United we stand

As Ashok Amritraj’s autobiography Advantage Hollywood is set for launch in Chennai today, the filmmaker talks to Anuj Kumar about his life and Hyde Park’s successful run in the world of entertainment

He has been our man in Hollywood, for years. While his latest film Life of Crime premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week, Ashok Amritraj chose to be in India to release his autobiography Advantage Hollywood (Harper Collins). “Some years ago, when Harper came up with the offer of writing an autobiography, I told them I was too young to pen my memoirs, but discovered that my parents had memory loss. So I started recording their experiences on tape, their struggles, how they raised us and then I felt I had 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 the part of life where 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 I cherished,” reflects Amritraj.

It is riveting to read how the young man drove Princess Stephanie back home in the wee hours in Monaco and enjoyed the casino culture with Frank Sinatra. Amritraj admits that his darker skin definitely attracted the girls. But, he returned home, went through all the formalities required in an arranged marriage and remains a staunch family man. “Many times I was on the edge; it was my strong belief in religion and family support that kept me on the right path.”

Turning the pages of the book, one gets the feeling that Amritraj has been a man who always punched above his weight category. Amritraj laughs and suggests that perhaps that’s why he found friends in people such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone, who switched from the martial arts to an acting career. As a kid, he considered himself the odd one out among extremely talented brothers, Vijay and Anand. In fact, he mentions that his mother wanted a daughter when he was born. “There was a phase in life when I did feel like an underachiever, the clumsiest among accomplished brothers, but it was just a phase.” He reminds us that he was not a weak link in the first family of Indian tennis and terms 1978 as the magical year in his career on court. “The high point was when Ilie Nastase, Chris Evert, Vijay and I won the World Team Tennis tournament and I was rated the Most Valuable Player.” He talks of 1974, when all the three brothers played at Wimbledon, fulfilling his grandfather’s dream. “I finished a runner-up in the juniors, Anand and Vijay reached the semi-finals in the doubles category and Vijay made it to the quarter-finals of the singles.”

But then his passion for cinema prevailed over what became the family profession. Having grown up on a diet of Hollywood films in Chennai, Amritraj says he watched The Sound of Music 34 times. “I had this dream right from childhood that I would make at least one Hollywood film. So when tennis took me to Los Angeles I considered it 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 game. But when he decided to switch careers it proved to be long struggle before “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 my struggle into account. 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 BloodsStone. “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 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 that 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 make all kinds of stories. I don’t mind backing a young Indian filmmaker who has a story with a global appeal.”

But he sounds cautious about the fascination to cross over. “Let’s be clear. Films made in India are made for an Indian audience and a section of the NRI audience. Hollywood films have an international presence and audience. So they are better placed to cross over. Films such as 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 an 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.”