November 23 2015
- One time tennis pro gets honorary degree for services to cinema
- Has produced more than 100 films
- Producer discovered Jean-Claude Van Damme and made ‘Double Impact’ – breaking $100m box office
- Told UK students breaking into Hollywood was tough, but he persevered and following gut instincts is best…
By Suman Bhuchar
HOLLYWOOD producer Ashok Amritraj joined the Class of 2015, along with other students of the University of East London, when he was awarded an Honorary degree for his services to Cinema.
Amritraj joined around 500 ‘graduands’ as the Public Orator, referred to the students who were about to received their academic degrees from the School of Arts and Digital Industries.
The ceremony was held at the Indigo at The O2, on Thursday (November 19) where Amritraj was awarded the ‘Honoris Causa’ or ‘Doctor of Arts’ by Lord Kamlesh Patel of Bradford who is part of the Vice Chancellors Group and a friend of the University.
The citation was read out by Professor Simon Robertshaw, Dean of School, who told the assembled audience about how Amritraj transitioned from a tennis professional to the entertainment industry, blazing a trail that has turned him into one of Hollywood’s most respected producers.
“Ashok Amritraj has spent most of his professional life blazing trails. He moved to California in his early twenties to pursue a passion for film that was first ignited as a movie fan in India,” he explained.
“It was not an easy journey however as during his first years in Los Angeles, everybody wanted to play tennis with him, but nobody wanted to make a movie with him.”
Nevertheless persistence paid off and he has made over 100 films including hits like “Bringing Down The House” (2003 with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah); “99 Homes” (with Andrew Garfield, 2014) and “Ghost Rider: The Spirit of Vengeance” (a 3D superhero movie based on a marvel comic character in 2012) to name just a few.
In 1999 he set up his company, Hyde Park Entertainment and sees it as offering an alternative model to the traditional Hollywood studio system. In 2012, Amritraj presented a show, “Chance of a Lifetime” made for the United Nations bringing together twelve filmmakers from India, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates in a competition to make short films on the goals of the UN.
The winning team had their films screened at the UN offices in New York and were feted at the Cannes Film Festival 2013.
Accepting his award, Amritraj thanked the university and spoke about his journey to the top.
“When I count my blessings, I am grateful for having smashed a path or several paths through the very dense and self-protective thickets of an art and industry which appear, and are in reality, daunting,” he explained.
“The best things that ever happened to me was by chance, I grew up in India with a passion for Hollywood cinema, but tennis was the family business so in 1974 when I reached the final of Wimbledon Juniors, I was invited to go to Los Angeles and went to look around at the studios, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, all these places, I’d heard about. I continued to play professional tennis for another few years and in 1990, I decided to take the plunge into Hollywood and I was surrounded by a sea of white faces.
“People kept inviting me to play tennis, I looked good on their courts on a Saturday morning, so I figured that was my way in. I’d come back on a Monday morning send out a couple of scripts; a week later give them a call. The executive would pick up their phone and start talking about their backhand or forehand and when I asked about the script, they’d say ‘oh we passed on that a week ago’.”
But, as in the best traditions of Hollywood film, he bumped into a young actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme at the Cannes Film Festival who recalled him fondly because Amritraj was the ‘only person who ever responded to him.’
So, they reconnected and decided to make a movie together which then became “Double Impact” (1991), and the film became a commercial hit, “grossed over $100 million and the rest is history in both of our careers!”
He advised the student audience: “Trust your instincts and go with your gut, be disciplined, stay focused in this noisy world we live in and be passionate about what you do.”
The ceremony also observed a minute of silence for the late, Lord Noon of St John’s Wood, Kt MBE. He was Chancellor of the University from January 2013 and passed away on October 27 after a long illness.
Amritraj’s day concluded with an intimate dinner at Roast in Borough Market, London and accompanied by his daughter, Priya where he met the Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Virender Paul; Lord Meghnad & Lady Kishwar Desai and other members of the British Asian and Indian media.
Top pictures: Courtesy of UEL
Hollywood smash Ashok Amitraj’s ace strokes