Just seeing his breakfast platter is proof enough that this is an unconventional man who makes brave choices.
It?s 10 am and the very successful Hollywood film producer is tucking into a burger and fries slathered in ketchup. Ashok Amritraj?s guts, despite the torment he inflicts on them, have served him well for 50 years.
At the height of a flourishing career as one of India?s top professional tennis players, Ashok gave it all up, deciding instead to produce films in notoriously hard-to-crack Hollywood.
He shifted base to Los Angeles and found that while being a well-known sportsman opened doors, it also had its disadvantages.
?Studio executives would only want to discuss their backhand and not my business proposals,? Ashok laughs, a hearty booming sound that competes with the waves crashing outside the restaurant window.
At the time, he was the only South Asian film producer in Hollywood.
Ashok?s story reads like a ? ahem ? Hollywood script. The youngest of three sons born to Robert and Maggie Amritraj, Ashok followed his older brothers, Anand and Vijay, on to the tennis court.
He started playing tennis when he was 6 and by the time he was 14, was wielding the racquet at Wimbledon.
But then, isn?t that what you would expect when you hail from what sports buffs term the first family of Indian tennis?
His siblings had sparkling careers on the courts. Vijay Amritraj won 16 singles titles, 13 doubles titles and achieved a career-high world ranking of 16 in July 1980. (He later followed Ashok into Hollywood, donning greasepaint for a well-loved turn in the 1983 James Bond flick, Octopussy.) Today, Vijay is a sports commentator.
Anand found fame in tennis doubles, winning 13 titles.
Back home in Chennai, India, the brothers established the Britannia-Amritraj Tennis Academy (now defunct), which produced the likes of tennis champ Leander Paes.
Today, all three brothers are settled in Los Angeles.
As a professional, Ashok Amritraj played in every major tournament during his nine-year career, including Wimbledon and the US Open.
In 1978, he was a member of the team that won the World Team Tennis Championship and in 1974, was a finalist at the Wimbledon Junior Tournament.
While playing professional tennis in LA, he got to know quite a few people who worked in the movie industry and began entertaining thoughts about working in Hollywood.
Films were always a passion for the young man, so in 1981, he decided to take the plunge. Ashok left the world of tennis to enter the entertainment industry, becoming the first Indian producer in Hollywood.
The shift came as a shock to his family, but he had been considering the arclights for some time. ?I am glad
I quit tennis at 25. If I had attempted it 10 years later, it would have been much tougher,?? he says.
After a string of middling movies, Ashok hit the jackpot with the 1991 action movie, Double Impact, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Since then, he has enjoyed extraordinary success and worked with some of Hollywood?s finest actors, including Kate Hudson, Cate Blanchett, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Steve Martin, Angelina Jolie and many more.
While he has tested the waters with tear jerkers ? Raising Helen, Dreamer and Shopgirl ? Ashok has also produced everything from comedies to thrillers and dramas, earning millions and enjoying his unique status as India?s ?ambassador? to Hollywood.
Chairman and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, Ashok was recently in Dubai for a workshop organised as part of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards, where he also met his good friend Van Damme (who was a guest at the awards function). Although an earlier interview was scratched, Ashok graciously agreed to meet me for breakfast.
With the precision of a pro striding on to Centre Court, he arrives for the appointment on the dot.
Ashok credits his discipline and determination to his years of playing competitive tennis. He turned 50 on February 22 this year, celebrating as he says, ?the first 25 years of playing tennis and the next 25 years of making movies?.
With this track record, you?d expect him to shift to another project for the next 25 years. Indeed, Ashok admits he?d like a new challenge, but for the time being, producing films of every genre imaginable appears to be keeping him occupied.
I am an extremely organised and disciplined person. The way I produce films [where I am involved in all aspects
of the project] isn?t how it?s done in Hollywood,
let alone in India.
I was an average student in school. How a person does in school or college is rarely a good indicator of how he performs later in life. It?s amazing how many people don?t quite perform academically yet go on to do very well in their careers.
I find parenting a challenging role. Trying to inculcate Indian values in my children while raising them in Hollywood is tough. My wife, Chitra, does a wonderful job of raising our children in a balanced environment.
I constantly [make films in] different genres because one has to be doing something new. When I look back at my career, I don?t want to be defined as the guy who only made Van Damme or Stallone movies.
I feel I have led a charmed life, where the reality of it has far exceeded my imagination.
Me and tennis:
My earliest memory is of picking up balls on the Egmore court in Chennai as my brothers, Anand and Vijay, played tennis.
My mother would take us after school to play tennis there; we later had our own court at home.
I got my own racquet when I was 7. It was my maternal grandfather?s dream that one of his grandchildren play at Wimbledon, and my mother worked hard to make this a reality.
As Amritraj brothers, we were the first siblings in the history of the game to play as professionals. We also created history by becoming the first brothers to play at Wimbledon ? doing so in 1971, ?72 and ?73. It was a magical period.
I still enjoy playing tennis, as do my children. Tennis has been one of the greatest things in my life. It taught me discipline, brought me recognition and helped me settle in the US. It also opened doors in the movie business and inspired the name of my company.
During the years I played tennis, I used to hang out at Hyde Park. There isn?t a more beautiful place when the sun is out (which, sadly, is not very often). When I was in the process of forming my company, the image of this park came to mind and I decided to use it as my company?s name as a reminder of happy times.
Tennis is a great game to play at any age. It is terrific for developing discipline. It teaches you that if you work hard, play well and have [high levels of] mental concentration, you can win.
Me and my women:
Indian women are strong; I should know, I have three in my family ? wife, Chitra; my daughter, Priya; and my mother, Maggie Amritraj.
My mother has been the greatest inspiration in my life. Her dream was to develop all her sons into professional tennis players and she realised it!
