#1: From interview [2012]

 

   


  ASHOK MEHTA

 

Born: 1947, Punjab, India.

Died: 15 August 2012, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, Andheri West, Mumbai, India.

Career: 'Ashok Mehta was 14 when he ran away from home in Delhi and became a hawker's flunkey in Mumbai [Bombay] selling boiled eggs. In 1963 he moved on to sell watermelon slices, and on a holiday he saw a film shoot in a studio in Dadar. Hooked, he joined as a canteen boy at Asha Studio in Chembur and later became an office boy at R.K. Studios. He slowly started filling in for absentee studio hands and soon became familiar with sets, lights, etc. The next step ahead was when he became camera attendant and soon learnt his way around the camera. He became c.asst at Srikrishna Films and got his first break as a cinematographer at the age of 25 in Raj Marbros' 'The Witness'. He credits his actual career boost to the reigning star of the 70's, Shashi Kapoor. Kapoor, who was starring in a film being shot by Mehta, was greatly impressed by his work and even though the film did not get made eventually, it won Mehta the favor of Kapoor, who offered him his next production, '36 Chowringhee Lane'. Soon after, Mehta was noticed by the leading filmmakers of the parallel cinema movement that was in its prime at the time and was flooded with film offers. The next step for Mehta was to establish himself in mainstream cinema and this opportunity came through actress Rakhee. It was during the filming of 'Paroma' that Rakhee got acquainted with Mehta and his work, but it was years later when Subhash Ghai, leading director of the popular film scene, was on the lookout for a cameraman for his mega-project 'Ram Lakhan', that she suggested the name of Mehta. Ashok Mehta then stepped onto the popular film scene and with the collaboration of Ghai, brought to popular cinema an altogether different style of lighting and shot taking.' [From articles and interviews by Renu Bhatnagar, a.o.]

Ph 800+ commercials.

Was a member of the ISC and WICA.

Awards: Bengal Film Journalists' Award [197?] for 'Lal Kothi'; National Film Awards 'Silver Lotus Award' [1982] for '36 Chowringhee Lane'; Screen Weekly Award [1995] for 'Trimurti'; National Film Awards 'Silver Lotus Award' [2001] & Screen Weekly Award nom [2002] for 'Moksha'.


GO TO FILMS

'It is very rare that a director can say that his learning and career graph was propelled by his relationship with a DP. 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.

Ashok 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.

Ashok Mehta is self taught. Originally from Afghanistan, he started by selling boiled eggs outside a Mumbai studio. Then got a job as a lowly 'canteen boy' inside the studio. He begged for a job as a 'camera attendant' graduating to focus puller and then to cinematographer. And the rest is history as he redefined the art of cinematography in Mumbai. And taking risks. He shot the interiors of Shyam Benegal's 'Trikal: (Past, Present, Future)' almost completely in candlelight at a time when film stocks did not have as much latitude.

He does not ask too many questions. Ashok came on to the location of 'Bandit Queen' when I had to lose an original British DP, and walked on to the set and took the camera from me [I was filming myself by then] and quickly readjusted the lens and the angle and in five minutes said 'lets shoot!!' How did he know what to do? He did not even have the time to read the script. All I can say is that he has the 'Gift'. A gift that has gone somewhat unfulfilled in Indian Cinema unfortunately. For his attempts to raise the art of the image beyond the needs of stars, schedules and mundane plot lines ultimately frustrated him. I think he just looked to God and said 'whatever!!'

Ashok 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.' [Director Shekhar Kapur on his website, 2010.]


Obituary: Some day Hindi cinema would like to make more films like Ashok Mehta, the ace cinematographer who lost a prolonged battle with lung cancer at a Mumbai hospital on Wednesday. This was a rare, albeit fatal instance of Ashok coming off second best. Indeed, for the man who worked with the best in the business, ranging from the highly accomplished Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad and Shekhar Kapur to the hugely popular Subhash Ghai and Anees Bazmee, life itself was a work of art. When the mood overtook him, he could caress with his lens, as he did in films like '36 Chowringhee Lane', 'Mandi' and 'Utsav'. When the situation demanded, he could provoke you, maybe even hurt you, as he did in 'Bandit Queen'. All along, though, he was his own man, doing his own thing, his own way. Even when he worked for M.F. Husain in 'Gaja Gamini', he used his camera as an accelerator for the director's drive, his vision creating frames which stayed in the mind of cinegoers long after the film moved out of the theatres.

