indian films in a number of ways. First it partnered with Yash Raj Films, the most famous movie brand in Bollywood, to create the animated Roadside Romeo. The production costs were reportedly above R200 million, but the movie mustered only R55 million in its first fortnight. “It didn’t work,” the Disney employee said. To the company’s employees it seemed as if Disney had ceded control of the project to Yash Raj, led by the persuasive and powerful producer-director Aditya Chopra, and “it couldn’t take too many calls. The idea of two huge studios coming together seemed good on paper, but it didn’t translate well. The marketing was okay-okay, and the movie wasn’t great either.”

Disney’s next effort was Zokkomon, a children’s superhero film featuring a popular child actor. The company spent R320 million on the film—“and it was supposed to be massive,” the former employee said. In preparation for its release on 7 May 2010, the studio put out posters and trailers, and waited to see the movie with a great deal of anticipation.

But when Andy Bird saw the movie, shortly before its scheduled premiere, word rapidly spread that he was upset; he had reportedly announced that there was “no way” Disney’s name was going on the movie. “It didn’t have any of Disney’s values,” the employee said. “It was like an 80s movie with bad production values. It was one of [then managing director] Mahesh Samat’s biggest failures. We asked ourselves: didn’t anyone look at this?” Zokkomon was eventually released in April 2011, and it sunk after one average weekend. “This is just me talking, but it was like a bad dream,” the employee said. “They couldn’t have salvaged it without spending a lot more money or reshooting lots of scenes.”

“We then tried making a Telugu movie,” the former employee said. “We got the biggest of stars. It had brilliant visual effects, but it needed to run four weeks. It didn’t. In hindsight, we weren’t focusing on the story. The selling point of this movie was the visual effects and the stars.”

One filmmaker who had been approached by Disney told me the studio “doesn’t know how to handle Bollywood”. The media conglomerate’s stabs at Bollywood were derided, and conversations with industry observers about what might have gone wrong often devolved quickly into diatribes against the business practices of Western studios at large and corporates in general. This filmmaker told me that he had rebuffed Disney’s offer because the studio’s executives wanted to have the last word on the final edit of the movie, a scenario he found unthinkable given that he had a major release to his name. “This gives them a foothold,” he said. “By buying UTV, Disney has bought a card to sit at the table.”

 

But UTV was not exempt from criticism along similar lines. A popular film writer depicted Screwvala as the owner of “a cold handshake”, and accused him of running a company that was “interested only in the valuation game”. The writer said they had discussed working together, but that he declined because he felt uncomfortable. “It’s a business for them, and they’re doing it with other people’s money,” he said. “But we’re making films with our own money. If it doesn’t work, it hurts us.”

Disney executives had come to India with the confidence that they knew how to go about their business. Jain, the first managing director, told an interviewer that he was “setting up a strong management team”, with “the knowledge and the empowerment to translate these universal values into Indian locally relevant content and communication”. But whatever they knew didn’t seem enough. The low-cost merchandising division, profitable globally, was a money-spinner here, too. But television had struggled until they purchased Hungama TV, and the movie division’s woes were well documented.

Less than a year after Zokkomon’s expensive debacle, on 1 February 2012, Samat resigned on good terms, and Screw-vala and his company were absorbed into Disney because he understood. He would interpret this indecipherable thing.

FOUR

UTV’S SUCCESS may be Screwvala’s most visible accomplishment, but his even greater achievement was convincing the insular inhabitants of Bollywood that he belonged. This was, after all, a place where relationships were based on decades, if not generations, of accumulated trust, and by that standard, Screwvala had a history not much longer than Disney’s. But in a span of less than 15 years, he managed to establish himself so firmly at the heart of the industry that many insiders refuse to talk about him for fear of the consequences. “Now you can’t make enemies of them,” one writer said of UTV. “They’re big players now, and making enemies of them is like making enemies of Yash Raj. You have to deal with them in many ways.”

