Ashok Amritraj on how he transformed himself from a tennis champ into a Hollywood player
How do you go from being a self- described short, fat, almost blind boy growing up in the shadow of two gilded brothers in Chennai, to a Hollywood player whose tennis parties and Diwali celebrations have become the go- to events for a certain set in Hollywood? Mr Congeniality Ashok Amritraj, he of the mile- wide smile and smooth touch, has written an insider’s account of how to get ahead in Hollywood. It’s not as entertaining as Frank Langella’s Dropped Names, which was as indiscreet as it was delicious, but it does take you into a swish Los Angeles restaurant Ca Del Sol with Steve Martin, Sandra Bullock’s Sunset Boulevard office and a Monaco nightclub with Princess Stephanie. Deal- making, relationshipbuilding, plain partying, it’s all there.
Amritraj, who was Junior Wimbledon finalist in 1974, has an easy relaxed style which mirrors his manner, but he is altogether too fond of poems learnt in school, from Rudyard Kipling’s If to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. He tantalises with tidbits, telling us about the girls who would accompany the Amritraj brothers to dinner ( and more) while they played on the World Team Tennis between 1975 and 1980 and how he would party with Frank Sinatra and his pals. It’s a pity. He plays it straight like Björn Borg. What we’d really have liked better is to have him huffing, puffing and letting it all hang out like Jimmy Connors.
He tells us about how many doors he banged to be seated at the Hollywood high table. There’s the nameless actor with a drug problem whom he signed on only to have him collapse over the heroine during a sex scene. There is the vision of Malcolm McDowell giving his rookie director grief because he asked him to smile at a frog he had just dug up. There’s a gorgeous Angelina Jolie signing up for the R- rated Original Sin in which she burns up the screen with Antonio Banderas. There’s a young Aishwarya Rai negotiating her own contract for his mammoth lone Indian film, Jeans. There’s Rajinikanth, still not in demigod mode, reading comic books while waiting for the next take on his “action thriller” Bloodstone. And then there is a young Jean- Claude Van Damme who walks up to him at the Carlton terrace in Cannes in 1984 to tell him he’s going to be a star. What was he at that point? A limo driver. In 1991, they would collaborate on a lost- and- found twins story that would become a global hit, Double Impact, and transform Amritraj from a straight- to- video producer to a respected independent producer.
There are some disarming moments in the book which bring Amritraj down with a thud: He sends a script to a studio head whose house he also played tennis at. When he calls him up a couple of weeks later, they chat for 15 minutes, but mostly on how to improve his backhand and second serve. “As the call was winding down, I quickly asked: ‘ What did you think of the script I gave you?’’’ “The script? We passed on that weeks ago.’’
It’s probably because he’s a good Indian son, but even after 30 years in Hollywood and 100 films down, the most amazing character in the book is actually his mother, who set up a packaging company with Rs 9,000 left to her by her brother. From the first money she made from the factory, she bought her three sons tennis rackets. She taught all three to drive, And she made sure she sat down to dinner with the family every day. Eventually the book is a tribute to the movies, by a man who spent many years bunking school and watching classics such as The Sound of Music, Ben- Hur and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, little knowing that one day he would be exchanging backhands and swapping stories with those who starred in them.