'We are a close-knit Indian family'
Chitra Amritraj had an arranged marriage, unlike her parents, and her American journey has included challenges very different from what her husband Ashok encountered, discovers Arthur J Pais.
Chitra Amritraj’s American journey began with a change of religious affiliation -- and an arranged marriage.
“My parents had a love marriage,” she says with a chuckle. “My father, a well known sculptor (Mani Nagappa) in Chennai, came from a Hindu family and my mother from an orthodox Christian family, but I ended up with an arranged marriage -- to a producer in Hollywood.”
Ashok Amritraj, a budding producer at the time of their wedding at the Santhome Cathedral in Chennai, had not had his first hit (Double Impact) as yet, but Chitra’s family saw a lot of promise in him.
Like many Indians, her family knew of the Amritraj brothers’ tennis heritage.
Ashok came from a Catholic family. And Chitra took instructions on Catholicism at the church they were going to be married. The wedding was celebrated with a four-day, 6,500-guest blowout ceremony that brought many guests including Roger Moore who had starred with Ashok’s elder brother Vijay Amritraj in Octopussy.
In a Hollywood where few marriages last for over a decade, Chitra and Ashok have been married for over 23 years. They have two children -- daughter Priya who is in college and son Milan, who is about to start college -- who are very much a part of their nucleus family.
And in a Hollywood where few are religious and where churchgoing artists like Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg stand out, the Amritrajs are proud to call themselves Catholic.
Going to the pilgrimage church of Annai Vellankani, a favourite of Catholics in Tamil Nadu, is a must when Ashok visits India. He has helped build a shrine at the famed church. Chitra shares her husband’s gratitude and faith in praying to Annai Vellankani, “without whom,” her husband says, “none of what I have achieved would have been possible.”
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Image: Chitra and Ashok Amritraj with their children Priya and Milan
'There were nights I cried because I felt lonely'
Chitra Amritraj, trained as a lawyer in India, had a protected childhood, being the youngest of three daughters.
“And suddenly I was in a very different world,” she says. “Many people in the film industry were very friendly and yet I missed home very much. There were nights I cried because I felt lonely.”
Everything was a challenge -- getting to drive in and around Los Angeles, known for its road rage, and keeping in touch with the family in India.
“For the first few months, everything I saw was through my husband’s eyes,” she says with a chuckle. “But slowly, I would discover things for myself and make my own friends. I would also feel at home entertaining people at our home.”
She remembers her first Hollywood party at the home of a film producer and the guests who were there -- Sidney Poitier, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ringo Starr and Quincy Jones among others. She recalls Zsa Zsa making her blush when she said Chitra should have been an actress and looked lovely in a sari and Indian jewelry.
Chitra slowly warmed up to the idea of hosting parties in her home.
The party scene at the Amritrajs’ home has caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times which featured them in a story which declared that ‘in Southern California, throwing a great house party is more than just a seasonal ritual -- it’s an art form.’ The newspaper called the couple, ‘epicures of spices’ and added that the RSVP list included Hollywood, Bollywood and beyond.
Those who stopped by to savor the Samosas, Dosas and fish curries from Tamil Nadu and Kerala include stars like Dustin Hoffman, Pierce Brosnan, Anil Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and Jake Gyllenhaal.
And when it’s time for Diwali, Hollywood head to the Amritrajs’ mansion, ‘mingling alongside family amid a sea of candles,’ as the Los Angeles Times reported.
Image: Ashok Amritraj and Jean-Claude Van Damme
'Our children know they have to be above all good human beings'
Chitra Amritraj supervises a kitchen that is quite traditional. ‘If it’s somebody’s first time, we definitely warn them about the spices,’ her husband has said. ‘Still, people have turned red. But they have kept coming back.’
As for their children, they devour Pongal and Pizzas with equal appetite.
Raising children, who are down to earth and not spoiled by Hollywood glamour, was very important for the Amritraj's.
Priya and Milan see celebrities around them and also attend red carpet events, like when they joined their parents at the premiere of Amritraj’s Shopgirl at the Toronto International Film Festival.
But at the end of the day, “when we sit down for a family meal,” says Chitra Amritraj,
“We are just another family, a close-knit Indian family.”
“Everyone has a family,” her husband says, “but mine is a strong, ambitious, supportive, loving, and most importantly, an Indian and a Catholic one.”
The children went to a Hollywood school that had students belonging to numerous faiths.
“But at home, it is Catholicism,” says Chitra. “Our children know they have to be above all good human beings. This is what they hear from us all the time and from our family members in India.”
Image: Sidney Poitier and Ashok Amritraj