For most of UTV’s first decade, the company’s largest revenue stream still came from Doordarshan: in addition to making television programmes, Screwvala was also contracted to sell the channel’s commercial airtime to advertisers. With its gargantuan network and audience, the staid channel remained the place for marketing companies to make big money. But winning business from Doordarshan was a challenge that required dedicated personnel. Anil Mishra was a government employee when Screwvala asked if he would join UTV; he told me that Screwvala knew of his contacts with government officials, and asked him to lead the team that dealt with Doordarshan. Mishra and another former senior manager, Manish Popat, said that they broke in with Doordarshan officials—who granted them permission to market programmes and doled out airtime—by “wining and dining them” and, more vaguely, by “ringing their doorbells with our elbows because our arms were full”.

It was actually Doordarshan that prompted Screwvala to launch UTV’s movie division, which began almost by accident. In 1996, the government channel commissioned 52 made-for-TV movies, and contracted UTV to produce about a fifth of them. The company had not made films before, but Screwvala quickly established a film division and asked Sanjeev Bhattacharya, his business development manager for marketing, to run it. The move was calculated: Screw-vala knew that Bhattacharya’s father was a film producer in West Bengal, and Bhattacharya was passionate about the movies.

“We got two movies on the floor,” Bhattacharya told me. “Since my dad was a director, we got Manisha Koirala, and he was the director. The plan was to release it on TV and then in theatres,” Bhattacharya said. Koirala, a Nepali actress who found fortune in Bollywood, was on a streak at the time, and she liked the script Bhattacharya’s father narrated to her. (It was based on “an old Hindi movie which we twisted and remade”, Bhattacharya said.) Filming began, and it came as a surprise when the director general of Doordarshan departed, and the new man in charge scuttled his predecessor’s project. This left UTV with an unfinished film, expensive equipment and, critically, a film star’s dates. “We had already started shooting, so we converted it into a big feature film,” Bhattacharya said. When it was released in 1997, the movie, called Dil Ke Jharoke Mein, “was a huge disaster. A very big flop. Because the mentality was not to make a feature film, but a film for television… And maybe because the script was not good.”

BHATTACHARYA MET ME AT A CRISP, minimalist office in Bandra, where he runs a film venture capital fund. A pile of budget sheets lay on his large table, and right on top was a number beside the name ‘Akshay Kumar’: R143 million. He said that under his watch, UTV had begun to distribute movies: “We did Lagaan, Mission Kashmir.” As for production, UTV played it safe for a while, financing and acquiring completed movies. This was seen as less risky than making films from scratch. But after a few years of relative success, Bhattacharya and Screwvala began to have differences over the future of the division in the run-up to the company’s IPO in 2005.

Their disagreement stemmed in part from Screwvala’s attempts to expand the company in preparation for the impending public float. He wanted the motion pictures division to produce more films each year; to Bhattacharya, who grew up with films, the sentiment was heresy. “Beyond a point I could not take being in so much of a hurry,” he said. “Everything has to happen in a proper manner. Spielberg cannot make ten movies in a year.”

Bhattacharya believed that Screwvala’s wishes would lead the division down a path he considered unnatural. Movies were intangible, and their worth could not be estimated. All he knew was that to make movies, he needed time away from the office, time to get to know his actors. But Screwvala sought to impose the kind of discipline he expected from other divisions (although this particular division head felt he had things a little easier). “In the last three or four years” before the IPO, Bhattacharya told me, “the environment totally changed because the need to get into something bigger became totally urgent, and I think Ronnie became aggressive about doing that. The issue was that we had to show growth every quarter, show growth every three years, every four years. My constant thing with Ronnie was that in the movie business, you cannot show growth—I mean, you never know. A movie like Dabangg can do business for R1 billion or it can flop. So when he bought Bhansali’s Guzaarish, in his business plan it would have been shown as potential revenues of R2 billion, but it turned out to do business of R250 million.”

Numbers were crucial to Screwvala, who knew exactly how to present them. “He had this inborn thing, and it’s a rare kind of skill,” Bhattacharya said. “There is an art in the way the chief financial officer presents your balance sheet to investors. There is an art to presenting sad news in such a way that people do not take it the way they should take it. So Ronnie had a very good understanding of how balance sheets should be written. How to make them look attractive. How to manoeuvre heads here and there—I’m saying that in a positive way. He has that art. I have to consult my CFO. Screwvala could tell the CFO what to do, and what he was doing wrong.”

By the time it went public in 2005, UTV had grown from a lean organisation with a collegiate atmosphere to a distinctly hierarchical company with 218 staff on its rolls. Its employees often told outsiders they were a creative company, a fact they were proud of—but now there were more levels of management, and more paperwork.

