Ashok Mehta : Cinematographer Par Excellence

It is perhaps no chance that destiny brought forth a person from a remote village of south east Afghanistan and dropped him into the streets of erstwhile Bombay. People have time and again flocked to different cities to earn their livelihood but it is by chance that it was Bombay- the heart of the Hindi film industry who would later turn out to be one of the most successful and ace cinematographers of the movie business- maestro Ashok Mehta.
Now, it is known to all appreciators of his works that he is without any formal training for being a cinematographer. It is a classic story of rags to riches culminating into some wonderful creations and leaving his mark to the tides of time.
He is one of those rare cinematographers who got equal recognition in Arthouse as well as commercial movies.
After having struggled for about a decade in the Hindi film industry,  Mehta got his first break as a cinematographer in Raj Marbros’ “The Witness”.  But he made real name through Aparna Sen’s directorial debut “36 Chowringhee Lane” which was produced by Shashi Kapoor.

As admitted by Sen in many of her interviews that she was totally dependent on Mehta for the technical aspects of film making, it would be wise to say that he did not disappoint his director, even though it was her first movie. The colour tone of the movie as described by Sen herself is that of a rose kept within the pages of a book which has lost its colour but not its fragrance. This was how 36 Chowringhee Lane was described to Ashok Mehta. Through the old world frames of a dying and decaying life of a once vibrant society Mehta has been able to aptly depict the mood and tone of the story. As reiterated by him over and over through a lot of his interviews, Mehta laid the greatest emphasis on the script. He tried to create the moods and the feel of a lonely anglo-indian teacher whose house feels like an ‘old antique shop’. The way he captures the fog of a winter morning or raindrops sliding off a crumpled roof adds to the aesthetic of the movie.
Sen was so pleased with the eventual outcome of “36 Chowringhee Lane” that she again chose to work with him in her next venture- “Paroma”. The comprehensive texture of the film is so achingly beautiful and different than any arthouse or commercial movie of the time that it created a sense of awe amongst film lovers and critics both. The movie begins with a frame under a frame shot and a long track shot which from the very beginning hints at the creative cinematography that will follow throughout the film. Rakhi Gulzar’s treatment in the movie is majorly glamourous with soft glamour light being used throughout except for those sequences where she is in a complex state of mind. Towards the very beginning when Rahul refuses to call Paroma as Kakima the photographer has deftly and swiftly zoomed in and out the camera from Rakhis face. She has a stunned look, it is the first time someone very subtly has made eyes at her outside her marriage bed. This is new for Paroma. This newness has been so craftily engineered by Mehta’s photography and Rakhi’s acting that it sets the tone for the overall mood of the film. The viewer almost instantly has a rough idea about what is to happen next. There are several instances of slow zooming which might be a way to delve deeper into the mindspace of our title character. A stark change in lighting happens when the secret is out and everybody is aware of Paroma’s infidelity. The soft glamour light she has so far enjoyed is scraped out and there is hard high intensity lighting with high contrast. This adds to the melancholic mood of Paroma. Another frame that adds to the psychological picturization of the movie is when Paroma calls her in-laws to let them know of a supposed life altering decision that she has taken. The scene starts with Paroma sitting in her hospital and in another frame are her in-laws sitting all tensed. They are unable to gauge the mind of Paroma and are under extreme pressure and a lot of discomfort is prevailing in the atmosphere. A dominating headspace is found in the frame which adds to the visual feel that the characters are truly under a lot of distress.

Such psychological framing and lighting was a break from the monotonous lighting that was happening in Hindi motion pictures of that time. The level of impeccability that Ashok Mehta attained with such bare minimum equipment of the time awes many cinematographers even today.
Another film that should find its place when anything about Ashok Mehta’s camera work is written about, is Shyam Benegal’s “Mandi”. With a star cast and critically acclaimed cast of its time the film brought out the creative genius of both the director and DOP to the fullest. A Mehta speciality of the film is the recurring usage of Mirrors. Mirrors are used for moments of psychological reflection, for moments of deception, dejection, delusion and also to juxtapose two different ideas within the same frame.

Here in this frame Rukmini Bai, the matriarch of the brothel is aware of the true motives of Mr. Gupta and is trying hard to persuade him through her subtle seductions and Mr. Gupta too is deceiving the matriarch in order make her evacuate a prime city property. Such psychological framing has been done all throughout the film. The film serves as a text book case for all cinematography students and enthusiasts.
In his own words Ashok Mehta was of the opinion that when one is shooting at an outdoor location one should know how to capture what one is seeing and in the studio one should know how to create. Lighting according to him was the most important thing about photography. He opined that a script is the most important aspect of film making and each and every frame should try to achieve the idea that is in the frame. Though the script is not a cinematographer’s department but a cinematographer should put the script at the center while filming.
Another film which finds its mention while talking about Ashok Mehta is his only film both as a director and a DOP- “Moksha” which released in the year 2001. Though the film failed to make it’s mark at the box office, it won Mehta his second National award for cinematography, the first being for “36 Chowringhee Lane”. The movie provides a wide range of tonal variations and outstanding compositions which helps to cater to the changing mood of the film’s narrative and idea. The film is filled with symbolism which has been seldom used in Hindi films before this. The flashbacks of the film is graded in vibrant colour and the present narrative is in black and white. Such reverse colouring hints at the presence of colour in the life of Vikram Sehgal played by Arjun Rampal and the eventual present day loss of colour from his life after the death of his girlfriend. The overall colour tone and composition of the film is very different.

The frame above is a top shot with a beautiful composition. The character placement is at the right with a small break in the left. The frame has an overbearing greyish tone and the monotonous colour theme is broken by the soothing yet playful colour of Ritika’s (Manisha Koirala) dress. The carpet on the floor is also of the same colour theme as the dress worn by Manisha Koirala.

There are numerous frame under frame compositions in the whole film which adds to the cinematic brilliance of the film.
Another film of sheer brilliance is “Trikaal” directed by another recurring name in this article; director Shyam Benegal. The drama is set in pre-independence Goa where there used to be frequent power cuts. Mehta used candles and petromaxes to light up the scenes. Such ambience greatly contributed to the ghostly ambience of the movie. Rembrandt lighting technique has been thoroughly used in the film and there is constant flickering which we know was intentional to give the setup a more authentic feel. The strong sense of nostalgia is aptly brought out by the surreal, low intensity lighting. Legend has it that Mehta went to every candle maker of Bombay for this movie. The result that came out is inventive and has lived on forever. This movie bagged a national award for Benegal.
In “Ijazat”, the high contrast and hard lighting reflects the extreme emotions that the viewers come across in the very first scene. The pangs of an estranged couple, the acute emotional anxiousness on having met one’s former husband is deftly crafted through the lighting of Mehta. “Ijazat” is the culmination of Gulzar’s poetry on lost love and lingering love in the frames of Mehta making it a masterpiece.
Self taught, talented, critically appreciated, commercially successful are all adjectives that can be together used with the name of Ashok Mehta. He was a genius who lived and created among the ordinary yet managed to create something extraordinary.

Ashok Mehta is also one of the founding members of WICA.

Article by Amrita Ghosh.

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