Ashok Amritraj’s amazing life story could well be the plot of one of his movies. The veteran film producer, who was at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year to share tips and insights into the film industry, has chosen to chronicle it all in the guise of an autobiographical book, Advantage Hollywood.
Nowadays, he’s known as one of the US cinema industry’s most successful producers, with more than 100 films and US$2 billion (Dh7.35bn) of takings to his name.
But, as alluded to in the book’s title, he initially made his mark in the world of tennis. Born in Chennai in 1956, he and his brothers Vijay and Anand were among India’s first pro tennis players, competing in major tournaments such as Wimbledon and the US Open.
But after being invited to play at a Hollywood executive’s mansion, he began to dream of a career in Tinseltown.
However, his outsider status and lack of moviemaking experience meant he initially found it tough to break into the industry.
“I first understood everyone wanted to play tennis with me but no one wanted to make a movie with me,” he says.
“When you play a sport it’s cut and dried: if you play better than them you win. The film industry doesn’t quite work like that. It’s partly hard work but it’s also as much luck, timing, the grace of God and so many other things.”
At first his career consisted of a slew of rejections interspersed with the odd low-budget, direct-to-video work.
He believes his ethnicity was another disadvantage in his early days in Hollywood.
“It was much harder for me being an Indian,” he recalls. “I remember going to a meeting in the 1980s and an executive saying to me: ‘Oh, you’re from India. Which part of India is Singapore in?’
“They had no idea where I was from, what I was doing and why I was there. They looked at me like I was completely nuts.”
Over the years, the decline of American ascendancy across the globe has altered this insularity.
“It’s very different time than it is today,” says Amritraj. “America was their world in the 1970s and 1980s. It was so dominant that they didn’t have to worry about the rest of the world. Nowadays, India, China and the Middle East are having more of a say in the world.”
He believes he may have eventually left the industry if a stroke of serendipity had not come his way.
“In the early 1980s, I was out of work and I got this photograph of this guy. He was an interesting-looking guy, he couldn’t really speak English but he said he could act,” recalls Amritraj.
“We tried to make a movie together but couldn’t get it done in 1984.
“Then, in 1990 I was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I hear: ‘Ashok.’ I look over and this kid comes running over. He says to me: ‘After the 800 photos I sent out yours was the only call I got back so let’s try to make a movie together again.’”
This “kid” was the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean Claude Van Damme, and their collaboration, Double Impact, went on to be a worldwide smash.
“Suddenly, people started returning my calls,” he says.
Since then, he’s gone on to produce box office hits such as Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Bringing Down the House and Machete.
Meanwhile, in 2008, his production house, Hyde Park Entertainment, signed a partnership with Image Nation – the filmmaking company that is a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National. This means Amitraj is a frequent visitor to the UAE.
He is very optimistic about the future of the UAE’s film industry, particularly with the emphasis being put on education. He did, however, foresee some teething troubles in attracting dedicated professionals.
“If you are affluent enough to be in a traditional career, you have to be very passionate and ready to work your backside off to be in the movies,” Amritraj insists.
“It’s much easier to go down the traditional route – go into the family business or get a government job.
“I’ve had two non-traditional careers, both in tennis and films. It takes extraordinary focus, 24/7, to succeed in them. Filmmaking is a tough industry. You will get beaten up now and again.”
• Advantage Hollywood, published by HarperCollins, is out now