Bhattacharya mentioned an application for a laptop as an example: “If I wanted a laptop, he’d give me a laptop, but the process of haggling about price and what kind of laptop… by the end of it, I was like ‘I don’t want this fucking laptop’. But he would give it to you. But then, that is Ronnie. That is his nature. He always wanted a justification. He wanted to involve ten people. He liked doing that.” The various division heads could still approach Screwvala, whose door was open, but there were marketing people as well, and the idea of a regimented structure—at least the kind Screwvala had in mind—did not sit well with Bhattacharya and his peers. Between 2003 and 2004, just before UTV went public, approximately five division heads left the company for a variety of reasons.

“Maybe because he wanted the IPO, he wanted me to do certain things that were detrimental to the movie business,” Bhattacharya said. “When you do an IPO, you want to sign contracts, you want to make a prospectus to show the public, and in that prospectus you want to show announcements for announcements’ sake because that is what will lure your investment bankers who project to the public that this is what the future will be like… I can understand that taking out an IPO at that time… there was a lot of pressure on him.”

Anil Mishra, who also left the company before the IPO, said that a Canadian pension fund called CDPQ, which then owned a 30 percent stake in UTV, “wasn’t happy because targets were not met, and they finally got out”.

“Books had to be made in a particular manner, accounting had to be done in a particular manner, there had to be amortization policies,” Bhattacharya recalled with a frown. “I was concerned about my division, about maintaining relationships with creative people because they are very sensitive. But for the company, sensitivities at that time were not more important. Making that IPO document was more important.”

Bhattacharya worried that the company would stop functioning as a creative enterprise. “See, there’s a difference between Spielberg’s company and a 20th Century Fox,” he said. “Both are right—both aim to make good movies, but there is a different way of doing things. My mindset was of Spielberg’s production house. Ronnie’s was 20th Century Fox. And it was his company.” In 2004, Screwvala and Bhattacharya had one last conversation about the division’s future. It confirmed their positions were irreconcilable, and within days Bhattacharya left the company. They haven’t spoken since.

AFTER THE IPO, UTV was flush with cash, but Screwvala faced a seemingly intractable problem. UTV had relationships with some of the bigger players in the movie business, and it distributed, co-produced, and acquired films, but it was still seen as an outsider. Screwvala came from advertising, not film, and that alone was reason enough for suspicion. Actors, the backbone of the industry, worked only for those who they felt a kinship with, and cash transactions were still the norm; for UTV, whose books would be scrutinised because it had gone public, this was an additional problem.

After Bhattacharya’s departure, Screwvala recruited Aditya Shastri, then the CEO of 20th Century Fox, to produce movies for UTV. They met at Screwvala’s home in South Mumbai, where Shastri realised at once that Screwvala’s ambitious plans for the company did not rule out the option to sell it. “He told me that he didn’t just want to be a big fish in a small pond,” Shastri said.

His first week on the job was instructive. UTV had just released Swades, a film by Ashutosh Gowarikar that had cost the studio R250 million to make. During a conversation with Shastri, Screwvala stepped out of his office to ask how Swades was doing. And old hand came by and said, “There are twenty people watching it,” Shastri recalled. Screwvala acknowledged it and continued the conversation. “More than anything else, he’s learnt the ability to take a loss. And he could take a hit square on the chin and get up, walk away, and come right back. Swades was a lot of money. And he continued.” Shastri compared Screwvala’s perseverance with the hasty exit other Indian businessmen had made when their film companies encountered difficulty. “It would have been easy for him to shut shop like the Birlas and the Mahindras did. But he didn’t.”

Shastri saw Screwvala’s ability to spring back up after a movie’s failure as one of his big strengths. “That’s what makes him different from Western studios in India. They can’t handle failure,” Shastri said. “Now that Disney has taken over UTV, that may change,” he added. “The ability to take a loss and walk with his head high might not be easy.”

