An Indian of colourful vision - Life and death of a man who gave Britain same-day snaps

Read more below

By AMIT ROY in London
  • Published 23.03.05

London, March 23: Naresh Patel, who has died, aged 63, while on holiday in south India, was a leading British Asian businessman who revolutionised colour film processing in the United Kingdom.

His company, Colorama, which he set up in 1972 with other members of his family, slashed the time needed to process a roll of film from, typically, two weeks to, first, an ?overnight? service and, then, a ?same day? service.

The ?16 cost of developing and printing a 36-exposure 35mm roll, which was a large sum 30 years ago, was also cut drastically.

Described by family and friends as ?a man of vision who could see things behind a brick wall?, Nareshbhai, as he was universally known, was the first to give customers a roll of free film with their printed holiday or family snaps.

His British rivals dismissed the move as ?expensive madness?. Yet, Nareshbhai, who was a shrewd businessman, was the first to increase the standard size of prints to 6x4 inches from 5x3.5 inches.

The size is now the standard in India, too.

Another innovation was to offer prints with rounded edges instead of sharp corners.

When Nareshbhai and his brothers first began collecting films after setting up Colorama, they would travel by bus scooping up the undeveloped rolls from chemists who decided to try out their promised overnight service.

Bus conductors were never very pleased to see the young Indian brothers clambering on and off with their bags.

The rolls would be taken back to the first shop they had bought in Greenwich, south London, where they would work through the night.

The process of travelling by bus was repeated the next day, this time with the prints ready to be given back to delighted customers.

Today, the wealth of Nareshbhai?s family is estimated at upwards of ?35million, though others have put it at twice that figure.

The story of Nareshbhai mirrors the experience of many who have flourished after coming to Britain via East Africa. In the case of Nareshbhai, his father, Mohanbhai Patel, who was born in Palana, Gujarat, took a dhow to Mombasa in 1938. Since the British had transported Indians to build the East African railway, Mohanbhai set up a grocery shop in Kisumu. Nareshbhai and his four brothers and three sisters were born in Kenya.

From the start, Nareshbhai?s interest was in photography. He would develop films at night in the bathroom.

When he was 16, his father scraped together enough money to buy him a one-way ticket to London where Nareshbhai studied colour film processing at the London College of Printing. He was shocked by the poor service customers received.

He set up Colorama in Nairobi in 1963 and shifted it to London nine years later, with his reluctant father?s permission.

Nareshbhai?s younger brothers, Mahesh, Vinod and Haresh, and a brother-in-law, R.K. Patel, from Uganda, made Colorama a family venture. The first breakthrough was getting a contract from Selfridges. Soon, Dixons, itself a photographic chain, outsourced some of its developing and printing to Colorama. Other chemists and photographic shops from all over the country began sending work to the brothers.

In 1992, Colorama set up an additional plant in Manchester, and 10 years later, Glasgow was added. Today, there are 120 red vans which race around in the cities collecting films, a far cry from the days when the brothers had to make do with buses.

With the money from film processing, Nareshbhai diversified into pharmacies and a supermarket chain called Europa, which was sold last year to Tesco for ?56 million.

With the growing popularity of digital cameras, Nareshbhai and his brothers have adapted their business. Today, they encourage their customers to email their pictures to Colorama, which prints and sends back hard copies within two days at a modest cost (10 pence a print plus ?1.99 postage and packing).

Nareshbhai?s private passion was Gujarati theatre. He loved nothing better than to act and bring over theatre groups from India. In one comedy-cum-thriller ? ?Who is the Wife of My Husband?? ?he played the hero who solves a murder by using a photograph as clinching evidence. As he took out the photograph, he made sure that the audience saw the name of the company printed prominently on the red envelope, ?COLORAMA?.

Nareshbhai?s body was flown back from south India, for a funeral in London. His wife, Harshavanti, whom he met and married in India when he was 21, died in October last year.

He is survived by his brothers and sisters and a son, Jayesh, and a daughter, Reshma.

When the Daily Telegraph colour magazine published the first Asian rich list in 1990, Nareshbhai and his son and daughter made the cover photograph. They posed before the family Ferrari, done up in red Colorama colours. The headline read: ?My other car is a Rolls.?

Which it was.