Whether you are an actor, musician, artist, athlete, writer, director, or even producer, you need a manager to help guide you through the twists and turns of having a successful career in the entertainment industry. In Hollywood, Jai Khanna of Brillstein Entertainment Partners is one of the best. He is known for his ability to successfully guide the careers of writers, directors and actors in the television and feature film industries. Brillstein Entertainment Partners is one of the biggest and most successful talent management firms in the world, whose film credits include last year’s Eat Pray Love, as well as Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and the television series The Sopranos. Their roster of clients is filled with A-list stars including Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, Courtney Cox, Orlando Bloom, Zoe Saldana, Paul Rudd, Kate Beckinsale, Brendan Fraser, and many others.
With the unique perspective and the resources available to him, Khanna is now forging a new path to enhance Hollywood opportunities for Indian talent. He represents actors Irrfan Khan and Hrithik Roshan and also works with individual producers, financiers and companies in India by guiding them in Hollywood. Mr. Khanna and I had an in-depth conversation about his work with the prestigious company and his plans for bringing India and Hollywood together.
Khanna began his career as an agent trainee at Writer’s & Artist’s Agency but quickly decided that side of the business was not for him; he wanted the freedom to work with many different talents that a manager’s position would offer him. “With management you can have your hands all over the place; you can work with writers and producer, athletes, music and actors,” he explained. “It is a much smaller roster of clients. You can focus on people that you are truly passionate about.” Khanna was given an opportunity to join Brillstein Entertainment Partners as a manger’s assistant, he moved up to manager and now 13 years later he is still with them. “It is a fantastic company; it has been around a long time. We have a lot of great managers, a lot of big stars. We have films we produce; we have television programs we produce. It is just a great platform when signing artists because we have access to a lot here. I have been here to a point were anything is kind of possible and I have never left.” (Laughs)
Khanna responded positively when asked what Hollywood thinks of Indian films. “I think there is a huge respect for it. They see that the quality of work is fantastic, that the film quality and the acting is great. I do think it still seems a little foreign and it still really doesn’t translate here. There is not a huge appetite for it. I think Hollywood is watching; everyone is open to exploring it. Overall, Hollywood can’t ignore India. There is, obviously, a lot happening in India, and everyone is very intrigued with it.”
India is intrigued with working in Hollywood too, and Khanna said there are many opportunities available. He is expanding his focus to work with Indian artists (actors, directors, writers, producers, financiers) and being a bridge between them and Hollywood. He is not looking to bring Bollywood to Hollywood, but looking to create and bring together opportunities for both. He feels he can offer the Indian artists more, not only in terms of backing by a huge agency like Brillstein, but because he knows India, the stars, the films and the culture, and he can represent them in a unique way. “Because I was raised being Indian, I understand it very well. I have traveled to India a lot; I have a lot of friends there. A person like myself respects the culture and knows it well, but I also work for a very Hollywood firm here so I will able to help them through this process.”
What frequently happens is that people don’t make the right connections when they do come to explore work in Hollywood. “I kept hearing stories about actors who come from India, or an investor or a producer wanting to work with Hollywood, but really don’t know who to work with. Their image of Hollywood is that they will just call an agency, will call so and so. It’s funny, the first person they talk to, whoever they could call, that is who they would work with. More often than not this prominent talent, who I would know is a huge person in India, is not being served very well when they come here. The problem is these people don’t know who they are and so they are not able to represent them properly. These guys are doing fantastic movies in India, these people are worth a lot of money, this actor out there is a GOD, and hearing about where they are represented, or that it might be one person on the outskirts of LA is this person’s manager – I don’t know if India realizes whose hands they’re in. I think there are a lot of opportunities here, but it is really being able to find the right people who can help them through that process. Aishwarya Rai is an example of that. I was shocked when I heard who was managing her. She is a massive star in India but has no idea that where she is represented in the US doesn’t serve her. She should be treated at a larger company, with bigger resources, with really big stars.”
Khanna wants to make sure that when talent does come knocking in Hollywood they are represented in the best way possible. “I think it has been interesting how I can represent not just the talent, but the producers and the financiers and a lot of interesting opportunities out of India because that it is inherently my world. It is how I was brought up, I have watched the TV shows, I have listened to the music, and I know all the actors. I read all the magazines; I read all your articles. So I know the way they have to be positioned; I’ll tell them if it is worth it or not. I can honestly say on some things hey, this is something you should do, just because I have more of an affinity towards Indian culture and I have that sense of responsibility. I think there is a little bit more of an education of hey, there are Indians here in the business that are doing really good work, that really understand what is happening in India, understand the talent and generally have respect for that, while they know how to handle all the Hollywood waters here. At the end of the day we are trying to work with people who we trust, which is hard to find.”
One of Khanna’s biggest clients from India is the immensely talented Irrfan Khan, for whom he has landed roles on the HBO series In Treatment, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and the new Spiderman. Khanna says the actor has been fantastic to work with. “We are very much on the same page on how we look at things. I just found his way of thinking to be so much more how we think here: it is about the stories, it is about the characters, and with Irrfan it came down to what is the material? Is it an interesting story? Can I do something really neat with this role? For example, HBO’s In Treatment is something you wouldn’t expect to be an opportunity that he would explore, but he thought hey, I can do something with this character. It also was a very calculated move and it really worked. And the industry saw it – it was such a great experience after every episode aired I would get many phone calls from producers, film directors and studio executives. It was a perfect showcase for him to show what he can do and really impress. After that there were opportunities to do a couple feature films here. He’ll do Spiderman. Even with that opportunity there was a long conversation of okay, it is a big movie, it is a big action movie, and how does it involve me? How is it going to it fit or work? I really credit him 110%. I think for the Indian stuff he handles his projects in a certain way knowing these are opportunities, these are jobs, these are income. In Hollywood, I think it is really hey, I can try stuff out of the box and I can really challenge myself as an actor.”
Khanna also represents Hrithik Roshan but says they are still looking for the perfect project for the talented actor. “To be honest he is in a whole different spot out there [in India]; he is one of the top leading actors. I think Hrithik knows where his core audience is, so a move to Hollywood really has to make sense and that risk calculated first. We are looking for that right thing that will only help. It has got to be something that really challenges him as an actor that can translate internationally, that his Indian audience will respect, and Hollywood will love it. Working maybe with a great ensemble, with a great studio, a great filmmaker, and for the role be interesting and then those have to fit perfectly into certain slots of availability and what those offers read like. Those projects are a little bit more challenging to find. I think we will find it for him. He is fantastic, he is a smart guy. He translates here extremely well with how he looks and with his acting chops. We are optimistic, but still it is just a little bit of search to find it while he is doing great in India. There is no real urgency there. It is more of an interest of hey, we have a lot of faith in him, as does Hollywood, that he is one of the few guys that can really translate, but let’s try to really find something that is really worth his while.”
Khanna isn’t just working with actors. Brillstein has several other India-related projects in development including articles, scripts, books and film that are still at the early stages. “It has just been my personal interest in things that we will will end up shooting in India, which I think will get a lot of attention.” One of the coolest projects on the fast track is River of Gods, for which he will be the executive producer and will be filmed in India. River Of Gods is a science fiction novel by Ian McDonald. It is one of the first works in popular fiction to imagine a futuristic India, inhabited by ancient traditions as well as artificial intelligence, robots and nanotechnology.