Screwvala wanted to create a studio that was as deep in the movie business as Aditya Chopra’s Yash Raj Films. “I remember Ronnie giving me a newspaper ad by Yash Raj Films which said they had four of the top grossers of the year,” Shastri told me. “He said, ‘we have to be like this someday’. So the idea was that either we choose the Aditya Chopra route, which meant that there would be a creative person who would sit and decide ‘yes, no, yes’, or be a studio that said, ‘we’ll talk to creative people’. Because at that point [at Yash Raj], Kunal Kohli, Shaad Ali, Sanjay Gadhvi and one more person were directing movies for Aditya Chopra, and clearly Aditya Chopra was the creative head. And they all were … kowtow is the wrong word, but they all kind of synced in with his view of the subject.” UTV decided they didn’t want to be creatively led, Shastri said, partly because they weren’t run by an insider who could “stand up and say, ‘yeah, I know [this business]’.”

Screwvala aspired to build a studio model, “which meant that you could incubate a project at UTV”, Shastri said. “It could produce a film, it could market a film and you would have verticals that could monetize the film. He wanted UTV to become the place where filmmakers came to make movies. Not to be a bank, but to be a collaborator.” This was their pitch to the directors they met.

Shastri and Screwvala drew up a list of 20 directors they wanted to work with. Their tastes were undiscerning. The quality of movies these directors had made had no bearing on UTV’s choices. The only criteria was box office success. “The idea was to talk with everyone who mattered. Abbas-Mastan, Anees Bazmee, the popular filmmakers, Satish Kaushik, Raj Kanwar, David Dhawan.” One of the company’s biggest successes at that point was in signing up Madhur Bhandarkar, whose movies proposed to locate and magnify the seamy side of whatever subject the title suggested (Page 3, Corporate, Fashion). “It took us five months to get Madhur Bhandarkar to say yes,” Shastri said. The company used its fledgling ‘verticals’ to convince filmmakers that they would not only get paid, but that their films would be marketed across television, the Internet and other platforms.

In addition, Shastri said, they managed to catch filmmakers at the right moment. “I remember Anurag Kashyap sitting on the ground during this Rang De Basanti party saying, ‘My life’s gone to hell. I made Black Friday, it got stuck, I made Paanch, it got stuck,’ and I told Anurag, ‘You know what? Let’s make the next one.’ It was about getting the outside filmmakers who had great potential, and about getting some mainstream guys whose sensibilities you could have a conversation with. For example a Gowarikar or an Aamir Khan, or Vishal Bharadwaj. It was important to have those kind of conversations.”

While it acquired directors, UTV was less lucky with the firmament’s stars. Screwvala asked Shastri why “actors were friends with other people and not with us”. They decided that small gestures would win over fickle stars. Shastri said they began to send out personalised birthday wishes, and all kinds of gifts. They sent John Abraham a Yamaha biker jacket, gifted Sanjay Dutt Harley-Davidson boots, and chose an eclectic bunch of books for “Mr Bachchan”. The approach began to work. In 2004 and 2005, UTV produced four movies each year. For the next two years they made five. They made 10 in 2008, and 12 in 2009 and again in 2010. “Ronnie did clever stuff,” Shastri said. “It’s not difficult to do. These are things that people remember. They don’t remember hits and flops. They remember this.”

BUT OTHERS BLAMED SCREWVALA AND UTV for inflating star salaries to unreasonable levels in the course of trying to sign up talent. “They wanted to muscle their way in to the business. They don’t talk movies, and they don’t behave like movie people,” one film writer said. “So they didn’t have the usual ways of engaging with the film industry.”

The manner in which UTV had acquired smaller movies was also a sore subject with writers and directors. One writer who had a film bought by UTV told me, “Go meet all their co-producers—the small guys. Most of them were people who had a good idea and a film. UTV mauled them. So they let the big guys exploit them, and they exploited the small guys in return. I don’t remember even one of the small guys not feeling they were screwed. Basically UTV understood that they were in a jungle and behaved exactly like that.”

While the company acquired a reputation as a supporter of independent and ‘different’ films, a number of filmmakers talked about how the company first rejected scripts and then came on board later as a producer after the films were either made or had actors ready to perform in them. This occurred with Rang De Basanti and Delhi Belly. It also happened with Udaan, which showed at Cannes in 2010. A writer familiar with Udaan’s evolution from script to film said that UTV agreed to acquire the movie only after Anurag Kashyap, the producer, helped Vikramaditya Motwane, the director, film it. He believed that “what really turned the tide for UTV was the selection at Cannes. If UTV could get in at that point, they could get their logo on [the film] in time for Cannes.” Another person involved closely with the film said that UTV acquired Udaan before the Cannes selection was announced, but admitted that he didn’t know “if UTV would have marketed the film to that extent if it hadn’t been selected”.

