Dec 02 2017

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Ashok Mehta

In 1981 when 36 Chowringee lane was released, I was a student of the Film and television Institute of Tamilnadu. Everyone who had seen the film was very impressed with its flawless direction and acting. But we cinematography students were stunned by the visual style that was truly international. We were curious; we heard that a new cinematographer had shot the film. Which institute did he belong to? Was he trained abroad? We were astounded .We heard that Ashok Mehta was not from any institute. He had worked his way up in the Bombay film industry.

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

His assistant had not arrived, in addition to operating the Steadicam, I got to work on everything, pulling focus, reading exposure, I was convinced that we were seriously underexposing the film. But he was sure and trusted his eyes. Then we went and saw rushes in Prasad Hyderabad…It was beautiful. I expressed my surprise to him, he took me aside and said’ “beta You have to brave when you light, you expose for what you want to see…….”.

He had opened my eyes, Three years in the institute had not taught me so much as two week on the sets of Sushman. What was amazing is Ashokji was not a slave of the incident light meter or the grains in the dark areas, He was exposing for the frame and he was getting consistent printer point numbers too. He was thinking more like the way we technically qualified cinematographers would expose reversal film… when in doubt, Underexpose!

When he was outside he transformed from being a source lighting inspired realistic cameraman to a Sergio Leone cowboy! Ashokji brought in aesthetics of the western where the landscape plays an important part of the narrative, The composition of the boat man while the young bride leaves her village, the out of focus rape scene, the joyful day interiors, the mustard fields in the ravines of Chambal and the massacre on blinding white light in the burning afternoon sun. The fluidity of the camera movement, the jolt he gave you with his modernist compositions, added to the allure of Bandit Queen. I truly believe it is one of the most beautifully shot Indian films in recent memory.

Ashok Mehta did not go to any institute; he did not carry the baggage of formal education. But he was the inspiration to a generation of new cinematographers like us. He helped us believe that we must be responsible for the image, to be a team player, fraternize with the light men over chai, enjoy the shoot, pour your blood and sweat into your film because shooting a film was an opportunity of a life time. Something he must have been so acutely aware working as a camera attender, sitting on the other side of the unwritten boundary lines of the industry, yearning for an opportunity to become the cinematographer of a film some day!

So let’s raise the Stetson…to the one and only spaghetti western hero of cinematography Ashokji!