ashokjiPandolin catches master cinematographer Ashok Mehta in a candid mood as he talks about his craft, karma and life through the eyes of an artist. 

You’ve been in this industry for more than two decades now. How has your journey been so far?

My journey’s been very good actually. I started off on a very humble note. I came to Mumbai when I was 14, and did whatever job came my way. I worked as a hawker, in the canteen, and as an office boy. I’ve done lighting, set construction, and camera. There’s nothing that I haven’t really done as such. I’ve always been high on energy. I made it at 24. All that I’ve achieved has been thanks to my hard work and brains. That combination always works. If you’re intelligent, but not hardworking, that won’t do. The industry’s given me my identity. Nobody wants to know how you look; they only want to know how you work. It all comes down to that.

Your story is very inspiring. It’s amazing that you’ve learned everything just by observation. What was your learning curve like?

Nature is a guru. It teaches you. It’s similar to how animals learn. It’s natural for a child to learn merely by observation. The age is such that they will pick up anything without a hassle. For example, a North Indian child will pick up a South Indian language just by hearing it from someone who speaks it. It’s a process for which all the credit goes to God. However, the main thing is that one also needs to know how to unlearn. Sure, you’ve learnt something, but you need to figure out if it’s working for you. That’s very important. In fact, I can say that I graduated in this industry. Some study, but I just told myself that ‘you’ve come to Bombay, now do your bit.’ I shot my first film at 24. It was called ‘The Witness’. It never released, but it brought me recognition.

According to you, what are the major problems when making a good movie in the Indian film industry?

We don’t have good scripts. If you have a good script, you’ve won the battle. If you don’t have good content, it doesn’t matter how well you present it. After all, how long can you sustain bad content? You need strong content to make a good movie. Another problem is that it’s an expensive medium. Some may complain that not enough attention is paid to the cinematography department, that directors don’t mind waiting for actors to get dressed, but they create a fuss if a cinematographer wants to wait for the cloud to pass by. Cribbing won’t get you anywhere. You need to strike a balance and justify your work. Besides, a lot depends on the kind of director and production you are working with. If you have a good name and are working on a serious film, no one minds waiting for you to get the desired light.

What are the factors a cinematographer should consider when choosing a movie?

I feel, apart from being talented, one also needs to be lucky. If luck favors you, you get a good project to work on, good filmmakers to work with and an opportunity to showcase your talent in the right places. You need to understand the film, and how you can contribute. You need to strike the right balance and do justice to the film. It’s like cooking. All the ingredients need to be in the right proportion for the dish to be delicious. Of course, the presentation needs to be beautiful too. The technique is basic. That’s something we learn, but art is something we create. You need to work in tandem with all departments to create a good movie overall. It’s also important to keep a cool head while handling problems.

Do you feel Indian cinema is taken seriously?

No one understands serious cinema. And it’s not the case only in India, but across the world. It’s not like all American movies are good or that they don’t make bad ones at all. Are they super intelligent? No. Few are very intelligent. It’s those few that matter.


You are a very positive person, aren’t you?

Of course, there’s no other way to be. Like they say, it’s not important how long you live, but how you live. Regardless of how blessed you are, no one’s immortal. You will face problems in your life, but if you remain positive, positive things will happen. That’s what life is all about. Compare yourself with those who are working in the rain, in storms, or under the hot sun. You’ll see how lucky you are. How can I compare myself with successful people like Tata, Amitabh Bachchan or Salman Khan? I can compare myself with my colleagues, but only to a certain extent. Generation’s change, new people come in. After all, they deserve an opportunity as well. I can’t expect to be on top forever.

What is your take on 3D?

3D is a gimmick. I shot 3D long ago but I didn’t find it fascinating. In fact, when on recce for Shiva Ka Insaaf (3D) in America, I even told Gulzarsaab, “Dada, something feels wrong. It’s not going to work,” and he agreed with me. Not everyone can make an Avatar. It’s too big a film. For that matter, if you look at Avatar as a story, it’s not a great film. Technically, it’s very good but it’s not an immortal one.

That’s an interesting way to describe films. Which films would you call immortal?

The ones that people would remember forever are immortal. Take Kurosawa and Ray for example. They’re immortal. There are many more. It’s tough to name them all.

Which cinematographers have inspired you?

