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POWER DINING WITH ANGELINA JOLIE
Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ November 25th 2001 ]

Saturday morning breaks gently over Broadway, Santa Monica. Pierce Brosnan pulls up in his Porsche at his friend's place for a game of tennis. Steaming cups of south Indian coffee and some sweat later, it's game, set and match Amritraj. Brosnan, of course, doesn't mind. One can't be a Bond at everything, especially if one is at the receiving end of some crushing forehand down-the-lines from a former junior Wimbledon finalist.

Ashok Amritraj, the youngest of the Amritraj brothers, has got much more than the heaviest baggage of American dreams one can carry from a third world nation. From being part of the tennis-trio along with brothers Vijay and Anand to holding centre-court in the entertainment business, he has earned himself the epithet, "The ultimate Hollywood insider". As one of the leading producers in America's dream factory, Amritraj lives straight out of the movies - power breakfast with investment bankers, luncheon meeting with Angelina Jolie, tea at the studio and dinner poolside.

And then there are these little ways in which he breaks Hollywood's tycoon typecast. The lunch with Jolie stands, but he's likely to insist on something as startlingly homegrown as tomato uttapam for the main course. His two children, instead of flying to Hawai on their two-and-half-month summer vacation, board the Chennai flight every year. "For children, there is no better place to grow up than India," he says.

As Amritraj continues to play life with his forehand, and as forties' snowflakes quietly settle in his hair, the roots deepen. "As I grow older, I feel more and more drawn towards India," he says in an interview with The Times of India. He was in Mumbai to attend the ongoing film festival, and Bandits, starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blancett, is the first of his films to be screened at an Indian film fest. Original Sin, another film co-produced by him under his organisation Hyde Park Entertainment, is currently playing in many theatres in the country.

"Everyone in America thought I was crazy to get into a plane and head for India right after September 11. I said nothing doing. This is a very special occasion for me," he says. He now plans a major English film in India, with Indian actors on board. He is already working on a couple of such films, and is likely to finalise things by spring next year.

His first experiment with an Indian language film - the Aishwarya Rai starrer, Jeans - was his last until now. "Making it was fun, but I frankly do not have that kind of time any more," he says. "In India, a film takes years to complete (Jeans took 18 months) because the stars are doing four or five movies at a time. In Hollywood, actors make three or four movies a year, but they take up one at a time. We are used to shoots that last just a quarter and there is no break in production."

Amritraj dubs Indian cinema's new-found industry status a good first step. "In film finance, so many things happen backwards here. Film-makers and banks should work towards a relationship of trust and commitment," he says, adding, "You should make up your mind whether you want to act like businessmen or a bunch of mom and pop stores."

His journey in the U.S. started in 1975 with the LA Strings tennis team. Soon, he was playing every major chamionship, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. "Sports like tennis and golf bring you closer to the entertainment world. And since I had an obsession with the movies from my childhood in India, I fell in," he says. "I used to go to the studios and be in awe of them," he says, adjusting his tall, athletic frame on the interview sofa. In 1981, when he floated the Amritraj Entertainment Company, "all they wanted to talk to me about was my tennis. "Hollywood makes you pay your dues," he says. "You live through a series of doles and rejections."

From the heady days of the independent film market of the '80s, when Amritraj started financing $2-8 million films, the season slowly changed to the night of the big cats in the $30-90 million bracket. He started Hyde Park to get into joint ventures, and is now the only financier to have deals with two major banners, MGM and Walt Disney.

He recalls the day one Jean Claude Van Damme, who drove limos in New York, walked into his office. "He had send 500 applications. I was among the two who got back," he says. He later went on to make his first superhit, Double Impact, with Van Damme. His other movies include Anti Trust and What's the Worst that Could Happen.

The ones slated for release next year include Ump with Arnold Schwarzenneger and one with Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon. He knows he can't get a double fault.

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