Luminary, Profile

Ashok Mehta

This writer happened to meet Ashok Mehta in person just before and during the release of his big-budget directorial debut, Moksha (2001). The meetings led to a detailed interview that turned out to be a learning experience in humility and modesty. The man with the perennial cowboy hat was ever-smiling. Unlike most cinematographers who are shy introverts and choose to speak only through the lens, he could explain lucidly what drove him to direct his first film and that too, on such a lavish scale. He had produced the film along with his wife. It was an idealistic story of a young lawyer but becomes a thriller somewhere along the middle and then turns into a romantic tragedy. Featuring the then-new Arjun Rampal in the lead, the film floundered badly at the box office but fetched Mehta the National Award for Best Cinematography the following year. Mehta lost a great deal of money in the project. In retrospect, when one recalls the angry waves of the sea leashing across Arjun’s Grecian profile as he looks out and wonders what happened, one feels that the cinematographer in Mehta quite smoothly overshadowed the director in him.

Ashok Mehta belongs to a school of cinematographers who did not have the opportunity of training at a film institute because there were no institutes when they began to work. Mehta’s career is dotted with greater struggles than most cinematographers in India could even imagine. Born in 1947, he evolved from a runaway from home to roadside hawker selling boiled eggs through becoming a canteen boy first at Asha Studios and then at RK Studios in Chembur to become one of the most outstanding cinematographers Indian cinema has ever produced. He soon began to fill in for absent studio hands and taught himself the basic elements of sets, props and lighting. He begged for a job as a ‘camera attendant’ graduating to focus puller and then to cinematographer. He graduated to assist the cinematographer till he got his first break as independent DoP in Raj Marbros The Witness.

Shashi Kapoor, a leading star at the time who was also producing films and was working in The Witness, was impressed with Mehta’s work and asked Aparna Sen to take him on as DoP for her first directorial project, 36 Chowringhee Lane. Deep ambers, rusts and browns dominate the environment of Miss Stoneham – her apartment, the home for the aged, to infuse the scenes with signs of a fading present and a nostalgic past, suggesting old age and loneliness. The dim-lit corners of Miss Stoneham’s flat are juxtaposed against the brightly-lit luxury of Nandita’s plush bungalow. Ashok Mehta’s brilliant camerawork gives the lines on Miss Stoneham’s face the right dose of light and shade to add a whole range of expressions and dimension to it – when she is sad, when she wakes up in cold sweat from the nightmare, when she is laughing away at the hypocrisy of Nandita’s marriage rituals, etc. The carefully orchestrated nightmare sequence appears like a watercolour painting whose colors have gone away with time. The film deservedly fetched Mehta the National Award for Best Cinematography.

In another scene in the film, there is a scene showing Stoneham visiting her brother in the Old People’s home. This follows the scene when Rosemary warns her of a dismal, scary loneliness in old age. Stoneham is frightened by the sight of an old lady climbing up the stairs towards her, as she is about to climb down. The old lady is perfectly harmless but Stoneham is now terrified of anyone who reminds her of old age, disability and death. As the old lady comes closer, her face begins to appear distorted and macabre to Stoneham. With a stifled cry she rushes past the old lady and disappears around the last bend.

After 36 Chowringhee Lane, there was no turning back. His distinctive quality was that he did not base his decision to accept or reject assignments on any ‘caste’ hierarchy in terms of banner, director, genre, kind of film and so on. His filmography stands testimony to his versatility and his masterful command over his work filled with masterful craftsmanship and unforgettable artistry as he painted with light and camera to create his original designs and imprint them for posterity in his films. He was DoP for two more films by Aparna Sen – Paroma and Sati. Paroma brought him close to Raakhee who, several years later opened the floodgates of Hindi mainstream cinema for Mehta when she suggested Subhash Ghai take Mehta on for Ram Lakhan.

One recalls how in the elaborately orchestrated and aesthetically choreographed love scene in Paroma, Mehta captured the lovemaking of the couple are intercut with the many photographs taken by Rahul strewn across the hotel’s room. The camera pans across to linger on Paroma’s discarded clothes only to zoom in on stills taken by Rahul on his photo journalistic adventures. The telephone on the floor is off its hook. The camera cuts to capture a rainy day, panning across the tops of houses in Calcutta. Then, cut to a long shot of the drenched Paroma and Rahul walking through a narrow lane towards the camera. As the camera zooms to a mid-close-up, we find them laughing with drops of rain washing off them. A single sandal slips off Paroma’s foot to fall into an open man-hole. She laughs at Rahul, as if asking him what she should do. He gestures at her to let the other one go as well. She slips it off, and swings it in an arc in the air, not following the trajectory of its fall.

