How does one begin to write about a cinematographer whose work made it appear as if light listened to him, as a performer does? Ashok Mehta was a formative influence on many cinematographers of our generation. He redefined the use of light and colour in film, with his approach that was at once delicate, sophisticated and experimentative. He was equally at ease shooting a Subhash Ghai blockbuster as he was doing a Shyam Benegal film.
We were first exposed to his work in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane. The images of the half-lit house of Jennifer Kapoor in 36 Chowringhee Lane have a brooding quality, where he expresses as much with light as he does with shadows. His recreation of the lanes and landscape of old Calcutta is forever imprinted in memory, as are the expressive close-ups of the lonely elderly protagonist. The film remains among the best-shot films in Indian film history.
In Girish Karnad’s Utsav, a hapless Samsthanak (played by Shashi Kapoor) mad in his lust for Vasantasena (Rekha), is as human as Charudutt (Shekhar Suman). Mehta seems to control the sun in this film. In Mehta’s hands, the sun seems to change position to give the best light possible for the exterior scenes. The spartan images of the interiors of the characters’ houses are as compelling are the stylised love scenes.
Ashok Mehta was born in the year of India’s independence 1947. The legend goes that he ran away from his home in Delhi at the age of 14 to come to Bombay. He started by selling boiled eggs at a roadside stall and moved on to become a tea-boy in the canteen of Asha Studios in Chembur. He made his way up doing odd jobs in RK Studio and got involved in the camera and technical departments.
From that to becoming one of the foremost artists in Indian cinema is truly an empowering story that challenges the wind all pre-conceived notions about family background and formal education shaping a person’s talent.
Mehta experimented with his craft with a great sense of conviction. His work in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen was immaculate in its use of the hard Indian sunlight that is the bane of most cinematographers’ existence. The arid yellow landscape of the Chambal valley and the hard shadows on people’s faces form the distinct look of the film, accentuating the innate violence in the film.
There are times when a cinematographer’s work makes it look as if the film could only have been shot the way it was. It looks just right and such was Ashok Mehta’s work it was just right and sublime.
In the mainstream genre, if Saroj Khan gets the credit for giving Madhuri Dixit her dances, the person responsible for creating her image was Mehta. The line-up of films we identify Madhuri with were all shot by him. Tezaab, with the iconic song ‘Ek Do Teen’, Khalnayak, with ‘Choli Ke Peechhe’ and Ram Lakhan with ‘Bada Dukh Deena’. It was Mehta’s masterful play with light and celluloid emulsion that created the sparkling images that have become part of our collective subconscious.