Ashok Amritraj had the financial ability to do pretty much what he pleased. But he chose to make movies. Good movies.
Having played professional tennis, like his brother, former Indian Davis Cup captain Vijay, Amritraj took up a challenge pretty early in life. If quitting tennis wasn't risky enough, add to that the gamble of making a film; that too in Hollywood.
Also watch | From Wimbledon to Hollywood: Ashok Amritraj's success story
In the end, the risk paid off: The Chennai-born-American producer is one of the very few Indians to make it big in Hollywood. Many would say he has a knack for finding stories that make great films, under his banner Hyde Park Entertainment. The rest, as they say, is history.
His list of Hollywood hits includes films like Bandits, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Killer, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Premonition, Double Impact, Eyewitness to Murder and the most recent being 99 Homes starring Andrew Garfield. He also produced the 1998 Tamil film Jeans, starring Aishwarya Rai.
Amritraj opens up on everything from how he pulled it off in Hollywood to his TV show Chance of a Lifetime, supported by the United Nations and currently on air.
1 From playing Tennis to making Double Impact, why did you switch careers?
I didn't know I could make movies. While playing professional Tennis I went to Los Angeles to play for a tennis team there. After the game, I got onto a cab and went to a lot of studios; I went to Universal, Warner Bros, Disney and Paramount. It was amazing. All of this was like a dream. Something attracted me to films. I knew I wanted to make films. Today, I have worked for 23 years and worked with the biggest names in Hollywood. When I look back, I feel life's been extraordinary, so much could have gone wrong.
2 Why do you think you made it in Hollywood?
Everything great starts with a dream. I had the dream and I had a passion for films, thanks to growing up in Chennai and visiting studios there. And then I made a switch in 1981, knocked a lot doors and played tennis just to meet important people. For the next five years I wished I hadn’t made the switch. It was a very tough, brutal and hard experience. In 1984, when I was an out-of-work producer, I met an out-of-work actor; he couldn't speak English and drove limos. We tried to make a movie, but we couldn't. So, nothing was really going as planned. But, in 1990, I met him again at Cannes and he said he still wanted to make a movie with me and together we made my career's first big hit. I'm talking about Jean-Claude Van Damme and the film we made was Double Impact. Yes, so that’s life.
3 Out of all the films you've made, which ones are your favourite?
Picking favorites is never easy. I am partial to all my films, so can't choose any one film. But 99 Homes starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon is one film I loved making and watching. It got great response at Toronto Film Festival: from hitting the red carpet with Andrew and his girlfriend Emma Stone to the extraordinary reviews we got for the film. Such movies are great to make but so are action films, like Ghost Rider, starring Nicolas Cage. It's a different experience with each film; I don't want to be categorized as a producer. I want to keep making cinema that excites me, makes me want to give it my all.
4 And favourite actors?
Again, this is hard. But, I am partial to Steve Martin, Bruce Willis, and of the current lot, since I just worked with him, I'd say Andrew is a favourite right now; he is too talented. Angelina Jolie is another amazing actor I enjoyed working with. Kate Hudson was great fun to work with too.
5 One movie you had a blast making?
I had the most fun making Bandits, which had Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett. They were all amazing to work with.
6 The one actor you're dying to work with?
Meryl streep, hands down. She's brilliant. Sadly, we don't have any projects together in the pipeline; hopefully soon.
7 Why are you not making a Bollywood film?
You have great people making great films in India, you don't need me. The film industry here has lots going on. You've got tremendous talent, both behind the camera and on it. The looks of the film are great, but sometimes the scripts and storylines get repetitive. But the main problem is that Indian films don't get a good shot in the international market. These films are still hard to find abroad, they are limited to the traditional markets, like the Middle East. Overall, you have iconic actors, great films and sound technicians, but Indian films could take a step forward and reach non-Indian markets. More business would mean better films and stories.
Also read: Ashok Amritraj launches Advantage: Hollywood
8 Are you planning to cast an Indian actor in one of your upcoming films?
No I am not. The character has to demand it. I would not cast an actor if he or she doesn't fit the role.
9 How did you venture into TV? You're calling your show Chance of a Lifetime a reality series. Why is that?
I selected filmmakers from India, Singapore and UAE, and divided them in teams. Each team made movies on global issues such as AIDS, migration, poverty, universal education and economic development. Each movie was evaluated critically and the winning film was screened in front of UN officials and later at the Cannes Film Festival, where the young filmmakers met a bunch of important people from around the world. It was a big chance for them to share limelight with world-famous celebs and contribute to the UN's good work. The show not only explores the idea of tapping the creativity of filmmaking in young minds, but also encourages them to think and create thought-provoking films on global issues that need to be heard and understood. The series is running on Doordarshan and comes every Friday at 9 pm. Each episode also carries a message on the United Nation's millennium goals- made by famous names such as Beyonce Knowles, Nicole Kidman, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder and Antonio Banderas.
10 What next? Any movie you’re looking forward to making?
I want to make a sports film. But these films are not easy to make. Take Tennis for example, it is sort of an elitist sport. People wouldn’t really care about someone who won the Wimbledon, unless you have relationships weaved in, some struggle and something to get inspired by. I would love to make something as inspiring and interesting as Chariots of Fire. Till I find a story worth telling, I will wait.