Some day Hindi cinema would like to make more films like Ashok Mehta, the ace cinematographer who lost a prolonged battle with lung cancer at a Mumbai hospital on Wednesday. This was a rare, albeit fatal instance of Ashok coming off second best. Indeed, 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. When the mood overtook him, he could caress with his lens, as he did in films like Utsav, Mandi, 36 Chowringhee Lane. When the situation demanded, he could provoke you, maybe even hurt you, as he did in Bandit Queen. All along, though, he was his own man, doing his own thing, his own way. Even when he worked for M.F. Husain in Gaja Gamini, 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 theatres.
If he loved working with Husain, he was at ease working with Bazmee in No Entry, a big hit often criticised for its gutter humour. As was the case with Ghai for whom Ashok worked wonders in Khalnayak, Ram Lakhan and Kisna, etc. From the world of art to films driven by commerce, Ashok relished straddling the two worlds. All along, he remained an unsung hero who brought rare aesthetics to his technique. It did not change whether he quietly seduced you with his camera in the song “Man kyun behka re behka” or teased cinegoers in “Choli ke peeche kya hai.” One was lapped up by the connoisseurs, and the other by the common man. The occasion demanded the treatment. Similarly, his work in 36 Chowringhee Lane was all about the interplay of light and shadow, and that in Trikaal and Mandi about making the best use of limited resources. Light, camera angles, colours all whipped up a rare chemistry. With the depth and range of his works, he carried forward the tradition established by the likes of Radhu Karmakar, V.K. Murthy and Nitin Bose in the 1950s. And by doing a No Entry or a Ram Lakhan, he defied easy definition.
Though he did remarkable work in a series of films for more than 30 years, he realised he was still carrying out the director’s vision. One day he decided he would present his own thing to the audience. The result was Moksha, which he directed himself a little more than a decade ago. It was also the first film Arjun Rampal signed. Unfortunately, it turned out be a film more talked about than seen. It had his trademark frames, but Ashok the director was found wanting. The film, also starring Manisha Koirala, sank without a trace. And he was never to direct a feature film again.
When, however, Ashok helmed a project as a cinematographer, he brought into play a rare acumen combining it with a direct, no nonsense approach, taking care to keep his punches soft for the younger set of stars. Words like ‘Beta’, ‘bachcha’ flowed naturally when he worked with young actors. For those with many a summer behind them, he knew the camera could be a merciless weapon. For such stars, he preferred the camera to be a tool, highlighting their beauty, underplaying their blemishes. The most memorable instance came in the way he presented Rekha and Anuradha Patel in Karnad’s Utsav.
His judgments on the quality of the frame could be merciless. And he often complained that commercial cinema directors were satisfied too easily. Not given to great levels of scholarship, he used that earthy language which was effective without always being pleasant. He was forthright yet never resorted to posturing in an industry where image is regarded to be the king.
Born in Punjab in 1947, Ashok, given to a flamboyant way of dressing right down to cowboy boots, also acted in a couple of films. In recent times, he kept himself occupied making short films. And occasionally, took to dialogue writing.