The sound of movies

DREAMING BIG: Straight sets for Ashok Amritraj. Photo by Utpal Borpujari

Carlton Hotel is part of the Cannes legend, being the glitziest official film festival hotel where one can bump into a Quentin Tarantino one day and a Brad Pitt the next day, many others thrown in in between. At the prestigious Suit Roman Polanski in the hotel, named after the legendary filmmaker, a soft-spoken man sits during the festival period, finalising future projects, scouting new ones, and giving finishing touches to various film-related deals. Meet Ashok Amritraj, who was probably the first Indian to slug it out in Hollywood and make it to the top on his own, despite being a first generation immigrant.

During the recent 62nd Cannes Film Festival, Amritraj was particularly excited, almost like a first-time mother-to-be. And why not, his 100th film as a producer is soon going to the floors, an epic screen venture to be directed by actress Madeleine Stowe and to star the likes of Hugh Jackman.

The 100-film mark is no joke, and arguably Amritraj is among the very few Hollywood producers to achieve this milestone, and surely the only one among the immigrant success stories in Hollywood. No doubt, the youngest sibling of the famed tennis-playing Amritraj brothers did not have it easy. In fact, he had to toil hard to make his way in an unknown world. During the journey even having to produce erotic thrillers to survive in the rat race. But ultimately, as he says, it is his perseverance and Indian family values that helped him travel so far, to become the best-known Indian name in Hollywood, with whom top stars do movies during business hours and play tennis during weekends.

Amritraj understands the importance of the milestone, and explains it with his trademark self-effacing style. “Even as a kid I wanted to make films, when I watched films like The Sound of Music and Ben Hur. The reality has far exceeded my dreams. Tennis of course played a big role, as it took me across the world, and took me to Hollywood, and to this day all the lessons learnt in tennis have served me well, starting with the discipline and the hard work, the focus, the work outs,” he says.

Tennis, in fact, helped him bond with top stars with whom he played regularly. But then, “if you thought you would get a movie made by playing at other people’s houses, it never did. The thing I feel better now is that they all come to play at my house, while earlier I used to go their houses and play.” No wonder, his popularity in Hollywood is reflected in the fact that his movies have starred names like Bruce Wills, Angelina Jolie, Steve Martin, Antonio Banderas and Cate Blanchett.

The fact, is, he says, the movie industry is not for those with weak hearts. “We all have some degree of talent, and hard work is a given, but the most important thing is perseverance. If you don’t persevere in this business, whether you are a director or a star, you cannot succeed,” he says. He cites the years that took Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi and the struggle Sylvester Stallone went through before he became a star.

“I got a movie made with Sly, and when I was down and out I used to be up by listening to the theme song from Rocky and I told him that. He too had come up the hard way from Hell’s Kitchen in New York. It kept me going. You become successful in Hollywood not because you are somebody’s son or daughter, but because you persevere. That’s what I tell all the youngsters who come into my office,” he explains.

Slow and steady
It was 27 years ago that Amritraj landed in Hollywood, but it took him about another five years to make his first movie, Fleshburn. “I made that movie in half a million dollars, and shot it in Arizona’s hot and miserable weather, and I loved every minute of those five weeks. Once I went through the process, I realised I was willing to pay the price to stay in this business,” he recalls. While he has made four-five films a year also, Amritraj says it is not about how many he has produced. “I have grown through these 100 films, from the really small films to the big ones. Luckily for me, things worked in my favour as the little movies which could go the VHS market benefitted as cable had just come in. When the international market became strong, I concentrated on it. My movies grew along with me, and so did new markets, like satellite TV, DVDs, Blu-Ray discs.”

Amritraj right now is excited about his 100th production, Unbound Captives, which will be shot towards 2009-end and ready for release by early 2011. “It will be a big epic in the scale of Laurence of Arabia, and Stowe’s first effort at direction. John Toll of Braveheart and Last Samurai will be the cinematographer. It’s probably the biggest in scope and scale among all my films, and will have a budget of 80-90 million dollars,” he says.

A word of caution
The film will be shot “between” New Mexico and New Zealand as the subject demands shoots in different seasons. He is also worked up about the interest in Indian cinema thanks to the success of Slumdog Millionaire. But at the same time, he sounds a word of caution to Indian filmmakers wanting to break into the international market. Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderful film, but one must realise that it all starts with the screenwriter and the director both of who are British. And the movie has been made from very much a Western point of view even though location, stars are all Indian. “I think those kind of movies can certainly work internationally. The question is can an Indian writer write with the international audience in mind. If one wants to break into international market place, one has to learn it from the writers’ point of view. The good news is it has been done twice now, though 27 years apart, with Gandhi and Slumdog.

“We are at a point where the industry has matured and we have a huge amount of talent in India. But can they be not so caught up entirely in the Indian market place and start looking at things globally from a script and directing standpoint? I think all of our actors, crew are talented enough to break out. The point is how you portray your stories to the West,” he says.

When Amritraj started out in 1981, there was nobody from India in the business. “I was the brown skin among the sea of white. And it was very, very difficult. In the last 10-12 years, the second generation of Indian filmmakers has come up really well, and also a lot of friends from Mumbai are looking at the American market, such as Anil Kapoor who came to meet me to get a screening arranged (for distributors) for his Gandhi My Father.

There is no question that it is easier to break in now, and it’s not just that, because there is a mental acceptance about India now globally because in the next 10 years, China and India would be unstoppable from an economic point of view. That’s why there is a window of opportunity created by Slumdog, which now has to be capitalised by someone and make that movie that is acceptable to all. The doors have opened, we have to push it open,” he argues.

He also feels it is important to put more and more Indian actors in international projects.

“It is not so much about making hit films. It is about putting Indian actors more and more on the screen and making the global viewer used to it. It does not help much if you see one Indian face now and again another three years later, as you will be just a novelty.

You have to be in your face, something which the Chinese have done very well — they have Chow Yuan Fat, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Jiyi in the international map. Our actors and directors should try to do as much as international cinema, even though their first focus rightly should be Indian cinema. You just cannot come to Cannes and say we are global, it does not make any sense,” says the man who is also a brand ambassador for Singapore.

India projects
Quite naturally, Amritraj also has plans to make an international project with the backdrop of India, not something like Jeans, his only Indian production till date that was for the domestic market. His company Hyde Park Entertainment is developing a couple of ideas for that, and in all likelihood it will be a project in which music plays a significant role.

While the screenplay will be written by an American for the project, Amritraj has in his mind a few Indian names as possible people who may direct it — “though I haven’t yet met one Indian director that I feel is willing to take the mental plunge to not make a Bollywood film but an English movie made for an international audience. That’s a mental adjustment one has to make as there is a different sense of drama, morality, costumes, hairstyles and colours.” But all said and done, the pull of his home country is still there for him, which is why he is soon starting an Asian wing of his company, which will look at starting production in India, China and the Gulf region.

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