Ashok Amritraj, a man with two immensely successful careers, grew up in a family of professional tennis players in India. Long before becoming one of Hollywood’s A-List movie producers, Ashok played tennis in both Wimbledon and the US Open. Since then, Ashok has produced over 100 films with worldwide revenues exceeding over $2 billion. His box-office hits include Bringing Down the House, Premonition, Blue Valentin, Ghost Rider, 99 Homes, and many more. Ashok was the first Indian to join the Academy of Motion Pictures as a producer and has been appointed as the first United Nations India Goodwill Ambassador for the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2018, he was honoured with a Chevalier (Knight) National du Merité award by French President Emmanuel Macron.
I spoke with Ashok and got a glimpse into his astonishing career and his many achievements.
Ghost Rider set: (L to R) Mark Neveldine, Nicolas Cage, Ashok Amritraj, and Brian Taylor
Tell us about your transition from professional tennis to the movie industry?
I had an extraordinary time playing professional tennis during the 70s, as I was fortunate to play in Wimbledon and the US Open. After I reached the finals of the Wimbledon Juniors, a door opened for me when I met Jerry Buss in 1975. Jerry, who went on to own the LA Lakers, brought me to Los Angeles to play with the Los Angeles Strings for the World Team Tennis Championships. Our team was made up of my brother Vijay, Chris Evert, Ilie Năstase and myself. Many entertainment people, such as Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, as well as directors and executives, would come watch us play at the Forum. Then in 1980, I decided to hang up my racket and transition into the film industry. I knew many people in Hollywood, so I thought it was going to be easy, but it was far more challenging than I expected.
Ashok with Dustin Hoffman
What difficulties did you face as an Indian trying to make it in Hollywood in the early days?
In the early 80s, there were no Indian producers in Hollywood. I was the first one in what was essentially, a very white world. This was not a time when the word ‘diversity’ was heard or even discussed.
I knew many studio executives and stars through my tennis career and was often invited to play tennis at their homes. I would hand out my scripts to them at every opportunity, but later, when I got them on the phone, they only wanted to talk about their forehand and backhand, not my script. So, it was a tough five years.
Then in the mid-80s, as the video market was coming in, I started to cut my teeth with independent films, which did quite well for HBO and Showtime. It was an entrepreneurial time and the era of the independent filmmaker, but for me, it was very much about breaking into the industry. Then in 1990, I made Double Impact with Jean-Claude van Damme. The movie was a huge success and grossed over $100 million.
Ashok with Dwayne Johnson
Has Hollywood become more diverse and inclusive compared to when you first started?
Hollywood, certainly in the last five to ten years, has focused on diversity and gender equality. I think there are many reasons for that. The market place around the world has grown, and the gender bias and the “me too” movement has played a big part in this. OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon have focused a great deal on the global product. They see their subscribers are from all over the world, so they want their product to reflect what their subscribers want to see.
99 Homes set: Ashok with Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon
Tell us about Hyde Park Entertainment’s new division and your plans to launch into the Asian Market?
I have always been very involved in India through tennis and film, as well as my work with the United Nations. This has given me a wonderful opportunity to bridge Hollywood and India, and I have always thought of myself as the conduit between the two cultures.
In 1988, I did the first co-production with India, called Bloodstone, with an actor named Rajinikanth. In the early 90s I made many TV shows in India and hosted a show called Gateway to Hollywood for Sony Television. Then in 1998, I produced a Tamil film called Jeans with Aishwarya Rai, which did very well and was later dubbed into other Indian languages.
The new entity, Hyde Park Asia, is based in Chennai and focuses on Indian language programming. The first project is called Maximum City, which is based on a Pulitzer runner-up book by Suketu Metha, about the city of Mumbai in the 90s. It is a trilogy, and Anurag Kashyap is writing and directing it. I am also working on a project with Zoya Akhtar called Paradise Towers, which is based on Sweta Bachchan Nanda’s novel.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Hollywood?
COVID-19 has affected Hollywood, as it has the rest of the world. It has basically shut down production. Of course, there are much bigger problems around the world, so Hollywood’s problems don’t necessarily seem to be at the forefront, but it’s affecting everyone. If this goes for another month or two, we will be facing some challenging times. Needless to say, productions involve several people, both in front of and behind the camera, with people working in very close quarters. So, when it starts up again, every single thing will change, from organizing boxed lunches for people to disinfecting equipment and distancing yourself from others. It’s going to be a big issue, but ultimately, we will all adjust.
Ashok with Jake Gyllenhaal
What projects are you working on, and how are you navigating these unprecedented times?
Here in Hollywood, we are working on Remote Control, an international thriller starring Gerard Butler. We were supposed to start filming towards the end of the year, but now it’s been pushed to next year. Barbara Broccoli, who produces the Bond films, is my partner on it and John Matheson is directing it. We are also doing a project with Netflix called Pashmina, which is an animated film. Gurinder Chadha is writing and directing it. Then there is a project called Proxy, which is a science fiction movie similar to Ex Machina. We have a pretty big slate for Hollywood for 2021, in both film and television, and we intend to do more in India as well.
How are you spending your time at home during this lockdown?
By now, I think a lot of people have settled into the idea of meetings from home… a lot of conference calls and zoom calls. I wouldn’t say it’s business as usual, but business has been continuing. As far as spending time, I’ve taken a couple of drives and walks around the neighbourhood. I have also started playing tennis again. Fortunately, tennis is a sport where you can be 50 feet apart. Though I must say, it would be such a pleasure to go back to our old way of life.
- Sabrina Joshi