Court or commerce, the name sells. GEETA PADMANABHAN talks to Chennai's own brand ambassadors, the Amritraj brothers.
Ashok with Manoj Night Shyamalan and Dustin Hoffman.
THEY ARE Chennai's own brand ambassadors. The Amritraj brothers doubles or singles, court or commerce, the name sells. As boys, they were tennis love-alls. In business, it is advantage Amritraj.
Once their serves and volleys sizzled tennis courts in Wimbledon and Paris. Their BAT Academy drafted trend lines for tennis. They have dialled back their tennis careers but the kit is always kept within reach. Articulate, witty, honest and self-effacing conversation with these can-do boys is never dull.
Grab a gab-op with them anywhere, anytime. It is Anand Amritraj on the phone. "I've launched a new cell phone business," he says. "It's T-mobile with Deutsche Telecom. It's big news for communication." Bigger news is his only son joining Duke University on a sports scholarship. "It has changed my life completely." His 18-year-old Amritraj "Health & Racquet Facility" in Long Island has adopted the next-door Kiddy Academy. May to September, he plays tennis `at home'. When not remote controlling business, he's on satellite tours, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that give him a chance to travel and play with Vijay. He has run camps for tennis wannabes at the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association. "There is talent," the man who led the Asian Team to Korea insists. He'll be back in June. "Catch me at the ATP," he rings off. Vijay stretches his legs in the hall adjacent to the pool at Park Sheraton. "I'm extremely busy being unemployed," he laughs. `Unemployed' for him is being goodwill ambassador for Kofi Annan, being `star' commentator for sports, playing tennis at the veterans level, golf at the PGA Masters and speaking on sports, business and motivation anywhere from corporate offices to universities all over the world. If he cares to look back, he'll see the 21 doubles, 16 ATP, 15 WCT and open tennis tournaments he's won. He'll also see he's in the top 10 of all title winners. He should really be talking about time management.
"My day starts at 4.30 a.m. LA time." He makes you sit up. By 2 p.m. all the important work is lobbed off. Afternoons are for playing tennis with the two boys and listening to them. He reads newspapers but TV is a no-no. "Incredible, the older you get, the more disciplined you become. You get mentally tough and manage to do more work."
Want to talk of Indian tennis? "Our biggest concern is we don't want to take risks. Success in sports doesn't come with guarantees and unless the family is willing to make that sacrifice, well, don't worry. But I hope Leander and Bhupathi will hold on till half-a-dozen players emerge." As to partnering with Anand at the senior level, "We walk onto the court to enjoy ourselves but there's no way we'll think of losing."
Nobody is surprised he is matchless as a commentator but how does he grand slam it? "If I don't enjoy what I'm watching neither will the viewer. I talk very little about what's going on. I bring in outside elements (his phrase for gossip) about the players what he did the last time, where he went for his holiday. Interesting stuff." And how would he know?
Ashok with Jean Claude Van Damme.
"Chatting with the guys, joining them for dinner at Indian restaurants, at the locker room. I also don't hold notes. Watch out for me on STAR Sports on June 23 at 8 p.m."
At his Josier Street office, movie producer and co-financier Ashok is upbeat. His LA- based Hyde Park Entertainment has produced another winner in "Bringing Down the House". The Disney-partnered Steve Martin-Queen Latifah movie has smashed the box office and is No. 1 in the U.S. He will soon "Walk Tall", holding hands with MGM, while Rock leads the cast. His adopted city has given him an honorary award for being a role model for Asian Americans. It has been a wonderful year so far.
How did LA and 80 movies happen? He served with the LA tennis team the year he reached the Wimbledon Junior final. After his World Team Tennis win, he caught the severe acute entertainment bug. In 1982, he put the racquet away, picked up movie scripts and began to knock at Hollywood doors. For five years he wondered why he had crossed courts. While he wanted back-up they wanted to discuss backhand. In 1990 he made a "Double Impact" and in the decade after, he had seven movie aces in the top ten. It was a short step to the foreign section of the Board of Academy of Motion Pictures.
Indian teens would swap their entire music collection to spend a week-end with him. Manoj Night Shyamalan is a dear friend. On Saturday mornings, Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan and Harrison Ford drop in at his LA home for a spot of tennis and stay on for lunch. He `cashes' in on this and gets his friends to pay for a charity tennis tournament to help a children's hospital.
A private visit it may be but he'll do his bit to get Indian audiences back at the theatres to watch MGM classics like "Ben Hur". "It's interesting for me to bring back the movies I grew up with."
Vijay and Anand Amritraj.
What exactly does a Hollywood producer do apart from hobnobbing with movie gods? "Of the 1000 storylines sent in annually, we develop twenty projects. About three reach the production floor. We then strategise the release and I take care of the movie distribution worldwide. We thought the tense war climate was the right time to "Bring Down the House". Bruce Willis called up to say he hadn't expected this movie to do so well." He watches the Indian movie and tennis scenes closely.
Will we win an Oscar? "We have a lot of talent both in front and behind the camera. What we lack is an original idea. Make a `must-see' movie on people's struggles, close to the ground. Something like "Life is Beautiful" or "Amelie". Your key demographic should be 14 to 24-year-olds." Story + human emotion + fun is his formula.
"In tennis we have to compete with East European and South African boys who treat it as their whole life. Tennis players today travel with physios, coaches and dieticians. Do we have a single-minded focus?"
Sports and Entertainment he knows what scores in both. "It takes discipline, focus and perseverance to reach the top. It takes the belief that there is no such thing as second best." He is grateful for his Indian upbringing. "I am successful because I combine Indian values with a will to win. The lessons I learnt in sports `go on win or lose' stands me well in business. And tennis helps socially it is a door opener."
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