August 17, 2012

A Man with a Magic Lantern

When the situation demanded, he could provoke you; maybe even hurt you, as he did in Bandit Queen. All along, he could create a magic, in his own way. Ashok Mehta the eminent cinematographer lost a prolonged battle with lung cancer at a Mumbai hospital on Wednesday. He started his career as a lowly camera hand and trained himself to become one of India’s most celebrated cameramen. In Bollywood miracles happens. A boy who runs away from home, lured by the celluloid grandeur, to be a hero of the tinsel world And, after reaching the film city, he finds it not only very difficult to get a chance to fulfill his dreams; two square meals a day also became a luxury. He had to choose a job to sell boiled eggs and watermelons to fetch his food. His first entry into the dream merchants' world was as a canteen boy in a film studio. Two decades later, the same boy is being hailed as one of the finest cinematographer in Indian cinema. 
The canteen boy turned cinematographer was a real miracle in terms of the cinematic world. Without any formal education in technical aspects, he carved a niche for himself in the world of cinema, a feat envied by even good technicians in the industry. He has worked till date with most of the biggest names in the film industry to reckon with--- from Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen and Basu Bhattacharya to Gulzar, Rajiv Rai, Subhash Ghai and Shekhar Kapoor. 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 cine goers long after the film moved out of the theatres.
From a small town in Punjab to international fame and celebrations, Mehta is always considered as one of the greatest cinematographer in India. His was indeed an exciting journey. Through the brilliant and imaginative use of his camera, he gave the film world several unforgettable hits. His has been an achievement of unbelievable cinematic moments, with films like, 36 Chowringee Lane, Trikaal, Bandit Queen and many other art as well as mainstream films to his credit. It was Ashok Mehta who brought back the experimental light and shadows in the otherwise paling art of cinematography in India and could also be credited for influencing a new breed of filmmakers.  The road to success, for him, was an easy one. He came to Bombay to become an actor. But soon after his arrival, he realized that this was neither an easy nor an affordable dream. His first priority was then to feed and sustain himself. “I believe that a person can only survive in any field, if he has commitment in his work. While working, one should not bother about anything but his job. So I believe it was & has always been my commitment towards work which has brought me up to here.” He said, when we, from Bollywood Helpline took an exclusive interview of him. Mehta relied on his eyes and hands rather than manuals and textbooks and his do-it-yourself credo persisted even after he attained legendary status. Collaborators and admirers described him as a down-to-earth person who never forgot the obstacles he overcame on his route to the top. Mehta’s last feature was Teen Thay Bhai in 2011.
To direct a film was a longstanding dream of Mehta. This dream started out with a script that he had written years ago and had approached Naseeruddin Shah with it. Although Naseer was more than willing to take on the film, lack of finance couldn't get the film off the ground. Later he managed to make this film, Moksha, with Arjun and Manisha. He financed the film on his own, though, if only he has sent a small signal many of the film biggies would have only felt obliged to make finances available for him. But he did not want to fulfill his dreams at the cost of others. Moksha may have failed at the box-office, but it won him a National Award and international fame. 
No doubt Mehta will be missed by the industry for the way filmmakers looked at the frame. Though Death has taken away a person whose work of art has created magical vision still his enormous work has left behind his memories. Bollywood Industry will always remember him as the cowboy hat-sporting cinematographer with a reputation for creating magical visuals out of next to nothing, May his soul rest in peace.

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