Chitra is a stay-at-home mother.
Our marriage was arranged by our parents. Marriage did not really change me, but the birth of my two children certainly did.
Me and parenting:
Priya is 12 and my son, Milan, is 8.
They both play tennis. Priya is good at the game and will start playing for her school when she starts seventh grade next month. Milan thinks he?s very good ? he?s extraordinarily confident.
No, I wouldn?t get them to take up professional tennis; they don?t have the [temperament] for it. Today, there is such extreme pressure in competitive tennis if you were to take it up at 12.
To make it big in tennis today, you have to need it ? [that?s] different from wanting it. I don?t think my kids have that [mindset].
Obviously, there are advantages in being able to provide my children with everything. But the dilemma is, at what age do you give them certain things? And at what point are you giving too much? How do you make your kids understand how to be thankful for everything and how hard one has to work to earn it?
I try to make my children realise there are different kinds of people in the world and that money is important, but not everything. I try to give them the right set of values, which is very difficult in Hollywood.
I try to protect them as much as possible from the Hollywood lifestyle. Ever since they were babies, they have spent every summer vacation in their grandparents? home in Chennai.
My wife and I are getting more ?Indian? as we get older. Perhaps it happens to all of us! And there?s nothing like feedback to help you [keep your feet firmly on the ground]. My family does that for me.
Me and Hollywood:
When I decided to quit tennis in 1981 to follow a career in Hollywood, my parents thought I had taken leave of
But I had a lot of support from my brother, Vijay. My parents were extremely worried that I had given up what was a good career to attempt something that nobody in the family ? let alone the country ? had ever done. But my family is such that we support each other in whatever we do, so my parents eventually came round.
I was already in Los Angeles because of my tennis. But nothing could prepare me for what I had to go through for
When I look back on those initial years in Hollywood, I thank God that I did it then. I am glad I quit tennis at 25. If I had attempted it 10 years later, it would have been much tougher.
When I first came to Hollywood, I ... was starry-eyed and overawed while walking around the big studios.
I had no mentors or role models. There were just a few people I knew through my association with tennis.
Today, [Hollywood] has opened up a lot more [avenues]. The second generation of Indians in Hollywood can at least look at me and say, ?If that guy can make it, so can I!?
Most of them, such as Manoj Night Shyamalan [writer and director of The Sixth Sense] and Jay Chandrashekhar, who directed The Dukes of Hazzard, drop in at my office.
The joke is that if Indians arrive in Hollywood to be part of the entertainment industry, there are three places they visit ? Disneyland, Universal Studios and my office. I enjoy trading ideas and advising people.
Hollywood is an extremely closed society. They say, Hollywood is 99 per cent of people looking in and one per cent inside looking out. But perseverance pays. [If you want to get in], you have to hang in there, pay your dues while Hollywood grinds you into the dust. If you can overcome all
of that, you can succeed.
I was prepared and ready for my first hit, Double Impact, when it happened in 1991. I had spent 10 years making movies, learning the ropes and educating myself about the business.
I was ready for the door to open and when it did, I [barged] in.
Things changed after that. Now I am part of the one per cent on the inside, looking out.
It has been a long and extraordinary journey. I?ve made over 90 films in 25 years, which have generated in excess of $1 billion (about Dh3.68 billion).
What were the defining moments in your life?
There have been three moments I would consider as turning points. The first was when I left India for the first time to go abroad and play tennis; I was 14 then. It marked the start of all the travelling.
The second was when I decided to leave professional tennis and switch to the entertainment industry.
The third came 10 years later. In 1991, two things happened to me and one may have been slightly more important than the other (laughs). Double Impact was released in August and became an instant hit.
Then I got married to Chitra in September. In one year, my life and my career changed.
When I first came to Hollywood, it was with the thought of making a few movies. I never thought I would make over 90!
How are you celebrating turning 50, which is another milestone in your life?
Chitra wanted to have a big party. But I favoured a quieter time of contemplation instead. The whole year will be a celebration of turning 50 and completing 25 years in Hollywood.
I am excited about my upcoming film, Premonition. It should do very well. Another movie that is slated for later this year is Trade, a smaller production aimed more at the festival circuit, starring Kevin Kline. It deals with human trafficking.
Then there?s Death Sentence, a vigilante film in which I?ve just cast Kevin Bacon. Plus there?s another horror film coming up, which is going to have a lot of cool special effects.
We are also looking at The Other End of the Line, which will feature an Indian girl in the lead with an American guy.
What is a typical day in your life like?
In a word ? exhausting. I am a morning person. I wake up at 6 am and work out. Then I spend some time with the kids before they go to school.
I make my calls to Europe before heading off to office; there?s always a host of meetings with actors, directors, agents and studio people.
The day at the office finishes at 7 pm. However, in the entertainment business, you are on call 24 hours a day, and my wife is quite used to it.
There are two weeks in spring when I take a break and my children are also on vacation then. They get to choose wherever they want to go ? we did Zurich, Cairo, Athens ...
Any words of wisdom for Indian film-makers?
Hollywood is the big cheese and it?s natural to seek recognition there.
Many producers want [a slice of the] biggest market in the world, not in terms of people but value. Americans pay $11 (about Dh40) for a movie ticket, unlike India where it?s $2 (about Dh7).
[To grab a slice of the market], the material and screenplays need to get better. There?s a bit of repetition in the themes. But the dilemma is that Indian audiences love it, so how do you change to another formula that will work just as well?
I wouldn?t be able to advise Indian film-makers on that at all; it?s like being asked, ?How do you write a good script?? I can give some pointers about what to look out for, but when you read a good script you just know that it will work.
Just seeing his breakfast platter is proof enough that this is an unconventional man who makes brave choices.