For Telegraph Magazine, Jul 2004
One of three celebrated tennis-pro brothers, Ashok Amritraj turned his back on the game to unleash a series of box office smashes as a film producer.
It's not often you find Hollywood's top brass tucking into a curry, particularly given the dearth of decent Indian restaurants in Beverly Hills. Yet at this candle-lit dinner party in the gardens of a lavish San Fernando Valley home, some 20 power players have assembled to scoff down plates of okra masala, stuffed paratha and lamb korma. The director of Twister sits at one table with the chief executive of Lions Gate Films; the screenwriter of Braveheart sits at another with the producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And among them strolls the host, Ashok Amritraj, who is the rarest sight of all – a Hollywood producer who hails from India.
Amritraj is one of the movie industry's most remarkable success stories. He is both the only Indian and the only former tennis pro to be producing movies in Hollywood and he may well be the only Hollywood producer ever to have had an arranged marriage. The youngest of three brothers – who made tennis history in the 1970s by all playing at Wimbledon at the same time – Amritraj has graduated from making straight-to-video B movies 20 years ago to producing hit after A-list hit in recent years including Bringing Down The House (starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah), Raising Helen (Kate Hudson) and Walking Tall (the Rock). His latest, Shopgirl (Steve Martin, again) comes out in Spring and will be his 76th film. In fact, Amritraj is on such a roll these days, that he opened a London office in July for his company, Hyde Park Entertainment.
"We don't have any actors here, do we?" he says, with a wink, standing over Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart. "Well thank goodness for that!" Amritraj is a natural host, charming and convivial, with the brogue of a hearty aristocrat. He pats Wallace on the shoulder. "This guy, here, he's the best there is," he declares. And for a few minutes, he rhapsodises about great writing and Wallace's talent, somehow managing to ham up the flattery and yet sound utterly genuine. His flow is broken only when the waiters start serving dessert and he peers over at the plates, wondering out loud what's for pudding. Wallace laughs. "It's mango!" he says. "You mean you didn't make every dish yourself?" Amritraj acts affronted. "What do you mean? I spent all last night chopping that stuff up. I just didn't know it was mango!"
Everyone laughs, including Amritraj himself. He has a wonderful laugh, warm and infectious. The actor Jean Claude Van Damme once said "when Ashok laughs, he makes the whole room happy."
It's odd that Ashok Amritraj should be such a rare fish in the entertainment industry. After all India has a vigorous film industry and Indians have had no trouble penetrating other American businesses, such as NASA and Silicone Valley. Nevertheless, the only other Indians of note are the directors Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) and M Night Shyamalan who scarcely counts, since he was raised in Pennsylvania from the age of two. Were Night raised in south India, like Amritraj, his sense of family life and society, his whole notion of story, would likely be different and certainly, Bollywood would exert its pull, as it does on most Indian filmmakers.
Yet still Amritraj broke the mould, and not for the first time. After all, until the 70s, who had heard of an Indian playing at Wimbledon?
He first came to Hollywood as a tennis player during the sport's heyday in the 1970s. With McEnroe, Borg, Nastase and Connors, the three Amritraj brothers were one of the star attractions on the circuit, and celebrities would often come to hang out after the game. "I met Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Sean Connery," he says. "I played at Dustin Hoffman's house, at Robert Evans' house. It was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Madras."
Suitably seduced, the Amritraj brothers bought a home in California for whenever they were in town, and brother Vijay even dabbled in acting, playing a small role in the Bond film Octopussy. But Ashok chose to go all in. A fan of pictures since his early childhood, he had always preferred Ben Hur and the Sound of Music to the Bollywood fare he grew up with. So he decided, at 24, to quit tennis altogether – to sacrifice the years of playing still ahead of him - and commit to becoming a movie producer.
"The first five years were a disaster," he says. "If I'd known how tough it was going to be, I never would have done it. When people said 'let's make this movie' I took them seriously! So I had a lot of meetings but only because they wanted to play tennis with me. I wasn't producing anything – I even put my office lines on hold so people would think I was busy."
Hollywood is full of fledgling producers. Unlike writers, actors and directors, there is no craft to learn or guild to join. All that's required is a phone (an 'office') and a script (a 'property') to which directors and actors (the 'talent') must be attached before the studios will consider funding it. Since the studios usually say 'no', Amritraj found himself running around in circles, until he discovered a way to bypass the studios altogether, and make low budget movies for an international video market.
Jason Reed, the vice president of Disney, says that "the entry exam for this industry is figuring out how to get in. Ashok's story shows that there's no standard route, no road more travelled. This is one of the few industries in the world where no one cares where you came from or how you got here. They only care what you can do for them."
For Amritraj, the movie business was a world apart from tennis. "In tennis, players have a computer ranking and the ball is either in or out," he says, "but in Hollywood nothing is so black and white. It's all grey. All that matters is your relationships and how you are perceived. Talent is secondary."
Which is not to say that tennis has been anything but an asset for Amritraj. In sunny Hollywood, relationships are often nurtured on the tennis court and everyone wants to play with a pro, as he discovered when he first arrived. Today, Amritraj himself hosts the power game. Every Saturday, he plays on his home court with such regulars as Pierce Brosnan, Steven Bochko, the creator of NYPD Blue and Chris McGurk, the vice-president at MGM. According to McGurk, Amritraj is as gifted on the court, as he is to this sphere of relationships and perception. "Everybody warms to Ashok. He has this huge personality where everyone feels welcome, not to mention one of the all-time best laughs," he says. "And his tennis side just makes him an even larger than life character, which is only a good thing in this business."
