"Having watched the wonderful films in India,
I was quite 'crazy' about films"

 

Sandya chats with Mr. Ashok Amritraj

You need to listen to the audio files in this page.

So, you are caught in a unique situation where you are eager to chat with Mr. Ashok Amritraj about his new movie, Jeans. What do you do? For the most part, there are a thousand butterflies in your stomach, just to pick up the telephone and try to contact him. What if he gets angry for pestering him? Or what if he just shoos you away telling you that he does not have the time right now for your antics all in the name of an interview... :-) With fears mounting and suspense building, I called film producer, Ashok Amritraj, during a specified time. Little did I know that I would have the biggest surprise waiting for me during this phone conversation. Contrary to my scary visions of talking to a film producer over the phone, what I found on the other side, was a very friendly, thoughtful and self-confident person without any of the stereotypes attached. Ashok Amritraj had told us that he had only about ten minutes to spare, but our chat took many interesting turns to last almost an hour.

While the rest of the world learns about the cinema industry only from the news they read in magazines, newspapers and the web, Ashok Amritraj lives and learns by being in the center of film production, day in and day out. Amritraj’s rise to the top in Hollywood Cinema and steady growth in the Indian cine arena are two factors that have made him a businessman to contend with, now and for many years to come. The following chat showcases his passion for tennis & cinema and pride in his maiden venture in the Indian film industry, Jeans. We also hope that the reader will have an opportunity to learn about some of the ‘good’ aspects of tamil cinema that so often gets overshadowed by the strikes, rumors and gossip.

Click for a bigger picture

For a man engrossed in cinema of all sorts, all over the world, the factors that have motivated and inspired him are aplenty.  His thoughts and response tell the story...   

San:  "What were some of your experiences when you were young or as a teenager that influenced you to get into the movie business eventually?"

Amr: "I was primarily interested in films in Hollywood.   That has been my interest from a very young age.  Having watched the wonderful films in India, I was quite 'crazy' about films." 

But Amritraj admits that it was tennis that brought him to the United States in 1975.  In 1978, he found himself playing for the Los Angeles tennis team and winning the World Championship.  It was not until 1981 that Amritraj joined the movie making business.  After seventeen years and seventy films, there is indeed no looking back, but a lot to look forward to.  Besides the hugely successful Double Impact starring Jean Claude VanDamme, Amritraj has also produced films like Blackout starring Malcolm McDowell for HBO and has completed The Confession starring Alec Baldwin, (Oscar winner) Ben Kingsley and Amy Irving, alongside A Murder of Crows with (Oscar winner) Cuba Gooding Jr., (Oscar nominee) Tom Berenger and Jean Marie Baptiste.  With 15 English films slated for production and release in 1998, he hopes that his Franchise Pictures (which has stemmed out of Amritraj Entertainment) will be one of the top independent film companies in Hollywood.  Furthermore, Amritraj looks forward to gaining ground in the competition between independent film industries, as there are few companies that produce so many films with relatively high budgets.

It was about three years ago when Ashok Amritraj joined hands with Michael Soloman (former President of Warner Brothers Television International) and formed Amritraj-Soloman Communications.  Their company took off to a great start about two years back. 

Raju Sundaram, Ashok Kumar, Shankar, Ashok Amritraj & Madesh

Click for a bigger picture

The rest is best read in Amritraj's words: "The first feature film that is actually coming out under that banner (Amritraj-Soloman Communications) is JeansIt is basically one of the most expensive films ever made in India, either in Hindi, Tamil or in any other Indian language.  About fifty percent of the film is shot in the United States and shot around the world.  There is a song that takes place in the seven wonders of the world, which includes the Pyramids of Egypt, Iffel Tower, Great Wall of China, Leaning Tower of Piza and Taj Mahal.  About fifty percent of the film is shot in India.  It stars Aishwarya Rai and Prasanth and many character actors who are very talented.  It is directed by Shankar with music by A.R.Rahman.  It is a very very exciting project.  The music is scheduled to release sometime in the next ten days.  The movie should open mid-April (around Tamil New Year's Day!).  The film will release simultaneously in Hindi, Telegu and Tamil."

On the subject of the Los Angeles premiere of Jeans, Amritraj mentioned that it was tentatively scheduled for May or June, where he plans to give an American style premiere with all his friends and colleagues, both American and Indian attending the gala event.  As Aishwarya Rai also plans to be in New York at this time, Amritraj hopes to have her attending the event as well.