If he loved working with Husain, he was at ease working with Bazmee in 'No Entry', a big hit often criticized for its gutter humor. As was the case with Ghai for whom Ashok worked wonders in 'Khal Nayak', 'Ram Lakhan', 'Kisna', etc. From the world of art to films driven by commerce, Ashok relished straddling the two worlds. All along, he remained an unsung hero who brought rare aesthetics to his technique. It did not change whether he quietly seduced you with his camera in the song 'Man kyun behka re behka' or teased cinegoers in 'Choli ke peeche kya hai'. One was lapped up by the connoisseurs, and the other by the common man. The occasion demanded the treatment. Similarly, his work in '36 Chowringhee Lane' was all about the interplay of light and shadow, and that in 'Trikal' and 'Mandi' about making the best use of limited resources. Light, camera angles, colors all whipped up a rare chemistry. With the depth and range of his works, he carried forward the tradition established by the likes of Radhu Karmakar, V.K. Murthy and Nitin Bose in the 1950s.

Though he did remarkable work in a series of films for more than 30 years, he realized he was still carrying out the director's vision. One day he decided he would present his own thing to the audience. The result was 'Moksha', which he directed himself a little more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a film more talked about than seen. It had his trademark frames, but Ashok the director was found wanting. The film sank without a trace. And he was never to direct a feature film again.

When, however, Ashok helmed a project as a cinematographer, he brought into play a rare acumen combining it with a direct, no nonsense approach, taking care to keep his punches soft for the younger set of stars. For those with many a summer behind them, he knew the camera could be a merciless weapon. For such stars, he preferred the camera to be a tool, highlighting their beauty, underplaying their blemishes. The most memorable instance came in the way he presented Rekha and Anuradha Patel in Karnad's 'Utsav'.

His judgments on the quality of the frame could be merciless. And he often complained that commercial cinema directors were satisfied too easily. Not given to great levels of scholarship, he used that earthy language which was effective without always being pleasant. He was forthright yet never resorted to posturing in an industry where image is regarded to be the king.

Born in Punjab in 1947, Ashok, given to a flamboyant way of dressing right down to cowboy boots, also acted in a couple of films. In recent times, he kept himself occupied making short films. And occasionally, took to dialogue writing. [Ziya Us Salam in 'The Hindu', August 16, 2012.]


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 gets labeled 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 color - 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. To truly evaluate the work of early Indian cinematographers who worked in color, 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.

But I doubt they will, and entire generations of color 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 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/The Little Clay Cart' 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 Vasantsena and Charudatta.

The film, based on their lustful affair, is full of jewelry 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. [Baradwaj Rangan in 'The Hindu', August 17, 2012.]


 

 FILMS

1969

Trishna [?] ?; cph: Sudarshan Nag

1972

The Witness [Raj Marbros] unreleased

1972

Trisandhya [Raj Marbros] b&w-c

1975

Kabhi Dhoop Kabhi Chhaon/Sun and Shade [Basu Bhattacharya] c

1975

Daaku/Daku/The Bandit [Basu Bhattacharya] c

1977

Bhumika/The Role [Shyam Benegal] c; 139m

1978

Hamare Tumhare/Hamaare Tumhare [Umesh Mehra] c

1978

Laal Kothi/Lal Kothi [Kanak Mukherjee] c

197?

Teesra Patthar [?] unreleased

1980

Kal-yug/The Machine Age [Shyam Benegal] c; 152m; co-addph; ph: Govind Nihalani

1980

Cobra [Batra Mohinder] c

1980

Nirvana [Jalal Agha] filmed 1980-83; unreleased

1981

36 Chowringhee Lane [Aparna Sen] c

1982

Jawalaa Dahej Ki [Chaman Nillay] c

1982

Mandi/Market Place [Shyam Benegal] c; 167m

1983

Utsav/The Festival [Girish Karnad] c; 145m; 2uc: Rajesh Joshi

1984

Paroma/Parama/The Ultimate Woman [Aparna Sen] c

1984

Andar Baahar/Andar Bahar [Raj N. Sippy] c

1984

Bandh Honth [Raj Marbros] unreleased

1985

Susman/The Essence [Shyam Benegal] c; 130m

1985

Shiva Ka Insaaf [Raj N. Sippy] 3D/c

1985

Trikal (Past, Present, Future) [Shyam Benegal] c; 139m

1985

Mirch Masala/Spices/A Touch of Spice [Ketan Mehta] c

1986

Zindagani [Prabhat Roy] c

1987

Ijaazat/Guest/Consent [Sampooran Singh Gulzar] c; 137m; + small part

1988

Oonch Neech Beech [Wasi Khan] c; cph: Hari Roy

1989

Sati/Widow Burning [Aparna Sen] c; 140m

1989

Ram Lakhan/Ram and Lakhan [Subhash Ghai] c; 177m

1990

Raiszaada/Raeeszada [Bharat Kapoor] c

1990

Saudagar/The Trader [Subhash Ghai] c; 205m

1990

Prem [Satish Kaushik] c; ph 'b' unit; ph: Baba Azmi

1992

Mujhse Dosti Karoge?/Come, Let Us Be Friends [Gopi Desai] c

1992

1942: A Love Story [Vidhu Vinod Chopra & ('b' unit) Shekhar Kapur] scope/c; 157m; ph 'b' unit; ph: Binod Pradhan

