Last week saw the death of one of India’s best cinematographers ever. The cowboy hat wielding and lover of Afghan hounds, Ashok Mehta was just what a film cameraman would have been imagined as but that didn’t make him the last of his kinds. In a cinema that loves to demarcate between the commercially viable and everything else, Mehta was perhaps one of the few cinematographers who was at equal ease at commercial, as well as art-house cinema.
It’d be hard to imagine that the man behind some of India’s iconic films like 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Trikal (1985), Khalnayak (1993), Bandit Queen (1994), Gaja Gamini (2000) and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000) was a self-taught cinematographer. Mehta ran away from home and came to Bombay as a 14-year-old in 1963. His first job was as a hawker selling boiled eggs and later watermelon slices. He saw a film being shot on the street he worked and decided to get a job at a studio. He wasn’t allowed to enter the studio but someone saw him at the gates and offered him a job to be a canteen boy. From there started a journey that would see him go from being an office boy, to camera coolie ferrying equipment, to being a camera attendant, followed by being a camera caretaker to ultimately being an assistant. He assisted Sudarshan Nag and when he got busy between projects, Mehta was asked to complete a film called Trishna with Waheeda Rehman. Some years later, Mehta was to shoot a film called The Witness and while the film was never released his work impressed the lead of the film, Shashi Kapoor.
In his words Mehta was never an academic. It didn’t matter to him whether he could pronounce Ingmar Bergman’s name correctly; he used to call him ‘Burman’ but his thirst to be known made him seek things. It was his friendship with Shashi Kapoor and the other ‘intellectuals’ that opened up a new world for him. A world where he gained access to films like A Man & A Woman (1966), Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967), and The Graduate (1969) made him realise the importance of lighting and the demand each script made from a cameraman. It’s interesting to note that Mehta learnt the craft in a very unlikely and extremely practical manner away from any manuals or classrooms. He not only created a unique signature but also a reputation as a lighting genius with one of his earliest films 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), which was produced by Shashi Kapoor. Mehta’s textured camerawork added layers of character to Aparna Sen’s film about Violet Soneham (Jennifer Kapoor), a lonely Anglo-Indian schoolteacher in Calcutta. Mehta’s hands-on approach gave him an insight into Violet Stoneham’s world and he ended up creating arresting visuals that never went overboard in depicting her loneliness. If 36 Chowringhee Lane oscillated between a little bit of light and darkness, Utsav (1985) saw golden hues created by oil lamps to tell a story set in the 2nd century BC. He used only petromaxes to light the night scenes in Trikaal that was based in colonial Goa.
Like a great artist dedicated to creating an everlasting visual Ashok Mehta always looked for the source of the light in every scene. He might have started at a time when top lighting was an almost norm in popular Hindi films but through observation found his calling in source lighting. He believed that lighting could convey the same emotions that a scene sought in the actor and used lights to aide the story. Look at his work on Shekhar Kapur’s The Bandit Queen and you’d know what separated Mehta from many of his peers. His astute sense of contrasting the situations with his lighting is brilliantly displayed through the entire narrative of the film. The rape scene with its harsh lighting and the under-lit love making sequence skillfully display the extreme emotions of the same person. It’s not just the ‘art-house’ films that got this kind of attention from Mehta. In fact his commercial films like Khalnayak, Gupt (1997) and Pukar (2000) also display his shrewd understanding of the script, as well as the subject. For a scene in Gupt that took place in a dark room, Mehta created cracks in the wall next to the character to portray the visual as true as possible.
Having started on a film like 36 Chowringhee Lane that was as art house as a film could get, Ashok Mehta never differentiated on the basis of the commercial feasibility of any project. He once said that films like 36 Chowringhee Lane and Ijaazat (1987), where he used slight diffusion to separate between the past and the present settings of the story, gave him the time to experiment and it’s lack of time on commercial films that forces technicians to compromise. In spite of such pressures he managed to make Madhuri Dixit look her best in Ram Lakhan (1989) where he simply did away with the back-light, as he didn’t feel the need to over beautify something, that to him was naturally beautiful. Ashok Mehta’s life is just the stuff dreams are made of and looking at it one couldn’t disagree with Mehta that natural is always brilliant.
Ashok Mehta passed away on August 15, 2012
Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.
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