Former Indian tennis player Ashok Amritraj quit the sport in the ’70s with dreams of making movies in Hollywood. In a career spanning 33 years, the producer and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment has worked with every A-list Hollywood actor possible. His latest film, 99 Homes starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon premiered at the Venice Film Festival. We caught up with Amritraj, who was in Delhi to speak at CII’s The Big Picture. Excerpts:
What was the intention behind entering the movie business in the ’80s?
I grew up watching Hollywood movies featuring Chuck Heston and Sidney Poitier, among others. I just wanted to make a movie. So in the mid-70s I packed my bags and went to Warner Brothers and Paramount. And in 1980-81, I took the plunge. It wasn’t necessarily the right decision. So the next five years were tough. But it was a different world then. Over a 100 movies later, I have worked with pretty much every film star.
In 1998, you produced a Tamil film, Jeans. Has no Indian project appealed to you since?
It took a long time and did extremely well in Tamil. But the Hindi version did not. It was an emotional response to make a film in Tamil. I came back in 1998 because I was nostalgic. Right now where I am in life I do not have time. I would not make a movie here unless I can spend a year on it. I have not actually taken the time to think of ideas that can work here. There are not a lot of writers who come and pitch their films to me. For me to come back and do something, it has to be something different.
Being a former tennis player how come you haven’t produced a sports movie yet?
They are hard to make work. Needless to say, I have been approached with tennis scripts, but the stakes are not high enough. It is an elitist sport where there is no life or death involved. I would love to find a great script for a sports film, but I am not sure if it would be on tennis.
Indian cinema is doing well at film festivals. Does that hold a mirror to India’s potential in world cinema?
I think that India has a lot of talent on screen and a much larger framework behind it. There is an issue from the writing stand-point. Indian movies abroad suffer for lack of proper marketing and distribution. The way of distribution internationally has been the same outside India, i.e. mainly the NRI pockets.
American studios are increasingly tying up with Indian production houses. Your thoughts.
Fox Studios is very active in India. But you have to understand that with American studios, it is a simple formula. If the movies make money, they will do more films. And just as they do in Japan, the plan is that always the local market needs to recoup their money. They are not making a film to take it and distribute it in screens across the world.
You are hosting a show on Doordarshan called Chance of a Lifetime. Before that you did another show, Gateway. Do you look at yourself as a talent scout?
I enjoy it. But my intention is not to take that talent and make a film with them. For Chance…, I take the winner to our offices and they travel with me to Cannes and the UN. That is the prize. I like the educational aspect of films. It is more enjoyment than anything else.