About six months ago, Michael Jackson sent word through a common friend inviting Ashok Amritraj, the high profile independent Hollywood producer, to meet with him at the Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas.
"I was thrilled and intrigued by the invitation," says Amritraj, who had never met Jackson before. Though he knew that Jackson wanted to discuss movie projects with him, Amritraj was still wondering what they would be. And he was, of course, thrilled to meet the entertainer he had admired for more than three decades.
"I had watched the Jackson Five perform in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace more than three decades ago," Amritraj recalled. "The images from the concerts are etched in my mind."
A former international tennis champion, Amritraj has produced or co-produced over 100 films in the past three decades, some with big Hollywood artistes. They include Sandra Bullock's Premonition, Steve Martin's Bringing Down The House, and Bruce Willis-Cate Blanchett's Bandits. "The first time I attend the Oscar ceremony, ET was competing against Gandhi," Amritraj continued. "You know, Jackson had contributed music for ET."
At their Las Vegas encounter, Amritraj says he met with a man who seemed ready for a spectacular comeback. "He told me he was also thinking of producing films and wanted to be a partner in those ventures," Amritraj said. But he also warned Amritraj that he was not going into film production immediately.
"He was looking ahead of the concerts," Amritraj said. "Naturally, the comeback concerts were foremost on his thoughts but he was feeling very confident of launching films and related projects."
Jackson said, Amritraj recalled, "I must first get my musical career up."
The sudden death of the icon stirred his emotions as it did with millions of fans across the world. "I am a big fan too," Amritraj continued. "Michael Jackson's rise was spectacular and what he was doing two decades ago was showing way to people of colour that they could cross the barriers and be accepted in the mainstream, like Sidney Poitier did before him, and many including Barack Obama would later."
When Amritraj ventured into filmmaking with projects like School Spirit, he got a lot of encouragement from Poitier, who remains a dear friend.
Over the years, people from minority cultures and foreign countries -- who were breaking into Hollywood -- looked up to pioneers including Jews such as Billy Wilder who fled Austria and Germany in the 1930s and established themselves in a very different but highly challenging milieu.
Michael Jackson was born and raised in America. But he was growing up in an era during which African Americans were fighting fiercely against deep entrenched discrimination.
"Somehow Jackson was able to connect with people of various background," Amritraj said. "It wasn't just great music and dance. It was great music and fabulous movements.
"When I began making films in Hollywood, I had changed my career," he continued. "I knew I was in a town where mistakes were not easily forgiven. I knew I came from a country that had just a handful of its people in Hollywood. So I look around and who are the people who inspired me? Sidney Poitier, the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson in particular."
During their lunch and subsequent meeting, Jackson also asked Amritraj about his early days in Hollywood and how he had found a place in the highly competitive tinsel town.
"He was not only a gracious host," Amritraj continued, "but he was also someone who was interested in you as a person."
Amritraj was in Chennai visiting the Velankanni shrine when he received text message that Jackson was died. "You think of so many things when you hear the news," Amritraj said. "You think of your own life and how life can be short for anyone. I am 53 but how many of us know what is going to happen to us today or day after tomorrow?"
How would he be remembering Jackson? "Regardless of the controversies that surrounded Jackson, we ought to remember him for his music, for his achievements including crossing the boundaries," he said.