I used to watch foreign films and Indian ones and wonder why there was so much of a difference in quality between them. I reached a conclusion that it’s the lighting that made a difference. Framing as well, but lighting is more important. You need to master that. I’m talking about the time when even Hollywood wasn’t doing too well. I watched movies like Guess who’s coming to dinner, The Graduate, Butterflies are free, A Man and a Woman, etc, which became successful. Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who also shot Siddhartha with Shashi Kapoor, is very good. You look at their work and go ‘Wow!’

Do you feel that lighting is still a problem with Indian cinema?

Well, what can I say? Only a few people are blessed with talent. You either have it or you don’t. It’s like when people ask God, ‘Why did you have to give it all to Tata, and none to me?’ I feel it’s all karma. It’s very important. Work, and don’t think about the returns. God says, “I’ll give you whatever you deserve.” What has to happen will happen. It’s destiny.

Have you always been so spiritual?

I’ve always been spiritual, though not so much when I was younger. It’s only later when you look back and introspect that you realize it. One asks, ‘Why am I successful?’…

Because you’re talented…

Of course, talent plays a major role. But where did the talent come from? Why is everyone not talented? Even being passionate about something is a blessing.

What do you feel about foreign cinematographers working in India? Why do you think Indian cinematographers are not getting the same opportunity to work abroad on international projects?

I feel there’s something wrong with our education. Foreign cinematographers have made their mark shooting in a certain way, a certain product. You can’t deny that they are very committed and hardworking. On a selfish note, we’d wish they weren’t, but they are. It’s also their destiny. Ideally, we shouldn’t have a problem, but we do. After all, if they’re doing good work, then what’s the problem? It’s not like Indian cinematographers don’t know their craft, but like I said before, new people keep coming into the field. Just because one cinematographer is doing well now, there’s no guarantee he will still be on top after ten years. He might be, but new people will keep entering.

While shooting, how do you connect the technical aspect with the emotional one?

You have to do your homework before you come to set. What do you want to say? How will you say it? What should the mood be? You have to plan your film in that way. You need a good director and a team to contribute towards it. Every department needs to work together. If one suffers, all suffer.

You’ve shot films across all genres. But you make it all sound so simple.

It’s God’s gifts. You need to learn the alphabets. Words are then combinations that you can make. You need to distinguish what sets the good apart from the bad. Not everyone is intelligent. 72 years of Communism failed in Russia. Why? It’s because equality is not possible. There has to be a balance. Take ecology for example. Nature sees to it that a balance is maintained and that’s important.

Why do you think songs are given so much importance, when movies can do without them?

That’s because we’ve been tuning our audience that way since the beginning and now they’ve gotten used to it. I don’t really have a problem with it. If you don’t want to see it, shut your eyes. A lot of times, a song can change the entire story. Take Sheila and Munni for example. The films are doing well thanks to these songs. That’s how we’ve conditioned our audience. Even Indian Chinese food has masala in it. The bland European food doesn’t suit our palette. We’ll add some spices to it to suit our liking. We’re still singing old songs, aren’t we?

There has been a lot of debate regarding the projection system in India. What can be done regarding this?

Nothing at all. Only education can help. We should form an association with the concerned people, etc and help them understand, but we’re not committed. Trust me, I’ve tried a lot to make it work. We’re still better off these days thanks to multiplexes et al. If you own a cinema theatre, but you aren’t educated about the field and its technical requirements, that’s a problem. How will you ask for help from the right person if you don’t even know who he is or what you need? I was shooting a documentary in Nagaland. A Sardarji owned a cinema hall there, and he invited us over for dinner. I walked into a movie screening and was very impressed with the projection. I asked him how he managed such good quality and he told me that he used to order the brightest of prints, but it didn’t help till he changed the screen. I was intrigued and asked to see the older screen. They were brown. I asked him why he hadn’t changed them before and he said it’s expensive to bring them down all the way from Kolkata. I lost my temper and refused to dine with him until he promised me that he would educate all the cinema owners there about the importance of a good screen. I dined with him only after that. In fact, in England, many directors refuse to screen their films if their favorite projectionist isn’t available. That’s the value of a projectionist there. Here, education is a problem. We’re also to blame. Even if we don’t like what we see, we will still watch it.

ashok-mehta3How do you decide a shot?

I have no idea. I just go with the flow. Nothing is difficult. With commitment, everything is possible.

What do you think about digital cameras?

It’s a good technology to work with. There are a few problems, but technology keeps improving and it will be solved.

What are your favorite lenses?

That depends on what I’m shooting. On the contrary, if you use one zoom lens, it works as multiple lenses and will maintain a consistent quality. If it’s even a little faulty, the color can change, the aspect ratio or the focus quality can change. It all depends on how you use the technology provided.