1992

Bandit Queen/Phoolan Devi [Shekhar Kapur] c; addph: Gilles Nuttgens; filmed 1992-93

1993

Khal Nayak/The Villain [Subhash Ghai] c; 190m

1995

Trimurti [Mukul S. Anand] scope/c; 187m; 2uc: Rajeev Jain

1995

The Making of the Mahatma/Apprenticeship of a Mahatma/Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak [Shyam Benegal] c; 144m

1995

Droh Kaal [Govind Nihalani] c

1996

Pukar [Rajkumar Santoshi] c; 176m; cph: Baba Azmi & Santosh Sivan

1996

Tara Rum Pum Pum [Shekhar Kapur] prod cancelled

1996

Gupt: The Hidden Truth [Rajiv Rai] tvi/c; 173m; 2uc: Rajeev Jain

1997

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar [Jabbar Patel] c; 191m

1998

Gaja Gamini [M.F. Husain] scope/c; 140m; cph: Shaina Nath

2001

Moksha/Salvation [Ashok Mehta] b&w-c; 149m; + co-prod/story

2001

Aankhen/All the Best [Vipul Amrutlal Shah] scope/c; 2 parts: 89m & 76m

2002

Dil Ka Rishta/Heart of Gold [Naresh Malhotra] scope/c; 2 parts: 69m & 80m

2002

Chalte Chalte [Aziz Mirza] scope/c; 2 parts: 81m & 84m; addph: Rajeev Jain

2004

Kisna: The Warrior Poet/Kisna: Beyond Love [Subhash Ghai] scope/c; 170m; international version 'Kisna: Beyond Love' runs 100m

2004

Waqt: The Race Against Time [Vipul Amrutlal Shah] scope/c; cph: Santosh Thundiiayil

2004

Family: Ties of Blood [Rajkumar Santoshi] scope/b&w-c; 150m; addph: Arvind Soni

2005

No Entry [Anees Bazmee] c; 158m

2005

God Tussi Great Ho/God You Are Great [Rumi Jaffery] c; addph: Aseem Bajaj & Arvind Soni

2006

I See You [Vivek Agrawal] scope/c

2006

Meridian Lines [Venod Mitra] c; addph: Arvind Soni

2007

Kismat Konnection [Aziz Mirza] scope/c; 153m; co-addph; ph: Binod Pradhan

2007

Mehbooba [Afzal Khan] c

2008

Shortkut - The Con Is On [Neeraj Vora] c; 142m; cph: Arvind Soni & Johny Lall

 

"Hum Tum Aur Ghost"

 

2009

Hum Tum Aur Ghost/Kaun Bola? [Kabeer Kaushik] c; 125m

2009

World Cupp 2011 [Ravi Kapoor] c

2010

Teen Thay Bhai/Mad, Madder, Maddest [Mrigdeep Singh Lamba] s16-35bu/c

2010

Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told [Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra & Jeff Zimbalist] scope/c; doc/79m; cph: Tapan Basu

2011

Ek Naya Bhor [Ashok Mehta] c; comm short/30m; for Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

2011

Attot Dor [Ashok Mehta] c; comm short/23m; for Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (Central TB Division)

 

 MISCELLANEOUS

1982

Vijeta/Conquest [Govind Nihalani] co-c.op battle seq; ph: G. Nihalani

1993

Dil Tera Aashiq [Lawrence D'Souza] actor; ph: L. D'Souza

1997

Sardari [Priti Sapru] co-story; ph: Adeep Tandon

2002

Hum Tumhare Hain Sanam [K.S. Adiyaman] co-dialogue; ph: T. Anandha Kumar

 

 FILMS AS DIRECTOR

2001

Moksha/Salvation [+ co-prod/story/ph] see Films

2001

24 Hours [feature] announced for 2001-02

2011

Ek Naya Bhor [+ ph; comm short] see Films

2011

Attot Dor [+ ph; comm short] see Films