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  The History and Practice of Cinematography in India  Ashok Mehta 1 12/12/1996   ASHOK MEHTA   Can you tell us how you came to Bombay?  I came to Bombay when I was very young. I must have been about 13 or 14 years old. I ran away from home when I was in class seven… When I came to Bombay, I knew nobody and I had no friends here. I did any job that came my way. My first job was working with a hawker. I used to sell boiled eggs.  Another job offered to me soon after was to sell watermelon slices – this was in 1963. Once, during a holiday, I got a chance to go and see a film shoot happening. So I decided to actually go to the studios after that to see if I could find something to do. I went to Ranjeet Studio, Rooptara Studio and to the Sri sound studios at Dadar. They wouldn’t allow me in. The gates were closed. Shooting was going on inside and I couldn’t go in, they said. While I stood there and waited a gentleman came up to me. He asked me a few questions about myself and then asked if I would be willing to work. I said yes and so I became a studio canteen boy. I got work as a canteen boy in Asha Studio where I worked for some months and then shifted to the canteen at RK Studios. It was raining very heavily that year, and part of the floor had caved in. The studio manager at R.K. called me and asked me to fill the hole with earth. So I did that. I don’t why, but he was damn happy with my work. So, he spoke to the canteen owner and said I want this boy to work in my office. So I got the job of an office boy at the R. K. Studios for 4-5 months. That studio was very popular for stunt films and it was always busy. They always needed extra hands, and they used to call me for the help for all kinds of work, so gradually I got into the studio floor. At that time, camera, lights and sound were provided by the studio along with a camera coolie, and that is what I became. Basically, I was never trained, I just picked things up. The studio had just acquired two brand new Arriflex cameras, and there was a cameraman called Mr. M.W Mukadum who was looking for an  The History and Practice of Cinematography in India  Ashok Mehta 2 12/12/1996   attendant for these cameras. Some people told him about me and said that I was a bright boy, so he called me and gave me the job of a camera attendant. Gradually I started getting really into it. I had some knowledge about the Mitchell camera from the time I had worked as the studio floor boy and camera coolie, but most of my knowledge about the Arriflex I got when I joined as a camera attendant. Basically I worked as the camera caretaker for a couple of years. Then I get a better job with more money at a company called Srikrishna Films. There was a Mr. Sabarwal in this company who was very good to me. Apart from the work of being a camera attendant I began to find other things very interesting as well, so I started assisting the cameraman sometimes. What happened was that once some lens caps and cards went missing. So one of the bosses called me and told me to leave the job. So I left, I didn’t have any choice at all. The cameraman called me and asked me to join him as an assistant. I said I didn’t mind but I don’t want to become focus-puller or something like that. You see, my confidence had started building. I worked very hard.  After a few years Mr. Sudarshan Nag came from Pune, he was a batch-mate of K.K. Mahajan at the film institute. He had lots of films in hand and I worked with him as a camera attendant. He was very impressed with me and asked me to join him as a chief assistant. Maze aa Gaya , I felt great. So I joined him on the unit of a film called Trishna  which was being backed by NFDC, Waheeda Rahman was supposed to be the main actress. The film was supposed to be completed in one stretch but it did not happen that way. After one schedule, Nag Saab became very busy, and he said he didn’t want anyone from outside to work on the film. He recommended my name and said, “I have worked with Ashok, he is OK”, and so I went and shot the rest of the film. This was in 1969. By that time I knew how to light up. That was the beginning. My needs were very few that is why it didn’t feel like I was struggling.  The History and Practice of Cinematography in India  Ashok Mehta 3 12/12/1996   Then I got another film called the witness with Shashi Kapoor and Rakhi in the lead. I was very young; people didn’t have confidence in me. There was some objection from Shashi Kapoor, he said “This boy is very young, what will he do in this type of film?” This was in the October of 1972. The film was supposed to be a quickie, it was meant to be completed in 4-5 months. We were shooting that film in Bhendi Bazaar, which is a very dicey area in Bombay. Anyway, here I was, getting involved with an intellectual group, and I had not studied or read anything. I am very grateful to my friend, and to luck and everything, that it all went off well. Once during the shooting Shashi Kapoor said we should have a break, and look at the rushes. After seeing the rushes he felt very happy. I went to his house and met him there as well. Jennifer came and met me and congratulated me. So that was beginning of my career. Shashi Kapoor liked my work so much that we became a sort of pair. He gave me a lot of breaks; actually it was he who introduced me to the industry. I am very grateful to him. He advised me not to get only typically mainstream kind of camerawork, he told me to get other kinds of work as well.  At this time I began to go and see a lot of foreign films, and I used to wonder why the camera work in those films was so much better. Gradually I understood that it has all to do with lighting. Lighting ka kamaal hai  . I got a lot of exposure when I started working with this intellectual group, Shashi kapoor and his friends. I got a lot of opportunity to see some good films. Are there any films that you remember from that time?  The films that I am talking about are films like, The Graduate , Guess Who is Coming to Dinner  ,  A   Man & A Woman, etc. As I said, when I did a comparison in my mind I realized that the main difference was in the quality of lighting. I realized that you  The History and Practice of Cinematography in India  Ashok Mehta 4 12/12/1996   have to think about the look and the feel of a film and contribute your work according to the demand of a particular script. I realized the importance of all this at that time by watching these films. None of the films that I had worked on till then were released. Then Basu Chaterjee offered me a film. In that shoot I learned to shoot with very few lights, without reflector and on location. This was my first film, which got released. Then I did some more films like Daaku , and Teesra Pathhar  . Then a filmmaker called Ashish Roy came from Calcutta. He became quite close to me and I did his film in Bengali, called Lal Kothi. There were lots of problems with availability of stock at that time. There were import restrictions; we had to be always careful with stock, in shooting and in printing. All the films were in colour. I have not seen the B/W era at all. Only in one film called Trisandhya  I had mixed B/W & colour and have shoot in B/W and colour. The problem with B/W is that the labs in our country can’t handle very fine printing demands. What is very sad is that you may take out a test print now and then go after an hour and take another test print and these will not match. There will be no consistency; there may be another layer of colour that you never wanted. I find this damn difficult actually. Or, you could have worked with the system of using ‘lilies’ but the labs couldn’t control this either. This is because there are a lot of chemicals to manage! Also what would happen is that when you shot B&W and wanted to print in colour you had to keep track of whether you were shooting in the same emulsion or not, or at one speed or not. Otherwise, when you looked at your stuff after processing, one roll would be pink and the other a bit magenta, while a third one would be white! I think that even now our labs are not capable of doing a great job. ---------------- I am basically from the ‘new wave’ cinema, and I worked with intellectual filmmakers. In Lal Kothi   I got a BFJ (Bengal Film Journalists’) award, and this was the

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