Click for a bigger picture

Amritraj notes that it is a totally different experience producing a movie in India as it takes a longer period to complete a film there, compared to his films in Hollywood.  Nevertheless, Amritraj feels that a film like Jeans will be a visual experience that goes beyond the price tag.  He would prefer to say that "It all shows on the screen.  Whoever goes to the movie will be taken on a trip around the world.  I think, it (Jeans) is something that almost everybody.. North, South, whereever.. would enjoy.  I don't think they've ever seen anything like it."  Moreover, Amritraj excitedly relates that state-of-the-art special effects are also in store, especially those surrounding the fact that Prasanth plays twins in Jeans.  Probably, no interview on Jeans would be complete if we did not ask: Why Jeans for the title?  Ashok Amritraj was quick to respond, "Well, it is a combination of JEANS and GENES.  It has a play on words and seems very appropriate to the movie."   

Click for a bigger picture

Meanwhile, Amritraj-Soloman Communications have also attempted to plant their feet in different arenas including television serials in India.  Though Amritraj became actively involved in producing television serials, he believes that the television market is still in its early stages and has quite a lot of progress to make.   Regardless, Amritraj-Soloman Communications have produced serials in partnership with Sun T.V. and Doordarshan, including Dashaavadhaaram, Manu Nidhi Mandram, a serial with Y.G.Mahendra and Marma Desam with K.Balachandar.

As Amritraj finds himself a niche in Indian entertainment, questions arise as to his priorities as a producer and his willingness to employ new and fresh talent in his films.   "I am very open to the idea of introducing newcomers.   We have an office in Madras that looks at new material (scripts).  I work very differently since I take my philosophy from here (Hollywood) to India.   Any movie that we do, we start with a script and a director.  We don't start with the star, which is what happens in India all the time.  We would like to start with the script.  An example of this is, we are doing a small Hindi film.  The director is someone that I like, a person by the name of Kailash Surendranath.   He is one of the top advertising filmakers in India and he proposed a project, Love Your Hameshaa, which I liked.  We wanted to do it on a very small budget and we wanted to give him a break." 

As Love You Hameshaa which stars Akshay Khanna and Sonali Bendre, is being shot, Amritraj is also busy with his next project, a love story, in Tamil to be directed by Agathiyan (Kaadhal Kottai, Vidukadhai), which will begin shooting in August 1998.  All concerns aside, Amritraj continues to stress the importance of the script and the director's dedication to complete the film in a professional and satisfactory manner.  As a producer, he sees the quality and satisfaction as the primary concern more than the number and frequency with which he produces and releases films in India or in Hollywood. 

Given all the details on so many ventures that Amritraj was involved in, I could not help asking him what the secret to his success was.  First he began by telling me that this was a rather tough question for him, but answered it in a thought provoking fashion.  "Unlike tennis, where you play well, you win.  When you play badly, you lose.  It's just white and black.  The entertainment business is a very grey area.  You make the best movie that you can and then have to depend on the marketing, on the publicity and on the audience.  There are so many things that are different in the way you make a movie in Hollywood from the way you make it in India.   Here (U.S.) it depends on who you know and how it is all positioned.   Tennis has always opened a lot of doors for me and continues to helps me in a number of ways.  The most important thing is perseverance.  If you have an idea, it might take you five or ten years to get it made.  The entertainment business is one where you come up against a lot of closed doors.  You just have to persevere and be absolutely determined.  Have to be single minded about what you want to get done.   I brought my discipline from sports to the entertainment business and it has helped me a lot, and of course, there is more than a little luck involved." 

And of course, there is a happy and jolly side to Ashok Amritraj which I discovered when I asked him very, very cautiously :-) if he knew how to speak tamil. 

Almost immediately, he replied, "Aamaa theriyum..  Not very well, but I can"..

Sandya:  "Theriyumaa?!.. 'Aamaa theriyum'-nu sonnaale porum."

Amritraj:  "Aanaa romba kelvi ketteenga-na, romba problem varum."

Sandya:  "Illai. konjam konjam pesinaa kooda porum." 

Amritraj:  "Konjam Konjam pesalaam!.. Problem-e illai!.."   (Both had a hearty laugh!)

You cannot judge cinema just from the surface and I seemed to have realized that, the more I spoke with Ashok Amritraj over the phone.  His passion for cinema and his engaging speaking style, alongside a polite tone of voice, puts him leagues ahead of the producers covered with stereotypes that I have read about for so many years.  We would like to wish Mr. Amritraj a lot of luck and success in his ventures in Hollywood and Chennai as well as thank him for mailing us some exclusive photographs of Jeans, which are part of this article.

Sandya S. Krishna

Original Protographs provided by: Ashok Amritraj.
Photograph scanned by: Krishna
Real Audio bits of the conversation created by: Krishna