The captain of India's Davis Cup team is looking especially lovely just now: hot-chocolate foundation, mint-green eye shadow, a little mascara, Malibu Magic moisturizer, outrageously furry eyelashes and go-to-hell scarlet lipstick.
Vijay Amritraj, all 6'3½" of him, has been transformed into a drag queen for NBC's new action comedy, The Last Precinct. A drag queen, country and western fans, is not necessarily the sweetheart of the time trials at the Indianapolis 500. And Amritraj, a series regular, is a bit uncomfortable with the role. "Oh, my god!" he says, peering into a makeup mirror. "I've just got to look at this professionally."
Amritraj, who is one of the most revered athletes in India, plays Shivaramanbhai Poonchwalla, an exchange cop from Calcutta Vice in TV-land's Metropolitan Police. In a gag that was worn-out when Al Jolson sang My Mammy, the dumb American cops who can't pronounce Poonchwalla's name call him Alphabet. Amritraj, who was James Bond's sidekick in Octopussy, plays a decoy hooker in this episode. A two-bit hood falls for Alphabet, who then must reluctantly perform The Dance of the Trembling Wildflower.
Surrounded by enough cosmetics to resurrect Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, Amritraj prowls the dressing room, awaiting his call. "A good day on the set is like a rainy day at Wimbledon," he says. Amritraj ought to know. He's been there more than a dozen times, reaching the quarterfinals in 1973 and '81 and the final 16 last year after upsetting Yannick Noah on Centre Court. On this afternoon, he rehearses his big line in a fluted voice that slips on and off like a loose bra strap: "In my family, men are men, except for my distant cousin Najib the Rhythmic, of whom no one ever speaks."
In his real-life family, Vijay has two brothers, Anand and Ashok, who once were also world-class tennis players. The three were the first Indians ever to earn a living from pro tennis. Even today, in a nation of 730 million, just one other tennis player can make that claim—Vijay's Davis Cup teammate, Ramesh Krishnan. Vijay is the only Amritraj who still plays serious singles. In fact, on a given day he can beat anyone, as John McEnroe found out in August of 1984 at the ATP Championship in Cincinnati. Anand is his occasional doubles partner, while Ashok is his partner in a film company.
Vijay, who is 32, plays Alphabet like the wide-eyed innocent he was when he arrived in the U.S. with the pro tour in 1972. "I couldn't believe that one person would occupy a car all by himself," he says. "Where I'm from, you sometimes see five in the front seat! I'd never been to a drive-in movie or a drive-in fast-food restaurant."
He grew up on his parents' small estate in the southern city of Madras. Robert Amritraj was a railroad official, and Maggie ran a packaging plant in the family's backyard. Vijay spent much of his childhood in hospitals, a victim of mysterious high fevers. His mother attended school in his place and brought her class notes to his bedside. "My parents never made a mistake in the way they ran my life," he says. "Any child with average talents would have gotten at least as far as I have."
Vijay, considered one of the few remaining sportsmen in tennis, is being far too modest. It takes more than average talent to last 14 years on the pro circuit. And make the Top 25 on the earnings list four years running. And lead your country to the Davis Cup finals, as Vijay did in 1974. Actually, he once preferred badminton, but when he saw how much Anand enjoyed tennis, he switched. He modeled his game after that of Pancho Gonzales, and indeed there are moments when, at his elegant best, his style resembles his idol's.
Vijay and his brothers played a game called "Hawaii Five-0" when they were kids; he was also quite an 007 devotee. He used to watch Bond films at the Sapphire Theatre in downtown Madras, sometimes waiting weeks for a ticket. "When Octopussy came out three years ago," says Vijay, "all of a sudden there was a new dimension to my notoriety." He was picked for the film after a producer saw him in a postmatch TV interview and was given a screen test between the second and third rounds at Wimbledon. Vijay went bust in the tournament but did better in the movie, when he decked a kukri-wielding Gurkha with his racket. He eventually got done in by a baddie brandishing a nasty twin-bladed gizmo.
For some 10 of the years he was on the tour, Amritraj commuted between Madras and Los Angeles. As he approached his 30th birthday, he decided it was time to get married. "I told my parents I would like to wed an Indian girl," he says. "I'd been in the States a long time, but my values, principles and way of thinking had always been totally Indian."
Robert and Maggie scoured their country for eight months. They went to nuns, priests and bankers for leads. "My parents didn't go around with application forms," Vijay quips. But they did have Vijay's specs. The prospective bride had to be fairly tall, fairly good-looking and fairly Catholic. Most importantly, she had to have a radiant personality. A knowledge of tennis was optional.
Amritraj interviewed the three top seeds, all of whom consented to marriage before ever meeting him. That discouraged our hero. He perhaps wanted a more discriminating woman.
In early 1982, Robert and Maggie heard of a local man who had moved to Sri Lanka and was publishing a newspaper there. He was looking for a young man from Madras for his daughter Shyamala. An independent sort, Shyamala hated the idea of an arranged marriage—she had already turned down 16 offers.
Shyamala and Vijay met in Madras under the watchful eyes of their mothers. He was impressed that she didn't seem to know or care who he was. On the way home, his parents grilled him. "What do you think?" asked Maggie. "What do you think?" asked Robert.
"I thought she was all right," said Vijay. "I wasn't jumping up and down."
Shyamala was equally ambivalent. "He isn't overly modern," she told her folks.
On each of the next two days, Vijay and Shyamala had hour-long chaperoned dates. Then Vijay took off for a tournament in Milan, telling his parents at the airport that Shyamala was the girl for him. She meanwhile had told her parents, "He's the guy for me."
They were engaged in June and got married the following January, on Maggie's birthday. The celebrations lasted three days. Four thousand people attended the reception. The two now have a son, Prakash.
These days, Vijay arranges his tennis schedule around his acting career. He has cast himself as a middle-aged narcotics officer in his own production, Nine Deaths of the Ninja, and he'll do a cameo in the next installment of the Star Trek saga. "Tennis and acting both require a lot of mental preparation," he says. "Concentration is the common ground. If I come to the net after hitting an approach shot to Jimmy Connors, I've got to remember to cover down the line. The same thing goes for playing a part."
Which is not to say tennis has become a drag. "I still have a little competitive fire." he says. "I'll play as long as it's not extinguished. Of course, I don't want to go out and make a putz of myself."
In his fake hooker guise, Amritraj looks as relaxed as he does on court. "I read Vijay's part and thought no one could make it work," says costar Jonathan Perpich. "But Vijay made it blossom. There's a lot of little boy in him."
And little girl, too. Decked out in a shimmering green sari, gold earrings and a ruby tiara, Vijay brings a dotty flair to the role. "He's got presence and vitality," says Adam West, of Batman fame, who plays the precinct captain. "He has an honest humor that's not studied." Vijay also has an uncanny gift for giving otherwise flat lines a nifty comic twist: "Don't get cute, Lenny," he tells a baddie. "If you move, you will be making my day."
Well, you had to be there.
The scene wrapped, Amritraj bounds across the set.
"You look great." assures his director, Michael Lange.
"Are you kidding?" Vijay asks.
"Believe me, it works. In fact, what are you doing later on tonight?"