Screwvala had always been adept at managing and moulding perceptions, and nowhere was this more evident than in his deals with filmmakers abroad, which he gracefully spun into major publicity events. In 2007, UTV’s high-profile partnership with M Night Shyamalan for The Happening was announced at a press conference at the Taj Hotel in Bandra, where Shyamalan appeared by video link to talk up the deal with reporters as Screwvala stood by the side of the screen. “I am so happy that I am tying up with UTV because I am always looking for an Indian connection in my movies,” Shyamalan said, sidestepping the sensitive subject of his disastrous prior film, Lady in the Water, whose failure had made it difficult for the director to find funding at home.

The deal set off another flurry of publicity for UTV in the international press, which uncritically echoed the official line. “What sets UTV furthest apart from its family-run competitors is its ambition to make films for foreign markets as well as for Indians,” The Economist wrote. “It has co-produced two movies with News Corporation’s Fox Filmed Entertainment, and this year the two studios will release The Happening, a thriller directed by M Night Shyamalan which is costing them about $28 million each. UTV also has a co-production deal with Will Smith, a Hollywood actor. Plenty to sing and dance about, in short—if not on the screen, then behind the scenes.”

Even as the company focused on big stars and big budgets, Screwvala began to toy with the idea of starting a smaller, creatively driven film unit. He contacted Vikas Bahl, the business head at a channel called SAB TV, and asked if he would be interested in producing edgy small-and medium-budget films. After a few meetings, Bahl agreed, and they launched a division called Spotboy. Bahl had never made a movie before, and was reportedly apprehensive about the move, but he jumped in anyway. At first he did nothing, because he knew nothing, and then he made some calls. The first days were nervous ones. He had never dealt with film people before, only heard worrying things about them. Then he had an epiphany and all his worries about them—their likes and dislikes and egos—disappeared. He realised that the filmmakers he was meeting only wanted to make good movies.

Bahl’s first production at Spotboy, Aamir, a story about an unsuspecting doctor who finds himself in the thick of a terrorist plot, was narrated to him at the Marriott Hotel in Juhu by its writer and director, Raj Kumar Gupta. “He heard the script and just said, ‘Let’s do it’,” Gupta recalled as we talked on the terrace of a suburban office he recently purchased. “He decided instantly. That decision-taking is rare. A producer with conviction and the ability to decode a script is very rare.” As Gupta narrated the script, Bahl wondered if it would hold his attention once it was done. The answer was yes, and so he said yes. Convincing his bosses would come later. He agreed to Anurag Kashyap’s subversive Dev.D in the same way. This made the task of showing the company’s executives why he agreed to the film much harder. Films without a ready cast—a marketing tool UTV placed great store in—made selling the film difficult.

But before long, Bahl’s eye for scripts and the rapport he struck with the people who wrote them gave UTV further cache. The company became “the place to take your script to,” Gupta said. “It was here that your script had the maximum chance of getting made.” The new label produced movies like Welcome to Sajjanpur, Udaan, No One Killed Jessica and Paan Singh Tomar. Its successes attracted writers whose hopes were renewed. By opening its doors to those new writers, UTV became the place they naturally gravitated to. But then in 2011, Bahl left the company. A filmmaker friend of his was uncomfortable discussing the reason for Bahl’s departure, but hinted at a disagreement between Bahl and Screwvala. Bahl refused to comment on his time at UTV and his departure from there. However, highly placed industry sources who both knew him and Screwvala said that Bahl was asked to leave.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, each of the three film division heads were bound by a desire that was at odds with Screwvala’s studio model; they wanted to focus on a small number of films, not serve as overseers of a conveyor belt. Even Shastri, who agreed to join UTV after hearing Screwvala’s ideas for the division, said, “I’m not built to do that kind of stuff. I can’t do 20 films. I’d rather do just two.” He praised Screwvala for his achievements, but seemed disillusioned that there was “no marriage between the creative and business sides of the company”. It was all business. The focus on output came at the cost of a guiding philosophy for the motion picture division. Some of the studio’s biggest investments to date had also been among its biggest flops: Bazmee’s Thank You, a romantic comedy about marital infidelity, cost R720 million and recovered only half its budget; Screwvala had also made Bhansali’s Guzaarish, which, Shastri said, “he will remember for the losses he made.” The film heads believed that UTV under Screwvala produced all kinds of films without prejudice, something they were not happy with. Shastri wondered if this was wise, considering that the ability to deal with a star such as Salman Khan was beyond Screwvala’s sensibilities. “He doesn’t have it,” Shastri said. “You need a special personality for that.”

