Hyde and seek

More than three decades of action and upwards of a hundred movies later, the Indian-born tennis pro who hit his way into Hollywood and notched up many aces still follows his heart and sets his own pace. He is none the worse for it, as an upcoming autobiography is about to show

Non-stop action, sporting and otherwise, has been a constant in 57-year-old Ashok Amritraj’s life. From his days as a successful tennis pro in Los Angeles to his over three-decade-old stint as a prolific Hollywood mogul, he has never ever encountered a slackening of pace. Only, one field of dreams has given way to another.

The highs and lows, struggles and successes of that dramatic transition provide the crux of Amritraj’s upcoming autobiography, Advantage Hollywood. Published by HarperCollins, the book is due for formal release in New Delhi on September 13 at the CII-Big Picture Summit.

In the opening session of the annual two-day event, Amritraj is scheduled to be part of a tete-a-tete on ‘Reaching the Global Audience – How Can India Make $100 million Films’. Although he has made only one film set in India in all these years, his links with the land of his birth and its movie industry have been deep and sustained.

His enviable success as an independent Hollywood producer makes him eminently qualified to provide tips on what the world’s largest film producing nation needs to do to break into the global mainstream. Amritraj’s company, Hyde Park Entertainment, has produced over 100 films that have grossed $1.5 billion worldwide.

For over a year now, India has been on Amritraj’s radar again. It is the absence of an exciting enough screenplay that is holding him back. He says: “Among the scripts that have been coming to me are for standard Bollywood fare. There is no reason for me to back a project of that nature. I am looking for something different, something special.”

While he waits for that “something special” to turn up, Amritraj, who is among the most successful independent producers in the business today, has a quartet of major Hollywood productions in the pipeline.
One of these, Life of Crime, a thriller adapted by screenwriter-director Daniel Schechter from an Elmore Leonard novel (The Switch), will bring the curtains down on the 11-day 38th Toronto International Film Festival, which winds down on September 15.

Life of Crime, which is essentially a prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, has the same pair of 1970s Detroit criminals that Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro played in the 1997 film. It stars John Hawkes and Mos Def alongside Tim Robbins, Jennisfer Aniston and Isla Fisher.

For most people in the business, a book about one’s own life and a closing night film at one of the world’s most prestigious cinema events would have been enough excitement for a whole year. But not for Amritraj – he packs in that much and more into virtually every single month.

He is especially excited over a television project that particularly close to his heart: a filmmaking talent hunt. The non-scripted television show, Chance of a Lifetime, features a dozen aspiring filmmakers from India, the UAE and Singapore competing to make the ‘best’ short film on any of the social issues listed in the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals.

The shoot was wrapped up with a final schedule at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in mid-May. Negotiations are now on with television networks the world over. The six one-hour episodes produced and hosted by Amritraj are likely to go on air by the end of the year.

“I’m really excited about the show,” he says. “The idea is to bring young filmmakers from different cultures together as they shine the spotlight on pressing issues facing the world. Altogether 150 million and 200 million people are expected to watch Chance of a Lifetime.”

In Chance of a Lifetime, produced by Amritraj’s Hyde Park Entertainment in collaboration with the United Nations, UCLA Burkle Center, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Variety magazine, four teams were made up of three contestants, one from each region.

Each team was given a series of tasks involving the making of short films of varied lengths on global concerns such as universal education, access to water, women’s empowerment and health for all. The contest culminated in the making of the winning film – a ten-minute documentary.

The eventual winner has already been chosen. The world will know who the winners are when Chance of a Lifetime is aired. Besides Amritraj himself, among the filmmakers who appeared as judges on the show were Ketan Mehta, Santosh Sivan, Nagesh Kukunoor and Anubhav Sinha.

Amritraj produced his last Indian film – Jeans, a Tamil-Hindi bilingual starring Aishwarya Rai – way back in 1998. “As a whole, the Indian movie industry operates in a chaotic fashion but everyone out there seems to understand how it works,” says the feted producer.

Amritraj, born and raised in Chennai, followed his elder brothers Anand and Vijay into the world of professional tennis and played both at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows. He moved to the US in the mid 1970s to pursue his passion for the game. It was his skills with the tennis racquet that brought him into contact with influential Hollywood personalities.

He embarked on a career in cinema in 1981. The initial years were a struggle and for a decade he was largely stuck in the C-grade rut. In the year 1991, Double Impact happened and the hit catapulted him into the big league. He hasn’t looked back since, working on numerous star-driven blockbusters, including such titles as Bandits (with Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchett) and Original Sin (with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie).

He is now planning another shot at an Indian film because “the entertainment industry here is far more organized today than what it was when I produced Jeans 15 years ago”. Amritraj is also enthused by the fact that “some interesting films are being made in India although basically the classic Bollywood stuff still dominates the cinema landscape”.

He believes that the scenario needs to change at a much faster clip. “India has been at the crossroads for some years now. Real growth happens only when you make different kinds of films that can travel across the world,” he adds.

The ‘Bollywood’ coinage is probably at fault,” he says. “Unfortunately, penetration for quality regional cinema is limited even within India although they win National Awards and are critically applauded. Regional films are far more culturally rooted. These are the ones that should be pushed more aggressively.”

Amritraj puts the problem in perspective by highlighting two sides of the big picture. He points out that it has taken filmmakers from the West to come to India and produce real gems (Gandhi, Slumdog Millionaire, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Life of Pi).

He then goes on to add that the only authentic cultural exports that India has produced in all these years are Satyajit Ray, Pandit Ravi Shankar and, to a lesser extent, Zubin Mehta. “Everything else is a little bit of PR,” he says.

“We do like to believe that Indian cinema is doing extraordinary things, that it is growing, but the truth is that this growth could be much faster,” says Amritraj, whose recent productions include films like Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance, The Double, Bringing down the House, Shopgirl and Premonition.

Among Hyde Park’s upcoming titles is Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, a 3D animated musical adventure that brings back many of the characters from Wizard of Oz, voiced by Lea Michele, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Kelsey Grammer and Martin Short.

Also in the mix are a “big family adventure film”, Midnight Sun, a drama about a boy and a polar bear set in Canada and starring Dakota Goyo, and Every Secret Thing, adapted from a Laura Lippman detective novel.