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The winning streak

Ashok Amritraj is the hottest link with Hollywood



I've passed the point where I will get lost — Ashok Amritraj — Photo: K. V. Srinivasan

HIS SPARTAN office and unpretentious demeanour are far removed from his rising profile in Hollywood. In a career spanning 22 years, Ashok Amritraj has seen numbing failures and incredible successes.

After Bringing Down the House and Walking Tall, Ashok's winning streak continues with Raising Helen. And if ever you wondered about his hit formula in the Hollywood Grand Slam, his T-shirt says it all - "Just Do It."

"Yeah. Because nobody is going to do it for you... " smiles the tennis player-turned-filmmaker, now on vacation in Chennai. A risk taker with home-grown people skills, Ashok has been "lucky to navigate the studio waters, predicting the next curve." Posing for pictures he goes on, with a sunny disposition, "I'm having a little too much fun right now. The past two years have been great for me. Raising Helen, directed by Gary Marshal of Pretty Woman fame, is doing well at the box-office and will soon see its Indian release. It's one of my favourite movies. Kate, who plays the fun-loving Helen, is making her way in New York, when she is suddenly saddled with the responsibility of bringing up her sister's children. And it turns out the kids raise Helen! There is plenty of sentiment and personal stuff in the film. Karan Johar, who saw it, said it seemed like a good script for a Hindi film."

Having worked out smart deals with Disney, MGM and Spielberg's Dreamworks, Ashok's forthcoming releases range from comedy to fantasy.

"After Shop Girl with Steve Martin in the lead for Disney, there will be Dreamer with Dreamworks. It's a classic Black Beauty kind of film for the family. In the pipeline is also a heist thriller Monkey Face starring Richard Gere. I had breakfast with him recently. He's so attached to India. Besides these films, MGM and my production house Hyde Park will co-produce The Other End Of The Line, a romantic comedy set in India (Bangalore), San Francisco and New York. And guess what, the film will star an Indian actress who is sure to get noticed," he says. And that's not Ashok's only way of giving back to the country that he hails from.

The filmmaker has also been appointed by the Academy of Motion Picture as its "emissary to the Satyajit Ray retrospective." The Academy, which has called Ashok "India's Ambassador to Hollywood", has restored Ray's classics. And he will represent the Academy in worldwide events to commemorate Ray.

When asked about emerging trends in Hollywood, Ashok explains, "Filmmaking is becoming an expensive proposition. Recent years have proved that films that appeal across the board keep the cash registers ringing. Instead of doing one or two tickets, you do four! And that's why animation films have been good grossers. Independent filmmakers are out. Now, everything is so corporatised.

The few surviving big studios are bigger than some countries. So, the wise option was to join them and co-produce instead of competing with them. That's why Hyde Park tied up with them and the partnership is proving to be a great love-hate relationship (bursts out laughing). The big studios are incredible when it comes to marketing, and we are strong on production. So we develop projects, they market. They can just pick up the phone and strike deals with Mac or Pepsi."

Coming back to trends, Ashok continues after a reflective pause, "Hollywood is also looking to material generated elsewhere in the world. So we now have remakes of Japanese and Korean films. It is very forward looking and good at judging the future. It is also fighting problems like piracy and Internet films and looking at new mediums - like the mobile phones. People are so addicted to phones that soon there will be film trailers and advertisements on them."

Opportunity in animation

Talking about India's prospects, Ashok says with candour, "There's no cross-over market for Bollywood films. But they sure have a following among the burgeoning NRI crowd. According to me, there is an avalanche of opportunity in animation. We have the skills; only we need small creative groups to identify what the big market out there desires. I often tell my friends that if you take India out of America, it will come to a standstill. Because what Indians have done to NASA, Microsoft, Intel or HP is incredible. Add to that the doctors from here."

More than two decades ago, Ashok had gone to the U.S. with colourful dreams only to understand that life sometimes comes in stark black and white. Though success eluded him initially, he didn't scamper away into the sunset. An independent producer, whose turning point came with Double Impact starring Van Damme, Ashok reminisces, "One of my early trysts with Hollywood was when I met the awesome Gary Marshal during a TV show Happy Days for which I was part of the live audience. Today, it feels nice to ask Gary to do films for me."

"And guess what," he continues, "Today, I've introduced a number of Hollywood stars and studio heads to Indian cuisine. Chicken tikka, paratha and biryani... they simply can't have enough of it in my house. Pierce Brosnan, Dustin Hoffman, Mathew Perry, Sean Connery, et al. usually unwind in our place on Saturdays, when we play tennis and have lunch together. They slog it out during weekdays and just turn off during weekends. So I too learnt to separate business and leisure. There are many lessons that Hollywood taught me. And there is so much Hollywood can imbibe from us - family values, for instance. Luckily, my wife and I make sure that our kids are not too westernised. So they are a fair blend of two cultures."

A hard-nosed pragmatist, Ashok says about the riddles of glowbiz, "Life seems so unreal, like a bubble. The world outside never seems to affect Hollywood. That's precisely why the entertainment industry survives any national crisis. I've passed the point where I will get lost.

There was a time in my 30s when all that glamour, parties, private jets and other trappings of Hollywood left me dazed. Now, I get to pick and choose. Still, it's so ridiculous, totally unreal, completely over the top."

T. KRITHIKA REDDY

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