Made in Hollywood

'You’ve got to have different kinds of cinema, if you want to grow the industry,' -- Amritraj ; Photo: Sudhakara Jain

'You’ve got to have different kinds of cinema, if you want to grow the industry,' -- Amritraj ; Photo: Sudhakara Jain  

Indian cinema is evolving, but is yet to find its footing on the global scale, admits the outspoken Hollywood film producer Ashok Amritraj

Producer Ashok Amritraj, referred to as one of India’s first tennis pros and “our man in Hollywood,” is an excellent raconteur. In a media interaction on the inaugural day of the 8th Bengaluru International Film Festival, he spoke candidly of the all-white Oscars, how difficult it was for him to break into the Hollywood industry despite being a tennis star, and how the colour of your skin doesn’t matter anymore in films that are laden with special effects and visual drama. Excerpts.

Every film industry should have commercial and independent cinema that is made by young vibrant creative minds for little money. Part of making great cinema is the struggle. Talent is sort of overrated. It was one of the difficulties I had to face.

From tennis to film... In tennis, you either won or lost. It was very clear. It wasn’t how I spin something, it wasn’t whom I knew. Movie making is different. It is timing, perseverance, tremendous amount of hard work, a lot of luck. I know wonderful actors and directors who can’t get a job and I know others who aren’t as talented, but are doing well. It is very subjective.

You have got to have different kinds of cinema, if you want to grow. Major stars and directors should make smaller films as well. One should not preclude the other.

As I always tell myself, the biggest challenge I had was beating myself. What do you do next? How do you get better? How do you not get complacent? I’ve made 112 movies and over 2 billion dollars. I don’t need to do anything. But these are exciting times. I try to surround myself with guys who’re not going to turn 60 next month, like me!

Indian cinema has not gone global Is not a negative statement... Indian cinema clearly has audience that has grown in the last 10 to 15 years. If you ask me if Hollywood as an insular society is paying attention? The answer is no. Indian cinema is evolving, but is yet to find its footing on the global scale. Perceptions are hard to change unless you have global successes. I don’t think there has been a real consistency or breakthrough in international cinema from India in a way that one can look and say ‘I want to go to India and make a movie for an international audience.’ I think every Hollywood studio seems to be here but they’re making movies for an Indian audience. That is standard business practise. I am yet to hear of a major independent or studio that wants to find talent here and break that talent out in the international market.

The all-white Oscars... There are a lot of second generation actors or actors from Indian cinema on American TV now — Priyanka Chopra, Kunal Nayyar, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan… I recently did an op-ed for The Rap, a Hollywood magazine, about the Academy of Motion Pictures and the all-white Oscar nominations. The Academy is still 94 per cent white and six per cent non-white. The President of the Academy is an African-American woman, a dear friend. I said to her before writing the piece, ‘Of your six per cent, I’m the 0.01 per cent minority, so I should write it.’ The year I became a member of the Academy was 1992 when Ray got his honorary Oscar.

I don’t believe any of the Academy members seek out and vote for white people. They vote from their heart — otherwise films like 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained wouldn’t have been nominated. It just happens that last year and this, all nominees have been white. You’re making films like Avengers, The Fast and The Furious — big films.

The colour of your skin matters a lot less today where you’re making these kind of movies – where you’ll spend 300 million dollars making a movie and another 200 million dollars marketing it — where your focus is on cars, and VFX, and layers of visuals. You’re able to have an African-American lead in Star Wars; you don’t need a Harrison Ford. The world is more open than when I started in the 1980s.

Evolution of Hollywood The kind of cinema being made has also changed with this whole franchise business. It is no longer just a movie. The movie is the driving force for everything from merchandising to theme park rides. A single movie becomes a two to three billion dollar business. Most studios are making fewer movies.

They distribute my movies because they don’t want to spend time making it. Independent studios such as mine (Hyde Park Entertainment) that produce, develop, distribute, finance etc act in partnership with studios today – that’s the evolution. The same thing is happening in digital TV - we have Hyde Park TV with a dozen shows we are developing. I lean towards digital and cable platforms. With Networks, we are stuck with standard practices. You can push the envelope and that makes TV a more exciting medium.

I felt I had arrived When they started returning my calls. (laughs) It took me 10 years knocking on a lot of doors. I was going from a TV background. I knew a lot of people in the industry. When I made the switch, I was ready to take on world. How hard could it be? I thought. If I had travelled the world and came from the world of sport with great discipline and focus, how could I not beat the guy who grew up in Beverly Hills? I didn’t realise it was going to be a lot tougher than I thought. It was very white, very Jewish. It took me a while to realise they thought I looked good on their tennis courts but they wouldn’t give me money to make a movie.

It was when Jean-Claude Van Damme and I made Double Impact in 1991, and it grossed 100 million dollars, people who’d throw away my messages started calling me back. In 1992, I became a member of the Academy and got on the Academy board, and all of which were firsts at that time.

Why I wanted to make films India is a country of movie fans. You grow up going to the movies. I think I grew up in the then Madras watching more English films than Tamil or Hindi. It wasn’t as available as it is today. We listened to AIR. When you went to theatre, it was to see To Sir With Love, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, or Ben Hur.

And when you're young these make a great impression on you. So much of who I am today is the first 15 or 16 years of my life. When Universal Studios made movies, at the end they would run this thing “When you’re in Southern California, visit Universal Studios” and so I always had it in my mind that I wanted to get there. When I reached the finals of the Wimbledon Junior, Jerry Buss who went on to own the Los Angeles Lakers invited me to go with him. That’s the love story (laughs). The first time I went on a film set and went to the Oscars was in connection to the same film — Gandhi. The seven minutes I spent with Dickie (Richard) Attenborough on that set was life-changing. And at the Oscars, Gandhi won, beating ET.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 10:55:46 PM |

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