But this assessment underestimated Screwvala’s greatest strength: to persuade and pull people into his orbit once he enters their world; to fluently speak the appropriate language for any given audience at all times. In 2009, Screwvala even convinced Karan Johar, as inside as insiders can be, to sign a two-film distribution deal with UTV. In an interview after the deal was announced, the man who told studios to make films “the nation’s heart thumps for” and to “conduct a human analysis, not a business one” inadvertently revealed the persuasive power of Screwvala’s influence. “A business alliance was only a matter of time,” Johar said. “We felt we could create a synergy together.”

Shastri, in fact, had pointed to this very skill—Screwvala’s uncanny talent for presenting himself and his company in whatever light the situation required. “He’s able to bring together people from finance by giving them financial news; in a room filled with investment bankers, he knows how to market the company,” Shastri told me. “He’s better than Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar at this. They might be better at with actors, but he’s better at this. He’s able to make news for the financial markets—and yes, he relies heavily on the publicity. But he’s able to tell people what they want to hear in a language they understand.”   

 

Rahul Bhatia is a Staff Writer at The Caravan.

ONE

THE OPPRESSIVE AFTERNOON HEAT OF APRIL withdrew in the shade of the covered parking garage underneath Sea Lord apartments, leaving behind a pitiless Mumbai damp that stopped at the misshapen door to a chilled room filled with cables; inside, three men lay sleeping under pictures of their gods and a grim white fluorescent light. Thirty years ago, a quiet and well-mannered young man named Rohinton Screwvala, who lived in a tower just down the leafy road leading to the sea, convinced the manager and residents of Sea Lord to let him build the room in which these men lay, and let him weave pipes in ducts drilled through slabs and staircases, and let him run hefty cables in those pipes to their homes, where he sent up dramas, soaps and movies in a way that had not been done before.

Two tightly-packed apartment towers loomed above this room and the rest of the garage, on either side of a driveway that sloped down to an open gate. There were 80 flats spread over 18 floors in each of the towers, their windows now mostly obscured by scaffolding erected to rejuvenate a facade worn down by the sea wind. Sea Lord, which stands sentinel to the exclusive South Mumbai enclave of Cuffe Parade, was the fourth block of apartments in the area to allow Screwvala in—making it the fourth residential building in the country to receive cable television.

Screwvala, who was only 25, persuaded the residents that his programming would be family friendly and his wiring unobtrusive. With a team of saleswomen and technicians, he set up televisions outside building entrances to showcase his offerings, and the word spread “like wildfire”, the president of the local residents association recalled. At first, about 30 apartments in Sea Lord subscribed to his service, called Network, a rudimentary operation that consisted of a projector, a television, two videocassette players and an imported modulator that measured the integrity of the signal. In time, almost the entire building signed up for Screwvala’s service, which rapidly expanded to take in more than 15 other buildings in Cuffe Parade.

Each cluster of buildings had a control room where a technician played programmes on videocassettes. There would be noticeable gaps between shows; it took the technicians time to eject one cassette and insert the next. But in other respects, by every account, the operation was run smoothly. Television schedules were created for each building on a loose sheet and then disseminated, with programme lineups that began at 7 pm and ended at 12:30 am. Viewers recalled watching Dallas, Dynasty and Star Trek, among other programmes. On nights when the same show was scheduled for broadcast from different control rooms, the tapes were delivered on foot from one building to the next.