After Ram Lakhan, along with Ghai, Mehta introduced mainstream cinema to an altogether different style of lighting and shot taking in Saudagar, Khalnayak and Kisna. “For the man who worked with the best in the business, ranging from the highly accomplished Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad and Shekhar Kapur to the hugely popular Subhash Ghai and Anees Bazmee, life itself was a work of art,” wrote Ziya Us Salam in The Hindu (August 16, 2012).

“Ashok has an innate sense of visual story telling. It’s not just about how he lights, but also how he frames. Subtle shifts in camera angles sometimes, and extreme angles that create inherent emotional charge in the audience at other times. He looks through the camera and instinctively knows what to do to accentuate that which is often hidden in the subtext of the scene,” said Shekhar Kapur whose Bandit Queen Mehta was requested to take charge of when the original British DoP quit the scene. The Behmai gang-rape of Phoolan, spread over three days and three nights, shot in natural light with the opening and shutting of the wooden door to the ramshackle shed offering a bizarre, rhythmic backdrop to the inhuman outrage, punctured with her stifled sobs in the darkness of the shed, is the most aesthetically picturized rape scene in the film, and perhaps, one of the most imaginatively choreographed rape scenes in the history of Hindi cinema.

He could invest a song sequence like Choli ke Peechey Kya Hai in Khalnayak with a sense of electric sensuality that crosses the borders of time and space as fluidly as he could capture the slow eroticism in Man Kyon Behka re Behka Aadhi Raat ko in Utsav, directed by Girish Karnad. The film was based on Sudraka’s 4th Century AD Sanskrit classic, Mrichhakatikam (The Little Clay Cart). Utsav is a glorious celebration of prostitution during a period in Indian history where the prostitute teaches her lover’s wife how to make love to her husband. In an interview (Express Magazine, January 26, 1984), Karnad said: “The film has no message, political, social or of any other kind. The basis is the Sanskrit theory that a work of art should create a rasa, a mood, an evocation if emotion – not preach. What I hoped to do was to revive the two qualities which ancient Indian literature had, but which we seem to have lost in the course of the last thousand years – sensuousness and humor. Not sex, but sensuousness, the poetic, tactile quality of it.” Ashok Mehta can easily share much of the credit for bringing this sensuousness across so fluently and in so tactile a manner. The lighting was muted with the beautifully recreated period jewellery visualized and captured as understatement to blend it within the narrative rather than to make it stand out.

Mandi (1983) is unique in that it uses burlesque as the mode to examine the dynamics of a whorehouse. Shyam Benegal tempers the film with an air of black comedy, allowing also, for a certain amount of crude voyeurism in keeping with the socio-economic backdrop of the film’s narrative. Benegal said, “I was very keen on creating a whole microcosm of Indian life – the survival instinct, as evident in Shabana’s character, middle-class hypocrisy and the manipulation that goes on constantly, the young pecking the old.” Ashok Mehta brought this to life on celluloid.

The list goes on, dotted with mainstream films ranging from No Entry through Trimurti, Pukar, Gupt, Aankhen, God Tussi Great Ho, God Tussi Great Ho, Mehbooba, Family: Ties of Blood and so on in the mainstream matched with challenging work in Gaja Gamini, Ijaazat, Utsav, Mandi, Bandit Queen, Susman and Trikal in the off-mainstream. MF Hussain’s Gaja Gamini perhaps was the most challenging work in Mehta’s entire career because he was working with one of the best artists in the country making a feature film that has no chronological narrative but ideas of visuals in brilliant colour. He used his camera as an accelerator for the director’s drive, his vision creating frames which stayed in the mind of cinegoers long after the film moved out of the theaters.

“He taught me a lot about lighting and mood when we worked in Ijaazat. The most important thing I learnt from Ashok was how to differentiate the colour tone and mood between present and past while doing a flashback. There was a very subtle difference in the colour texture in Ijaazat to show the time transition. Many wouldn’t even be able to recognise it. But it’s there, and I owe that to Ashok,” said Gulzar.

Santosh Sivan says, “Ashok Mehta who never restricted himself to one style or genre. I think that’s what I liked immediately about his work. If Ashok could shoot the exquisite 36 Chowringhee Lane he could also apply his skills and expertise to an out-and-out commercial film like Andar Bahar with equal fluency. He did not shy away from going commercial. I loved his love for cinema of every genre. He was one of the first people I met when I came to Mumbai for the first time when I was doing the cinematography of Aditya Bhattacharya’s Raakh in 1989. Ashok was very encouraging. For me, Ashok Mehta, like Subrata Mitra, was a pioneer and a trendsetter in visual arts. I was a fan of Ashok’s work from the time when I was studying at the Pune film institute. His camerawork was extremely innovative in 36 Chowringhee Lane, Utsav and a whole lot of films. His work in Trikaal fascinated me no end. He shot in actual candle light,” he sums up.

Ashok Mehta passed away in Mumbai on August 15, 2012. He was suffering from lung cancer.

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