Why rural is cool for Zarina Screwvala

Jul 20, 2014, 05:45 IST | Deepali Dhingra

From not knowing what her purpose in life is to helping empower hundreds of people, Zarina Screwvala has come a long way. Her need to constantly challenge herself, belief in Vipassana and philanthropy, are philosophies she lives by

Zarina Screwvala, Founder & Managing Trustee, Swades Foundation

When Zarina Screwvala started her career as a production manager for one of Pearl Padamsee’s plays, the theatre doyen offered her Rs 25 per day as salary. “But I bargained and got her to agree to Rs 50,” recalls Screwvala, with a laugh.

Zarina Screwvala
Zarina Screwvala’s Swades Foundation aims to empower one million people every five years. The managing trustee of the foundation at her office in Worli. Pic/Shadab Khan

Was she always so enterprising? “Enterprising? Far from it,” reveals the former CCO of UTV Software Communications and the current managing trustee of Swades Foundation. Growing up in Washington, she was often bullied by her friends. “But I told nobody about it. I was really shy. It was when I moved to India at the age of eight and joined JB Petit School for Girls that I was blessed with some wonderful teachers. I transformed from shy to outgoing. Really bossy!” she guffaws.

From somebody who self-admittedly had no clue about what she wants to do in life, to becoming one of the co-founders of the highly successful production company, UTV, in the 1990s, and now being at the helm of a project that aims to empower a million lives every five years, Screwvala’s come a long way. “Nothing came easy to me. Nothing comes easy. I had to work hard for everything and the outcomes have been mostly good, though at times, it has led to failure. But that’s fine. You have to sit and think why something went wrong and then you learn so much from it. Every failure of mine has led to three successes. If you deny failure, you learn nothing. That’s something I learnt pretty early on,” says the dynamic lady.

The learning curve
For this “rank outsider”, who co-founded UTV with partners Ronnie Screwvala and Deven Khote, the early days of TV production were heady. “There were endless nights of work and more work,” she recalls. Screwvala went on to head UTV Hungama and UTV Bindass and the brand became even bigger. But everyone was surprised when around 18 months ago, UTV was bought by the Walt Disney Company. “I was heartbroken but you can’t be attached to things. It’s my team I missed, not the madness and chaos of working in a production house,” the former creative professional says.

Her husband calls her restless, but the 52-year-old thinks otherwise. “I’m not restless. I just have a need to learn more,” she explains. Maybe it was this need to know more and learn more that led to Vipassana. “I woke up one morning and thought of going for Vipassana. It’s an ancient technique of meditation and I have been doing it for years now. It’s like you haven’t taken a bath for a very long time and it cleanses you of all the dirt and filth,” she says, the glow on her face eminent when she speaks about it. She is also pursuing a course in philosophy. “It’s a philosophy class called New Acropolis, where we learn about ancient Indian, Greek and Roman philosophy. We learn what our scriptures say, about who we really are and why we are here,” she explains. But why this need to learn? “I feel the need to constantly push the boundaries of myself. Another important thing that we all should do is reflect upon our lives. If you’re just going with the flow, then you would land up at 60 and not know what the purpose of your life is. To such people, I say, stop and think about what you want from life. And then, change,” says Screwvala, who did just that.

Empowering lives
A couple of months after Walt Disney Company bought UTV, she quit the company after being there for 27 years. “One morning I woke up, and I thought, I can’t do this anymore. That was when my husband, who had started an NGO called SHARE (Society to Heal, Aid, Restore and Educate) decades ago, said he wanted to rebrand it. His vision was to empower a million people every five years. I was up for the challenge,” the altruist adds. Eighteen months ago, they re-christened SHARE to Swades Foundation and she became its managing trustee.

For Screwvala, there is no other job that comes close to this work. Working towards the cause of rural empowerment in Raigad district of Maharashtra, in fields of community mobilisation, water and sanitation, nutrition and health, agriculture and livelihood, and education, the philanthropist says that it’s the joy of knowing that every effort of hers gets multiplied millions of times and touches people’s lives.

“I’m building a world-class organisation that can train and build other world-class organisations. Every video or photograph we put out there inspires people to work for others. I want to make rural cool,” she says with a smile.

Inside Track
 November 6, 1961
Education: BA Hons, St Xavier’s College
First job: Founder of UTV 
Mantra: Know yourself, challenge yourself, keep learning and keep growing

My favourites
Film: I love watching movies. Depending on my mood, I can watch anything from a Colour Purple to a Pretty Woman
Book: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Actor: I don’t have a favourite actor
Destination: The food and the sea often decide where I travel for a holiday. So it’s Maldives for the sea and London, Barcelona and Italy for the food

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