The price for a Network connection was R200 a month, a reasonable amount in the early 1980s for well-heeled residents who had previously been restricted to the morally conservative government channel Doordarshan, which delivered news selectively and entertainment parsimoniously. Screwvala was scrupulous about the quality of his service. He met with residents regularly to gauge their viewing preferences; his technicians swabbed the length of the fragile tape reels in each videocassette to ensure a clean image. Demand grew, and soon Network’s reach spanned across South Bombay’s most prosperous addresses: Colaba, Napeansea Road, Breach Candy, Hanging Gardens. To the have-nots, it felt as if Bombay had been divided into those with cable, and those without. “We used to hear about it where we lived,” the film writer Kamlesh Pandey said. “Oh, they’re watching American sitcoms. Oh, they’re watching American soaps.”

Network was funded by Suresh Nanavati, who owned the special-effects powerhouse Western Outdoor Advertising, according to Hemant Mhatre, a technician with the company who was assigned to help Screwvala implement the cable project. Mhatre told me that the idea of a cable network was not new to Bombay. Nanavati, who was then Screwvala’s father-in-law, was the chairman of a prominent hospital, and Mhatre recalled that the building had been wired to broadcast taped programmes for patients. Screwvala had simply expanded the idea’s geography.

At the end of 1982, about a year after Screwvala began providing cable, his monopoly over private television in South Bombay came under threat. A young cable operator, Siddharth Srivastava, was offering the same service that Screwvala provided, but at a steep 40 percent discount. Screwvala was furious, according to Ashok Kanwar, the president of the local residents’ association. As far as Screwvala could tell, he was there first, and the other guy was an opportunist trying to move in on a market he had created singlehandedly. For three months, both cable operators met Kanwar every other day to sway him. “I never let them meet me at the same time,” Kanwar said, smiling. Srivastava’s price was his argument, and Screwvala raged against “people trying to edge into his business”. The residents were naturally attracted to the lower price, but at Sea Lord, Kanwar said, they stuck with Screwvala for “ethical” reasons—though he also mentioned that Screwvala lowered his price in response to the intrusion. Screwvala ran the cable outfit for a few more years, before his attention waned; he had greater ambitions. By 1988 he had sold the company, and it floundered under its new management.

Cuffe Parade residents recalled Screwvala fondly, and expressed delight at his successes since then. “When I walk down the street here and he passes by,” Mhatre said, “he still stops his car to talk.” As he discussed Screwvala and Network, Mhatre grew expansive, recalling minor details like the names of the nearby video libraries—Teenage and Shemaroo—where they had borrowed programme tapes. “We used to go there ourselves,” he said. “There used to be a list we would choose from. On Monday we had to show comedies. On Tuesday we had to show murder mysteries. We would make a weekly schedule.”

No rights were purchased for Network’s programming, Mhatre said; another cable operator who ran a similar service in Bombay at the time told me that licensing was non-existent, adding that he had gotten tapes of the latest American television shows from airline crew members who carried them back to India.

Screwvala’s service had something for everyone, even children. Mhatre said that in addition to the programming for adults, Network also broadcast cartoons. “The kind they play on TV now,” he said, looking beyond the screen above him as he remembered. Then, with a little prod, it came to him. “Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck…

TWO

IN 1990, a few years after selling his cable venture, Screw-vala launched another company, a small production house that made advertisements and corporate films. But over the next two decades, UTV Software Communications Limited, as it would come to be known, expanded in almost every direction: it produced TV shows, inflight programming, animation and commercials; it dubbed cartoons; it created television channels; it distributed movies and soon began to produce them as well; it made video console games and did things on the Internet. It went, in short, wherever the ambitions of its restless founder guided it.

By the late 2000s, Screwvala had manoeuvred himself and UTV from Bollywood’s outer periphery to its centre. The son of a Parsi businessman from South Bombay, a graduate of an exclusive school and an actor in English theatre productions—which is to say, the polar opposite of a Bollywood insider—he had decided that the unruly ways of the city’s film industry could be tamed and rationalised, and that he was the man to do it. He learned to speak the language of the insiders while doing business like an outsider; he insisted on written contracts when they were still unheard of, yet inked deals with many of the industry’s biggest names, and produced dozens of movies at an unusually rapid clip in the course of becoming a powerful insider in his own right.

READER'S COMMENTS [1]

Amazing writing...the way you have covered the personality of Ronnie along with his business model, the industry insights and conversations with players...one of the best I have read on the Indian movie industry...Great work

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