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Hollywood's biggest desi producer

July 29, 2005 21:31 IST

His friends and admirers call him the Maharajah of Hollywood.

And, at the moment, you can easily say Ashok Amritraj is much envied. He has recently inked a major deal with 20th Century Fox that will let him set up a mini studio on the Fox premises and make about 20 films in the next five years. Each of these films will cost about billion.

"I feel I have just started the second phase of my career," says the former tennis champion with his characteristic deep laugh. 

"I am just another producer who loves the movies," he continues, chuckling harder. "Now, as I enter my 25th year in Hollywood, I look forward to the next chapter."

Known for his fiscal conservatism, which he says he learned from his parents, Amritraj has made mostly medium budget films (- million). So, even when some of his films like Original Sin tanked at the box office, they did not lose much money. The chances are many of them, like Original Sin, will recover their investment and make profits through foreign runs and ancillary sales.

"Hollywood can be an unforgiving place," he often says. "Believe me, you must always think hard about being fiscally responsible and shun extravagant deals. Ethics and integrity still matter here, no matter what some people think or how they behave."

One of Hollywood's most prolific and successful independent producers, he has produced or executive produced 90 films that have grossed over billion worldwide. Among his early hits was Double Impact (1991) with Columbia Pictures, which was the first major film produced by an Indian to gross over 0 million.

His other films include the heartfelt emotional drama Moonlight Mile (Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon); the sophisticated crime comedy, Bandits (Bruce Willis, Kate Blanchett); and his biggest hit, Bringing Down The House (Steve Martin, Queen Latifah).

Martin also leads the cast of Shopgirl, based on the novella he wrote about three years ago. The book became a huge bestseller. Shopgirl premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September along with another Amritraj co-production, Dreamer, which stars Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning.

"And guess what," says Amritraj, "both films will be released on the same day in October by different distributors. Disney will release Shopgirl while DreamWorks opens Dreamer."

Dreamer, the story of a father and daughter and an injured horse, says Amritraj, is his gift to his daughter Priya who, like Dakota, is 11 years old.

The script had a boy but perhaps, in a nod to Priya, the he became a she and the fabulous Dakota landed the part.

Amritraj says he was initially nervous when he heard both films were to open on October 21. "But I guess the audiences will be different," he surmises. "Shopgirl is a sophisticated emotional comedy while Dreamer is an inspirational tale aimed at families."  

Many of his films, including Bandits, have been nominated for major awards in Britain and the USA. Now, with a big Oscar buzz for Shopgirl, he thinks it is time for his films to get a string of Oscar nominations. "These are the kind of films I will be making for 20th Century Fox," he says.

Amritraj also has very good deals with Disney, which will continue for another three years, and with MGM. But the first look deal with Fox gives him much bigger clout and flexibility and allows him to make at least four films a year.

"Flexibility has always been a key in the movie marketplace but, with Hollywood films acquiring more and more viewers across the globe, flexibility is becoming even more crucial," he explains. Studios, he says, love producers who bring in projects from different genres. A mixed slate of films also helps the studios reduce the risk factor.

Included in the 35 to 40 movie projects Amritraj has been developing is The Other End Of The Line, which will be shot extensively in India and is a love story set against the backdrop of the IT world. The film will be cast next month.

"The most important task right now is to cast a terrific Indian actress and a leading Hollywood actor," he says. But he is not considering the popular Aishwarya Rai, whose earliest films including the Amritraj-produced Jeans. For one, she has many assignments. "But you can never say never in this business," he says.

Making the film in India and taking it to worldwide audiences is a matter of pride for Amritraj. "Never mind the years I have spent in Hollywood, I have always tried to remain connected with India," he says.

"Over the last 24 years I have always thought of myself as India's ambassador to Hollywood," he continues. "I feel honoured to have succeeded in breaking down various barriers that existed and in opening the door for future generations of Indian producers, directors and stars who are passionate and disciplined about making it in Hollywood."

Amritraj also says the reality of his life has far exceeded the dreams he had as a kid growing up in Chennai. Despite having made films for the big Hollywood studios, he is still in awe of the older studios, he says.

"I remember my student days in Chennai," he continues. "Watching movies between classes and tennis matches, often with my tennis racquet in hand. I don't remember how many times I saw 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra at the Sapphire Theatre in Chennai or the number of times I enjoyed the James Bond movies, made by MGM, at Anand."

Today, he is making films for these very companies.

Arthur J Pais