Remembering Ashok Mehta, the man who brought contrast and lighting back to mainstream Hindi film cinematography.
When 36 Chowringhee Lane was released in 1981, I was a student of the Film and Television Institute of Tamil Nadu. 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, which was truly international. We were curious; we had heard that a new cinematographer had shot the film. Which institute did he belong to? Had he trained abroad? We were astounded when 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 cinematographers working in the Hindi film industry. On the one side, the strong influence of film noir and Hollywood-style direct lighting that had dictated the beauty of the 1950s was giving way to a more realistic style achieved by Subrata Mitra. On the other side, colour had come in. Would Orwo colour film stock reproduce the effects achieved by older films? Cinematographers hit the light straight onto the images. To prevent shadows from being seen on the walls, they used more butter paper, more lights — and more confusion followed. Directors asked for more zoom-ins, while laboratories added to the chaos. The cinematographer involuntarily slipped into bouncing light off ceilings, but at the expense of contrast. Slowly but surely, the cinematographer forgot the importance of lighting in creating the mood of a scene.
Ashok Mehta was the man who brought contrast and lighting back to mainstream Hindi film cinematography. The work in Trikal (1985) was truly European, while in Utsav (1985) it was seductively Indian. Was he inspired by Sven Nykvist or Ravi Varma? Where did he learn to bounce light and yet keep the contrast?
He was everywhere
I finally met the master on the sets of Susman, for which I was operating the Steadicam. He had covered the courtyard with black polyester to cut off the sun. He bounced HMI lights on to bounce-boards. Meters of black cloth skirted the location. When he felt that the unit hands were not getting his idea, he climbed onto the scaffolding, banged nails into the rafters and hung lights from the roof like large bats; thus generating a soft source light in the courtyard.
While doing night interiors, he used single-point sources hidden behind lamps, removed lights from stands and Fresnels, and bounced the light from unconventional angles. 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 at work, creating something beautiful out of mud. He built the shot step by step out of nothing, right in front of the stunned film unit. There was an air of wonder and resignation.
Since 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 the rushes at Prasad Laboratories in Hyderabad. They were beautiful. I expressed my surprise to him. He took me aside and said, “Beta, you have to be brave when you light. You expose for what you want to see.”
He had opened my eyes. Three years at the institute had not taught me as much as two weeks on the sets of Susman. What was amazing was that Ashok was not a slave of the light meter. He exposed for the frame and got consistent results.
When he was on the sets of Bandit Queen, he transformed from being a realistic cameraman to a Sergio Leone cowboy. He brought in the aesthetics of the Western to an Indian landscape. The composition of the sequence in which the young bride leaves her village by boat, the out-of-focus rape scene, the joyful day interiors, the mustard fields in the ravines of the Chambal, the massacre in blinding white light in the afternoon sun, the fluidity of camera movements, the jolt he gave you with his modernist compositions — all these added to the allure of Bandit Queen. I 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 an inspiration to a generation of new cinematographers like us.
He helped us believe that we must be responsible for the image. We must be team players, fraternise with the light-men over chai, enjoy the shoot, pour our blood and sweat into the film because shooting a film is an opportunity of a lifetime. Something he must have been so acutely aware of working as a camera attendant, sitting on the other side of the unwritten boundary lines of the industry, yearning for an opportunity to someday become the cinematographer of a film.
Rajiv Menon is a well-known cinematographer and director.