The Great Indian Cowboy

Excellent cinematography can singularly be described as an achievement
Analysis, Content production
Analysis, Content production
Analysis, Content production

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Excellence in cinematography can singularly be described as an achievement. If you do not recognise Ashok Mehta by name or look, you will certainly recognise him by the films he has shot. The Cinematographer’s Combine and the Indian Society of Cinematographers felicitated Ashok Mehta at the recently concluded CAS event

Ashok Mehta got his lessons behind the camera from none other than one of the luminaries MJ Muqqadam. According to Mehta, the journey with lights was a great help as it taught him the art of lighting. His friend Raj Marbros made a film called Witness in 1974. After Aparna Sen saw his work in Witness, she signed him up.

That is how Mehta got his first tryst with recognition. 36 Chowringhee Lane won the national award for the best cinematography in 1981. This was the turning point in his career. Soon after, Mehta was noticed by the leading filmmakers of parallel cinema, which was at its prime at that time. It was with the collaboration of Ghai that Mehta stepped onto the popular film scene bringing an altogether different style of lighting and shot taking. He turned director with Moksh, which brought him another National Award.

Working With Ashok Mehta

Aparna Sen

When I made my first film back in 1981, I was convinced that no one would be able to translate the images in my head into images on celluloid. And then I met Ashok Mehta.

Shashi Kapoor, the producer, suggested I take a look at Mehta’s work when I was hunting for my dream DoP for 36 Chowringhee Lane. And so I went to watch this movie, which Ashok had filmed to see a sample of his work. It was a one-light print, not colour-corrected, not impressive in content or form, and I don’t even remember its name.

But I do remember some of the shots to this day – the shots that told me I had found my cinematographer: A black umbrella at close up, splattered with rain…and then, as the camera keeps pulling back and up, a sea of black umbrellas is gradually revealed in the middle of crowded Bhendi Bazaar on a grey, rain-drenched afternoon.

The predominant colours are grey and black; a Hindi film song shot at the Gateway of India at night in the middle of torrential rain…the waves keep breaking against the stone edifice and sending up fountains of spray…the faces of the stars are blurred as the rain lashes against the lens (probably a protective glass between the lens and the rain?) The scene is reminiscent of an Impressionist painting…; a cabaret scene in a nightclub.

The set is forgettable as is the song and the choreography. But every so often a strong beam of light, like that in a lighthouse, sweeps across the frame and across the lens blinding the audience. The effect is startling! This is the decisive shot! If everything else is so mundane except this amazingly effective light, then surely it is not unreasonable to see the hand of the cinematographer…? I called up Shashi. “Listen - I have decided on my DoP. “

Mehta and I went on to work in three consecutive films from then on: 36 Chowringhee Lane; Paroma and Sati.

There were no monitors back then, and I used to have to keep looking through the viewfinder of the camera. Mehta never resented that. He used to go about arranging his lighting, indulging me as I went back and forth on the trolley operating the camera in my amateur fashion and trying to figure out exactly what I was going to finally see on screen.

Mehta and I developed a rare understanding during the course of that first film. We’d had endless discussions before filming commenced, and I’d showed him innumerable paintings and photographs to explain the kind of light I wanted. I found him amazingly receptive and open-minded – and without a trace of condescension towards a young woman who was directing her first film without knowing the first thing about the craft. “Just tell me the images you’re seeing inside your head, ‘’ he’d say to me, “ and I will tell you what we have to do to get them.” It was an invaluable learning experience…

Then there would be the times when I just couldn’t see any ‘images in my head’ – or at least not very clear ones. But i was overwhelmed by the beauty of the shot he devised. It seemed as if he had delved right inside my head to capture the images that I was not being able to bring forth, and put them out there in front of the camera for me That’s what happens when the director and the DoP develop the kind of understanding that Mehta and I had managed to achieve: they become like extensions of each other.

But I had chosen to make my kind of cinema: small, artistic films for which funding was hard to come by. It was becoming impossible to afford a DoP all the way from Mumbai on the kind of budgets we had to work with. And it wouldn’t be fair to get Mehta to come and work for peanuts and not even be able to give him the kind of lights and equipment he deserved!

Besides, he was getting ample opportunities to showcase his enormous talent in big budget Hindi films with their ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment and lights. So I continued to make my films in Bengal and he continued to stretch his limits in mainstream Hindi cinema.

Shekhar Kapur
It very rarely that a director can say that his learning and career graph was propelled by his relationship with a DoP. But I could say that openly and honestly about Ashok Mehta. I have only done one film with him, unfortunately. And that is because Ashok refused to come with me to the West where I pursued my creative goals. He refused to be taken away from his roots here in India. I still wish he had come. I missed him a lot.

