A string of pretty pictures is not the same as good cinematography, but that isn’t the only reason our colour films remain less impressive than those shot in black-and-white

News of the demise of Ashok Mehta made me flashback, quickly, through the story of Indian cinematography, which is a strange one. On the one hand, we have cause to celebrate genuine innovators such as Subrata Mitra, but on the other, so many of our films are well-packaged and glossy but made without a cinematographer’s investment of mind and soul. (And most of what get labelled in reviews as “good cinematography” is essentially a series of pretty pictures.) When I see older films, I’m left with the feeling that the work of our cinematographers in black-and-white is far superior to their work in colour — at least till the 1970s ushered in a parallel Hindi cinema (it’s due to his work in these films that Ashok Mehta began to get noticed), and subtle talents such as Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar began garnering attention in Tamil.

This is no accident. Good cinematography (like almost everything else in a film) is the result of a director who’s clear about what he wants, and a good cinematographer executes that vision, either by envisioning a look all on his own or by collaborating with the filmmaker. And in the 1970s, a great many directors with vision set about making movies. They wanted to tell new kinds of stories, with a new kind of pace, and with new kinds of faces — and they needed a new breed of cinematographers, craftsmen who’d studied the work of world masters and looked beyond capturing a frame that could be mounted on museum walls.

Before the 1970s, most of the visionary cinematography was confined to black-and-white films. Compare, for instance, Radhu Karmarkar’s work for Raj Kapoor in Shree 420 versus his work in Sangam. The former has mood, texture, emotion, while the latter simply has sumptuous colour. At least, that’s how it seems to us today, and the reason is that we do not know, for sure, what these colour films really looked like when first released. Black-and-white cinema, for some reason, doesn’t lose much of its look even when watched on cruddy copies on DVD, but colour films lose a lot of detail and end up looking garish, gaudy.

The heroines (and sometimes even the heroes) seem to be wearing too much makeup. The sun is always a little too golden, the reds and the blues a little too red and blue. To truly evaluate the work of early Indian cinematographers who worked in colour, we have to rely on the word of those who watched these films on screen, or else wait for remastered DVDs to make their way to the market.

Remastered versions of a few parallel-cinema staples have made their way to stores, but there’s nothing from mainstream cinema. Why, you may want to ask, aren’t they remastering Mera Naam Joker (an extremely problematic film, I agree, but given its ambition and scope, aren’t you curious to see what it really looked like?), or Gunga Jumna (with its earthy evocation of rural India), or even Johny Mera Naam (if only for the way Hema Malini’s face is lit up when she sees those diamonds)?

But I doubt they will, and entire generations of colour cinematography (from the pre-digital era) is lost to us — and even Ashok Mehta’s greatness lies more in my mind, from my memories of his films watched on the screen, than in the evidence proffered by DVDs of 36 Chowringhee Lane or Trikal.

Of his films, I remember Utsav best. The circumstances in which I watched this A-rated drama (with classmates, at Chennai’s now-regrettably-demolished Safire theatre) have no doubt contributed to the vividness of the memory, but even as a film, it was breathtaking, a retelling of Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mrichchakatikam that was suffused with an extraordinarily elegant kind of glamour — the lighting was so muted and evocative, it was as if we’d entered the erotic world of Vasantasena and Charudutta.

The film, based on their lustful affair, is full of jewellery and sets and rich costumes and flesh, and yet, Mehta (and, of course, the director Girish Karnad) chose not to highlight these “items”. Rather, they opted to blend them into the story being told. To make an invisible (i.e. real, lived-in) kind of movie with the most eye-blinding of props requires a special talent. Thanks to these frames, at least in some memories Ashok Mehta will be remembered the way he ought to be.