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Slumdog will sweep

Ashok Amritraj’s face breaks into a smile when he takes out his mobile phone and reads the text message. “It is from Anil (Kapoor),” he says. “He’s just arrived (in Los Angeles).”

Amritraj is full of praise for his friend’s performance in Slumdog Millionaire. “He does a lovely job — Anil is perfect for that role,” he says. “He is way over the top. It’s wonderful. Any time you are part of a movie like this you have a window of opportunity, whether it is the two kids (Freida Pinto and Dev Patel) or Anil or anybody else.”

Amritraj, who is about to start producing his 100th film, is very much the Hollywood insider after 27 years in the business in Los Angeles. But his parents live in Chennai so he keeps coming back to India with his wife, Chitra, and their daughter, Priya, 14, and his son, Milan, who will be 11 next week. It so happens that Amritraj’s 53rd birth falls on Sunday, February 22, the day of the Academy awards.

“It will be a lucky birthday,” he feels.

This is his way of saying that as one of the nearly 6,000 Academy members entitled to vote for the Oscars, he has done so and that “Slumdog Millionaire will sweep”, taking possibly six out of the 10 nominations.

Although how he voted is meant to be a secret, he discloses his own preferences.

We are in the Beverly Hills Hilton where on February 2, 120 of the nominees, including the director, Danny Boyle, and A.R. Rahman, who did the music, met for lunch.

“For Best Picture I voted for Slumdog, for Best Director I voted for Danny (Boyle), the song I voted for Rahman — he did Jeans for me 10 years ago with Ash (Aishwarya Rai), one of her first movies. Jai Ho will win, I think,” he predicts.

He goes on: “Adapted Screenplay I went with Simon Beaufoy. I thought the three stars of the film were Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy and the editor (Chris Dickens). I thought the editing of the film was extraordinary. It made the movie. If they had told the film in a linear fashion I don’t think the movie would have worked.”

Amritraj, now thought of as an “unofficial ambassador” for India in Hollywood, remembers another great moment. “Twenty-seven years ago was the last time a movie shot in India made waves. Ironically, both times it’s been a British director. Gandhi was my first year at the Oscars — 1982. It won eight Oscars out of 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. At that time it was a revolutionary film. Afterwards, I got to know (the director) Dickie Attenborough well.”

The next historic moment for India came in 1991. “The Academy did the 50th anniversary of Ray’s first film, Pather Panchali. They nominated me to represent the films in various festivals. By Hollywood standards nobody has come close from India to ever matching the recognition or the standing of Ray or his films. I was at the awards when they gave him the honorary Academy award on the hospital bed in Calcutta. It was very, very touching.”

He explains that Gandhi “is very different from Slumdog which is much more a film of its time. It’s a now movie whereas Gandhi will be a film that will last forever.”

Amritaj’s company is called Hyde Park Entertainment. “We get presented 1,000 screenplays a year — books, novels, video games; we end up making four. Original material in India is scarce. If there is one thing one should learn from Slumdog Millionaire is that if you make something that is creative, original, non-linear and interesting you don’t need stars and it doesn’t matter where you shoot it. It is really a great lesson for Indian cinema.”

He dismisses the notion that Slumdog has done well because it has shown Indian poverty. “It was not meant to be one that the tourism department is going to be ecstatic about. It was never meant to be a grandiose look at India. It brings out both the ups and down in the emotions — and the downs cut deep within you.”

He gives an insight into how Hollywood thinks. “It’s always easier to find drama in this kind of a film than it is making a movie about an Indian billionaire — who gives a sh**t, quite frankly? This (Slumdog) is a very well told story. For me the first 20 minutes made the movie. Once you fell in love with the three kids, after that you were in it.”

The recession in America has helped Slumdog, apparently. “The economy works very much in its favour,” reasons Amritraj. “The fact that we are in a depression makes people seeing this film actually learn to appreciate what they have, still have, what’s left of what they had and how many other people around the world are worse off and what really living in the slums or poverty is. I think it is that sort of underdog mentality which America is feeling today and will come out of is also reflected in this film.”

He thinks he knows how the voting has probably gone. “You do get the feel of how it’s going. Word of mouth is certainly, in this case, in favour of Slumdog. Clearly, it has wonderful word of mouth, more so than any of the other four movies that have been nominated. Danny Boyle has the inside track.”

Amritraj talks of his own feelings. “I am very proud to have a movie shot in India, which had Indian technicians and actors. Whatever one may say about poverty, the movie gets India noticed, it gets talent noticed, it’s terrific for the country. That is a really good thing. I have always considered myself in Hollywood a representation of India over the 27 years. I do think of myself as ambassador in Hollywood and I always carry that with me.”

He knows where the real credit for the movie lies. “I don’t think there is any joint venture between Britain and India in this film. It is a completely British film, run by a British director, a British producer, developed by a British company and with primarily a British crew. The attitude, the story, the visualisation and the way the story is told is all British. And rightfully they should be the one who get the kudos… none of that takes away from the fact that I am very proud of all the Indian things here. There will now be a flurry of scripts that are written for India — people will say let’s make another Slumdog Millionaire, let’s go shoot in India but it’s not that easy.”

ASHOK’S AWARDEES

Amritraj’s predictions for the Oscars:

Best Film
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director
Danny Boyle

Best Adapted Screenplay
Simon Beaufoy

Best Song
A.R. Rahman for Jai Ho

Best Editor
Slumdog Millionaire
(Chris Dickens)

Best Actor
Mickey Rourke

Best Actress
Kate Winslet

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