Some will say film producer Ashok Amritraj has led a doubly successful life so far, what with his career-defining plateaus both on the tennis court and in the movie studio. Yet, Ashok has a hard time fathoming that he has played in every major tournament, including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, during a nine-year professional tennis career, and oversaw the production of more than 100 films, including Traitor, Walking Tall, Bringing Down the House, Bandits, and Double Impact. As his latest film — directed by Michael Brandt and starring Richard Gere, Topher Grace, Stephen Moyer, and Martin Sheen — begins production in Michigan, Ashok took a few minutes out of his busy day to talk exclusively with Buzzine about The Double and his almost 30-year career as one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed producers.
“The reality of my life has far exceeded the dream. It’s tough to ask for more,” Ashok, whose Hyde Park Entertainment now reportedly produces four films with at least $20 million budgets per year, humbly told Buzzine during his exclusive chat. “I’m very happy with where I’m at. It’s been a great balance of cultures for me between East and West. That has served me well, in terms of longevity.”
What also has served him well is Angelina Jolie and the news, as both have made the Cold War and U.S.-Russian clandestine relations relevant for Hollywood again. With the recent news of Russian spies seamlessly living undercover in the United States followed by the hoards of moviegoers flocking to cinema halls to bask in the guilty pleasure action flick that is Salt, Ashok’s next release under the Hyde Park Entertainment banner, The Double, is sure to be a catchy film for audiences to enjoy when it hits screens in 2011.
A crime-mystery and spy thriller, Ashok said the timing could not be better to release The Double.
“It’s a terrific film, very much of a topical subject matter,” the producer, who has worked with A-list talent ranging from Bruce Willis to Steve Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme to Charleton Heston, said about his current project that is filming in Michigan but is set in Washington, D.C. “It’s a bit of a Cold War thriller about Russian spies and all the stuff you are reading in the papers. We couldn’t have planned it better.”
What was tougher to plan for the better was Ashok’s career as a mainstream film producer in Hollywood. After spending nearly a decade representing India on the tennis courts in venues such as the U.S. Open in New York City and Wimbledon in London, Ashok decided to try his hand in cinema. While it is all but certain the theatrics of John McEnroe (who played during the same era as Ashok) did not inspire the former Indian tennis great to transition from tennis to film, Ashok told Buzzine that his road to success, since executive producing Fleshburn in 1984, has been arduous.
“It’s never easy to get a movie made. I think the general public doesn’t quite understand how difficult it is to get a movie made,” the brother of Vijay Amritraj, also a former tennis player whose brief stint with Hollywood featured him alongside Roger Moore in the James Bond flick, Octopussy, candidly said. “It’s not like making chocolates or shoes where you put it in an assembly line. You have to spend a couple years developing it to a place where one feels passionate about it; then you have to attract a cast and director who believe in it. Yes, it gets easier in that I’ve been doing it for so long, but the process is always hard.”
Another process that has been hard is the attempt to crossover Hollywood and Bollywood films. While Ashok is ethnically Indian, he has made a name for himself in American cinema. If anyone could have bridged what is considered the world’s two largest film industries in Hollywood and Bollywood, one would think Ashok was primed for the job. Alas, the Hollywood producer said the American film industry’s “partnership” with Indian cinema is a lot more complicated than most would realize.
“Hollywood and Bollywood are very much on parallel lines; both have their own audience and are good for what they are. The issue right now is there is no crossover, with a couple exceptions,” he frankly told Buzzine. “There have been no true Indian filmmakers who have successfully marketed their films internationally. There haven’t been any real connections between the two industries so far.”
In terms of what can be done to help foster growth and further meaningful partnerships between the two industries, Ashok said filmmakers from both sides need to spend time in the other’s backyard and attempt to fully understand the home market’s tendencies.
“The second generation (of Indians in America) has done great, making strides in acting and directing. It takes a younger crop of Indian directors to spend a couple years here (in the United States) to understand the marketplace and the culture,” he opined, further adding that, while there is a light at the end of the tunnel, joint development has taken much longer than he would have anticipated. It has not happened to the extent I would have liked to see it, in terms of Indian talent, but I think give it five to seven years.”
While Ashok still sees promise and potential for growth, he has been equally amazed by the expansion he has already witnessed during his nearly 30-year career in film.
“I’ve grown up in the most extraordinary time in cinema. When I was a kid, I used to watch Ben Hur and The Sound of Music eight years after they released in the U.S.,” he recalled, adding that he has also witnessed immense advances in technology within his own producing career, such as the transitions from Beta to VHS to DVD to Blu-ray Disc to 3D. “Now they are released the same day in both countries.”
Sure, Ashok has definitely seen a lot in his career. What is rather scary is how many more changes he will probably witness before the end of his career, as many more Indian-Americans are following in his large footsteps and creating a much more diverse Hollywood than anyone could have ever imagined when Ashok arrived in the scene in the early 1980s. Then again, Ashok probably never figured he would be producing one big-budget film right after another four decades after he exchanged tennis for cinema. What remains to be seen is whether anyone following in his footsteps will be able to “double” his success.
Until that determination is made, be sure to look for The Double to hit screens sometime in 2011.