In conversation As his autobiography hits the stands, Ashok Amritraj rewinds to an eventful life with Anuj Kumar
For long he has been our man in Hollywood. This past week as his latest film “Life of Crime” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ashok Amritraj chose to be in India to release his autobiography, “Advantage Hollywood” (Harper Collins). “Some years back when Harper came with the offer of writing an autobiography I told them that I was too young to pen my memoirs, but soon I discovered that my parents are having memory loss. So I started taping their experiences, their struggles, how they raised us — and there I felt I have a story to tell,” says Amritraj, 57, whose Hyde Park Entertainment has emerged as a global player in the film business in the last decade.
The most difficult chapters, he says, are about when he tried to strike a balance between life in Los Angeles and the value system that he grew up with in Chennai, which he describes as a conservative city that backs genuine talent. “There was a constant struggle between the life I was living in Los Angeles and the values that I cherished,” reflects Amritraj. It is riveting to read how the young man drove princess Stephanie back home in the wee hours in Monaco, enjoyed the casino culture with Frank Sinatra, and Amritraj admits that his darker skin was definitely an attraction for girls. Still he came home, did the complete drill that goes with arranged marriage and continues to be a staunch family man. “Many times I was on the edge and it was my strong belief in religion and the family support that kept me on the right path,” he reminisces.
Turning the pages one gets a feeling that Amritraj has been a man who always punched above his weight category. Amritraj laughs and suggests perhaps that’s why he found friends in macho men like Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone, who switched from martial arts to an acting career. As a kid he considered himself the odd one out among extremely talented brothers, Vijay and Anand. He even mentions his mother wanted a daughter when he was born. “There was a phase in life when I did feel like the clumsiest and an underachiever amidst accomplished brothers, but it was just a phase.” He reminds us he was not a weak link in the first family of Indian tennis and terms 1978 as the magical year in his tennis career.
“The high point was when Illie Nastase, Chris Evert, Vijay and I won the World Team Tennis tournament and I was rated as the Most Valuable Player.” He talks of 1974, when all three brothers played at Wimbledon, a dream that his grandfather saw. “I ended up runners-up at the juniors, Anand and Vijay reached the semi-finals of doubles and Vijay made it to the quarter finals of singles.”
But then his passion for cinema prevailed over what had become the family profession. Having grown up on a diet of Hollywood films in Chennai, Amritraj says he watched “Sound of Music” 34 times. “I had this dream from childhood that I will make at least one Hollywood film. So when tennis took me to Los Angeles, I saw it is an opportunity to give my ambition a try.”
He says whenever they got time out of tennis Vijay and he used to watch films and discuss the intricacies of the craft. But when he decided to switch careers it proved to be a long struggle before the “white Hollywood opened” its doors to this gritty Asian. “I realised that they wanted to play tennis with me but didn’t want to make films with me.” He made the cut through small budget video films and slowly scaled the hill. “But the western media didn’t take account of my struggle. When Double Impact became an international success they dubbed me an overnight success in Hollywood.”
It is often said success in Hollywood took him away from India. But even before Rajinikanth became a global icon and international collaboration a novelty, Amritraj came up with the idea of Blood Stone . “He continues to be a good friend. It was ahead of its time but didn’t do well. Times have changed since I made it to Hollywood. Today the doors are not that tightly closed for us. I am open to collaboration but it has to be something substantial, something really different from what my friends are already doing here and doing a good job of. We are working on an action adventure to be shot in India with Indian and Hollywood stars. Let’s see,” says Amritraj, adding he is closely watching the emerging indie market as well. “I have been told good things about The Lunchbox by my friends in Hollywood. Now my company is big enough to support many projects simultaneously and we are making all kinds of stories. I don’t mind backing a young Indian filmmaker with a story with global appeal.”
But he sounds cautious about the fascination to cross over. “Let’s be clear about it, that the films made in India are made for the Indian audience and a section of NRI audience. Hollywood films have an international presence and audience. So they are better placed to cross over. Films like Avatar and Ghost Rider have done it. Then there are films like Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire . They were typical Hollywood and British productions with Indian cast and a global story set in India.”
He says there is no point in copying Hollywood films because we would not be able to match their budgets. “It is better to stick to our original stories and identity and even if we do song and dance, let’s do it a little more imaginatively.”
Between the lines
On the changing standards of doubles tennis: Be it McEnroe or Edberg, in our time all top singles players used to participate in doubles. This has changed now and has taken away some of the sheen from the competition.
On the exercise regimen: Our main emphasis was on running. Today weight training has become an important component.
On the odds: Youngsters often complain of lack of stiff competition at home after they achieve a certain level in the juniors. Amritraj agrees, “It was the same in our days as well. We were largely dependent on the government and family support to send us to participate in the international events.”
On “Life of Crime”: Based on his novel “The Switch” it is true to Elmore Leonard’s writing…four stories coming together. I would like to call it a dark comedy.
What’s next: I am working with another tough guy, Dwayne Johnson.