Ashok unlocked my creative potential in Bandit Queen. He showed me how to be brave and not afraid of expressing myself through the camera and not just through actors and story/plot. He taught me that my instincts were good, but only as good as my courage to follow them through.

Ashok Mehta taught me to be fearless in my visual expression, something that I have now become known for in Hollywood. He has an innate sense of visual story telling. It’s not just about how he lights, but also how he frames. Subtle shifts in camera angles sometimes, and extreme angles that create inherent emotional charge in the audience at other times. He looks through the camera and instinctively knows what to do to accentuate that which is often hidden in the subtext of the scene.

Mehta is self taught. He does not ask too many questions. All I can say is that he has the “gift”. Mehta should film. He should teach. He has so much to give that it would be a crime to not learn from him.
He is a visual genius.

Subhash Ghai
Ashok Mehta is not a cameraman he is neither a cinematographer. He is the director of cinematography in true sense and essence of cinema I believe ... and I am fortunate enough to be associated with him for last three decades.

Hailing from no where, he has been an ardent and passionate student of the art and the technique of cinematography all his life before he became a master and now an institution himself who inspires the next and next generations of cinematographers of our country. I call him the director of cinematography as he heightens the feel of your given scene and location as per the story and characters in so much details in terms of lighting, lenses, composing and using the props that brings the entire different script at a different level on the screen.

And the best part of Mehta is that he understands the constraint of a producer’s means and money and the limitations of the director on the set and makes everything comfortable for producers and director. He can shoot the lowest budget film to the biggest canvas film with same ease, passion, perfection and dedication.

He made me humble, calmed me down and taught me how to ‘do the best in the worst circumstances on set’.

We all know Mehta is a genuine person. A tireless worker, a real cinema man, a cinematographer and a director.

In a nutshell, he is the most educated technician in his field today without being formally educated ever. “He educated himself through his life.”

Rajiv Menon
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. We were astounded when we came to know that Ashok Mehta was not from any institute. He had worked his way up in the 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 .

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, “Son, 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 he was outside he transformed from being a source lighting inspired realistic cameraman to a Sergio Leone cowboy! Mehta 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 films.

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!

Shyam Benegal
The year was 1967. I was making a documentary film commissioned by Films Division on Central Indian Tribes. I had decided to make a film on the Marias and Murias of Bastar. Bastar was fairly remote in those days, a single lane highway connecting Raipur to Jagdalpur, the district headquarters. From there to Dantewada, Narayanpur and other places was by dirt track. This is the arena where the CRPF is battling the Maoists today.

I had taken a small unit; Mukadam as cameraman, Sadhu Meher as my assistant and a sound-recordist. The only other person with me was a young teenager, brought by Mukadam, who was helping to carry the camera equipment. His name was Ashok Mehta.

We traveled from Mumbai to Raipur by Calcutta Mail. From there, a long overnight car ride to Jagdalpur, traveling non stop for about 10 hours. After this rather exhausting journey, we began shooting in a Maria village not far from Jagdalpur. By the evening of the first day, Mukadam fell ill with Malaria. To be caught in the forest with the cameraman getting malaria, spelt total disaster.

Desperate situations call for desperate measures. I put Mukadam in a car and sent him back to Raipur and from there by train to Mumbai where he could expect reasonably good medical treatment. Left in the lurch with no alternative, I asked young Mehta if he would be able to use the light meter and give me the reading and set the shutter speed while I would choose the lenses to be used and operate the camera. Any other option would have meant canceling the shoot and financial indebtedness to Films Division which I could hardly afford.

The next two weeks were a revelation. Mehta came out of the chrysalis as a fully formed cameraman. Self assured, innovative, and willing to take risks with impeccable judgment you could not fault. After I discovered his incredible talent in the deep forests of Chattisgarh, I first got him as a second unit cameraman in Kalyug.

Two years later, he shot my film Mandi. His photography for this film won him rave reviews for his lighting, exposures and the painterly quality he achieved. In the mid 1980s, Mehta filmed Trikaal, which I shot in Goa. This was the first Eastman colour film where all the night scenes were shot entirely in candle light.

This had never been done before. It took him several months to perfect this lighting style by getting different sizes of candles and wicks from candle makers until he got a result that was nothing short of extraordinary. Soon after, he filmed my film Susman, giving it yet another character since it dealt with a handloom weaver. The last film Mehta shot for me was Making of the Mahatma filmed entirely in South Africa.

I have always admired Mehta’s impeccable lighting style and exceptionally precise camera operation. He is a perfectionist and a stickler for detail. Without doubt, he is one of our very best directors of photography and the young cameramen who have benefited from his immense talent are today some of the leading cinematographers of our country.

I congratulate Ashok Mehta and wish him the very best and many more productive years behind the camera.

This article has been reprinted with the kind permission of the Cinematographer’s Combine from the book Towards a Better Image 2010.

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