At his office in Santa Monica, Amritraj explains to me how things have changed for him over the years. "Only five percent of people in Hollywood actually make things happen," he says. "The rest are on the outside trying to get in. Now I'm in the five percent, things work much more easily. For example, I recently bought the film rights to that old TV series, the Persuaders. The very next day Steve Coogan called asking to play the Roger Moore part. Don't ask me how he knew I had the rights. Then Ben Stiller calls – he says that Coogan called him and he wants to play the Tony Curtis part with him. Also Ben can get Todd Philips to direct, who did Starsky And Hutch. So I called Chris [McGurk] at MGM to run it by him, and he said 'yes, we'll finance it, no problem.' So I've practically got a movie off the ground with a few phone calls, and I haven't even got a script yet! It was a lot harder in the early days, I promise you."
From the seventy-plus films on his resume, Amritraj appears to have no particular speciality – he has tackled the gamut of genres in his career, his tastes are nothing if not broad. Having said that, his greatest successes have not been sensitive indies or grand palette period pieces, but popcorn hits such as the the goofy comedy, Bringing Down The House, which has grossed $130 million worldwide. It was a balls-out action movie, for example, which turned his career around in 1991 - Double Impact, starring the relatively untested Belgian actor, Jean Claude Van Damme.
The two had first met in 1983 when Van Damme didn't have an agent, and Amritraj hadn't yet made a film. "He sent me his picture, so I called him. I didn't have anything better to do," says Ashok. "And he came into the office and arranged the chairs in a certain way and did some gymnastic balancing act. We had a chat, but his English was very bad, and that was that. Then seven years later at the Cannes Film Festival I hear someone shout across the terrace: 'Ashok!' And it's him!"
By that time, Van Damme had made a couple of small films, and he was hatching the idea for Double Impact. "I wanted Ashok to produce it because when I was down on my luck, he was the only one who called me," he says. It proved a bonanza for them both, netting over $90 million in profit. "That's when people started calling me back," Amritraj laughs. "Suddenly I was getting invited to a lot more bar-mitzvahs!"
As Amritraj's professional fortunes changed, so did his personal life. Double Impact coincided with the end of Amritraj's lavish bachelorhood. He had a home in Belair, a full-time Indian chef and a succession of glamorous girlfriends, Princess Stephanie of Monaco among them. Van Damme describes his lifestyle as akin to "an Indian James Bond", which makes it all the more surprising that when Amritraj decided to settle down, he chose an arranged marriage.
"If I'd married in my 20s, I'd have probably married an American girl," he says, "but as I got older I wanted someone who understood both cultures blending together. So I called my mom and said 'OK. I'm ready.'" The sheer scale of the operation that he unleashed with those words is hard to comprehend. His mother, Margaret, is a formidable woman, with a tendency to think big. She built a business making basic packing boxes in her garage into one of the leading box manufacturers in India.
Ashok's father worked for the railways, his mother was a tycoon. So when it came to finding an eligible South Indian Catholic girl about five foot six, as Ashok had requested, she personally travelled the world from London to Hong Kong, New York to Bombay, meeting over 300 families and whittling them down as she went. Ashok met a shortlist of 27. He found his wife, Chitra, in Madras, where he started.
"I wanted to take her out," he recalls, "so we went to the beach, but we had 12 cousins and chaperones sitting fifty yards away from us at all times. It was like a scene from the Godfather without the machine guns!" Having met Chitra for a total of only eight hours, he decided to marry her, and their vast wedding - 7000 people, four days, 16 priests – appeared in the pages of Hello! At the dinner party, Ashok points out the magazine spread framed on his dining room wall. "What can I say," he grins. "They paid me a fortune!"
It's about 11pm at the dinner party, and Chitra and Ashok are at the door, bidding their guests goodnight. Contrary to popular belief, Hollywood parties rarely run late, especially on a school night. (The Amritraj's have two children – Milan, six, and Priya, 10). But in truth, Ashok could do with some rest himself. Though he has money enough to retire in comfort, he starts work at 7am most mornings and his schedule is becoming more hectic by the day. In addition to his four annual trips to India, now he has his new London office to tend to, which excites him tremendously.
"There's such terrific creative talent in England and great crews," he effuses, "and it's very film-friendly there now, with the way the taxes are structured." But this isn't just about the business opportunity for Amritraj. He has long had an affinity for London, ever since his days of playing at Wimbledon. He even named his company after Hyde Park, his favourite part of the city, particularly when the sun's out. "England is a great meeting point between India and America and London is such an Indo-centric city. Besides, I just like the Brits, they have great manners. I'm too old to deal with all the craziness and jumping on tables you get out here."
Still, Amritraj has a restless spirit. London is just a part of a bigger global picture. Rather than make another 80-odd movies, he's focussed on building business links from continent to continent. "I'm working with Jackie Chan on a similar set up between China and India," he says, eagerly. But didn't Jackie Chan make an entire career out of craziness and jumping on tables? Ashok laughs his huge laugh again. "I know! But that's where the fun has always been for me. I love to shake things up!"