Those were difficult times for the Hindi film industry’s cinematographers. On one side the strong influence of film noir and Hollywood style direct lighting that dictated the beauty of the fifties was giving way to a more realistic style achieved by Subrata Mitra. On the other side when colour came in, would Orwo stock reproduce this? They hit the light straight ,when mini brutes arrived, two, three shadows were seen on the wall, so they put more butter paper, more lights, more confusion followed. Laboratories added to the chaos, they wanted to get a thick negative ,directors were asking for zoom ins… the cinematographer involuntarily slipped into bouncing light of the ceiling, but at the expense of contrast. Slowly but surely, the cinematographer was forgetting the importance of lighting, in creating the mood of a scene.
Ashok Mehta was the man, who brought back contrast and lighting in to Mainstream Hindi film cinematography. The work in Trikaal was truly European and the work in Utsav, was seductively Indian. Was he inspired by Sven Nyquist or Ravi Varma? Where did he learn to bounce light and yet keep the contrast?
I finally met the master on the sets of Sushman, while I operated the Steadicam. He had covered the courtyard with black polyester cutting off the sun, he then bounced HMI lights on to bounce boards, then had meters of black cloth skirting around it. When he felt the unit hands did not get his idea, he climbed scaffoldings, banged nails into rafters, hung lights from roof like large bats, thus generating a soft source light in the courtyard.
While doing night interiors, he was using single point sources hidden behind lamps, removing lights from stands and Fresnel’s, bouncing from unconventional angles… It was magical he was working with his hands, he was part light man, part set assistant, he was everywhere, climbing, screaming, sawing wood …,…it was like seeing a potter or a sculptor work, creating something beautiful out of mud, he was building the shot, step by step out of nothing, right in front of the stunned film unit . There was an air of wonder and resignation.
Article by Rajiv Menon