Ashok Amritraj started off as a professional tennis player, representing India in the Wimbledon, US Open and the Davis Cup. But his love for movies led him to take the uncertain plunge into the world of film production. The Chennai-born American producer is now the CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, the production company he founded. He has produced over 100 films in his 30-year-long career, working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Robert DeNiro, Nicholas Cage, Bruce Willis, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Andrew Garfield.
In 2014, he ventured into Television and created a 'philanthropic reality show' in collaboration with the United Nations, Abu Dhabi's production company Image Nation and Variety magazine which brought together filmmakers from India, UAE and Singapore, who made thought provoking documentaries on global issues. The show was aired on Doordarshan.
Now, he is starting another innings, it seems. He has been appointed the UN Ambassador in India for Sustainable Development Goals and Amritraj plans to raise awareness about them through his films.
We caught up with him at the UN office in Delhi where he spoke of India, his career and his plans as an ambassador.
What is your fondest memory of India?
I went to school and college in India -- Don Bosco and Loyola. It was what I would call Old Madras as opposed to new Chennai. It was a wonderful time. Perhaps some of the most special times in my life were growing up in India -- my parents, my brothers, myself, playing tennis. We had a very disciplined life. When I first went to America, someone said to me, you know we hear that women in India walk three paces behind the men. So I said well, in my family, we always walk three paces behind my mother. It was my mother who put a tennis racket in her hand. She is an extraordinary woman. I celebrated her 90th birthday last week. Every time I come back to India, to Delhi, to Chennai, I remember a lot of great memories growing up here. I come 3-4 times a year, I spend a lot of time here. The old haunts while I was growing up, where we would go to eat, where we started playing tennis, where my dreams about being a movie producer began at a theatre called Sapphire where I watched Sound of Music 34 times, are all a part of some great memories. It's hard to pick one.
When I first went to America, someone said to me, you know we hear that women in India walk three paces behind the men. So I said well, in my family, we always walk three paces behind my mother. It was my mother who put a tennis racket in her hand. She is an extraordinary woman.
Out of all the different aspects of film-making, why did you choose production?
Production is viewed very differently in America than it is in India. We find the idea, the story to tell, the actors, put together a team and see the project till the end. I like that. Everyone else just keeps coming in, doing their bit and leaving. I have never liked sitting down and waiting for a phone call. I prefer reaching out. I would rather be the one making the phone calls.
Have you ever faced racism?
In the early 80s, Hollywood was not the global village that it is today. There were by and large no Indians around. It took me 10 years to become an overnight success. Once you become successful, nothing else matters. So it is more about acceptability. I was a professional tennis player so I knew a lot of important people. They wanted to play tennis with me and kept scratching their heads wondering why does this guy wants to make movies.
How did you come up with the idea of 'Chance of a Lifetime'?
I wanted to do something socially relevant and what better organisation to partner with than the United Nations? I got together filmmakers from India, Singapore and UAE and they made films on global issues related to the Millenium Development Goals. The UN was very helpful with its resources. The University of California, Berkeley curated the footage and got a huge play out of it.
Do you plan to have another season of 'Chance of a Lifetime' to showcase documentaries on the Sustainable development goals? Like a Season 2?
[Laughs] I am new to all of this. We will have discussions and decide how we can get the social message across.
As per UN data, India managed to meet only 4 of the 8 MDGs. It continues to lag, especially in women and child mortality. Do you plan to emphasise more on these?
I have no specific issue in mind at this point. I am committed to India as a whole. I have an emotional connect with the country and I want to work on various issues and raise awareness through the media and by talking to young people and organisations.
What do think is the biggest hurdle for India in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?
Hurdles are almost the same everywhere. I do not think India faces any special ones. I see people coming together, governments, organisations like the UN bringing people together and working together for the improvement of society which is great.
Out of the 17 SDGs, which is the closest to your heart?
Well, three-four issues have always been very close to my heart – education, gender equality, food and clean water.
Do you plan to rope in the Hindi film industry to raise awareness about the SDGs?
These are still the early days. No specific plans have been made. But they are all friends. Many of them are associated with the UN themselves. And I think they are all doing their bit for the world.
What do you think of Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric?
He is the elected representative of the people. It's still too early to say anything.