Mr CON­GE­NIAL­ITY

Ashok Am­ri­traj on how he trans­formed him­self from a ten­nis champ into a Hol­ly­wood player

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

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.

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