Director of photography Anil Mehta says in spite of the digital shift, the director helms a film and each shot has to be in synch with the filmmaker’s concept
It is not quite often that one gets to meet a film professional who is at peace with himself. The medium, being dynamic and ever evolving, demands a sort of restless and persistence, bordering on the edge, to cope up with it. And beyond one’s skills and competence, it is the capacity to remain ‘sorted out’ – despite all the complexities imposed by the art – that will decide his possibilities of sanity and survival in cinema. It is this that strikes the most about director of photography Anil Mehta, apart from his his clear and deep understanding of films and its inherent connection with reality, which almost foregrounds his values and vision way beyond his luminous filmography that includes Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Rockstar, Wake Up Sid, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Lagaan, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Khamoshi. Excerpts from a conversation with the cinematographer on the sidelines of the International Film Festival Of Kerala (IFFK). Having not signed any films at the moment, Mehta is currently unwinding and enjoying watching movies at the 17th IFFK. Incidentally, the winding up of this interview was interrupted by French film curator Martine Armand proposing Anil Mehta’s association with Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé on his next film…
So the shift is imminent. Do you see the shift to digital as uprooting the existing aesthetic approach to image making?
Not really. The baton will still remain with the film maker himself. The aesthetic shift in Chungking Express and 2046 is to be attributed to Wong Kar Wai, not the respective technologies used. Digital will dictate other things, like cost cutting, ease of shooting, post-production options etc. The look and feel of cinema will still be decided by the intrinsic processes of the people involved.
Can you tell us a bit about the Anil Mehta process?
My attempt is always to make the image simple, accessible and effective. And it is always to be done in tandem with the filmmaker’s vision. I try and assimilate the elements and present it in a coherent manner. I spend a lot of time in the Digital Intermediate (DI) Phase, just to achieve that simplicity, trying to restore the credibility and ‘naturality’ of the image, to make it as close to the one I saw with my eyes. I also strongly feel that since digital has the scope to be manipulated, it is important to make it devoid of its stylistic persona or else they end looking hyper real.
So it is the image element that you interact with most while doing a film?
No. It is the director I interact with most. And it is your equation with him or her that will decide on your understanding of all the elements in the film, whether it is aural, textual or visual. For example, I neither have a great ear for music nor I am trained in that. But the songs I shot for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam are always quoted for its visual rhythm, which apparently comes from Sanjay Leela Bhansali himself. He has a strong background in music and choreography. It is the strengths in his concept, planning and referencing is what the team shares and finally executes on screen. So your interaction with each element in the film is routed through and shaped by the director.
Is your relationship with the subject (you shoot) intense or objective?
Both. It depends on the scene or the shot and again it has to be in sync with the director’s thought. And a scene or a shot, is natural outcome of not only your connect or relationship with the subject, but also the result of an interconnected effort of the main players in the scene, including the director, production designer, choreographer, actor etc. And it has to evolve naturally. For instance, the intensity or the objectiveness you see in Rockstar, is a result of a combined synergy. The ‘Sada Haq’ song, which traces the progression of the protagonist, was to be shot in Mumbai, Delhi and Dharamsala. We did the first round of shoot in a Mumbai school where we added a barbed fence and red colour to the scene. It is a value addition done on the spot. And it stayed on for the rest of the song, adding a distinctive layer to it. We did the first round of shooting, where I felt that the zest and energy that song is supposed to exude was missing. So we decided to have some more intense and intimate shooting, with a handheld camera and a live audience in Dharamsala. And it brought out a live-wire Ranbir Kapoor.
He was playing to the masses and I was following him on the camera. He tripped and fell on the floor, we did not stop rolling, I just looked down at him through the camera, he stood up and started performing again. Obviously such scene demands an all-consuming involvement, while some other scenes allow you to be dispassionate and objective.
You have had a small stint in direction (with Madhuri Dixit's comeback film Aaja Nachle), would you like to go back to direction?
I am not so keen at this point of time. Because, if you don't have it together to make what it takes to be a film director, it is better to hide behind the camera.