There’s a hard disc sitting somewhere, hopefully properly preserved and cared for. It’s precious. It contains a series of on-camera interviews shot on high definition, with the iconic cinematographer Ashok Mehta, during his last days.
Sporadically, I wonder whatever happened to those valuable takes on cinematography, cinema and self-deprecating accounts of his struggle from a canteen boy, studio dogbody and lightman to his status as one of India’s most accomplished cameramen. Ashok Mehta would have been 67 if he were alive today, and without a doubt still at work on projects, big and small.
Perhaps he would have succeeded in directing his second feature film, too, which he so wanted to after Moksh, an effort which he admitted went awry down the line. The visually arresting Moksh could not connect with the audience. Ashokji took some measure of comfort from the fact that it did fetch him the Best Cinematography honour at the National Awards.
Initially, Moksh was designed as a realistic, hard-edged off-mainstream film, featuring Sanjay Dutt, financed by the NFDC. That didn’t come through. Financial investment from the B-town market meant, pumping up the project, with the inclusion of crowd-baiting elements including the item song Jaan leva, which incidentally is one of the most imaginative of its kind.
To come back to that forlorn hard disc — it contains material which was to go into a documentary of Ashok Mehta’s extraordinary work, taking in a range of films from Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, Gulzar’s Ijaazat, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane and Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen to Subash Ghai’s Ram Lakhan and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Pukar. Interviews had been conducted with Shyam Benegal. And Farah Khan who had collaborated with him on ad films and as a choreogapher. Farah’s interview had to be reshot, because of a technical glitch. Each time, she chortled that the only thing she doesn’t like about Ashok Mehta is that he doesn’t gossip.
Very true that, whenever prodded to gup and shup, he would keep a straight face, and at most, smile, saying, “Darling, love and let love.” It’s believed that he had fallen obsessively in love with one of his heroines in the course of watching her through the eye of the camera. Whether that was Rakhee or Smita Patil, will remain a mystery.
In the course of the interview, he brushed the question aside with, “No, it would not be fair to the lady concerned.” Point avoided.
The terminally Ashokji was, obviously, not quite articulate and all-there when I conducted five interviews with him. One of them, he gamely gave while lying in a bed in his office, drifting away but returning to ask, “What did you say, darling? Sorry main thoda so gaya.” Despite the heavy medication, he wanted to speak, and that was the prime force for persisting with the documentary. Ashokji was of the conviction that documentaries with film technicians would be of lasting value. He didn’t want to start with his. As he had said touchingly, “You have no choice. I won’t be here for very long.”
Ashokji, as the chief of the Cinematographers’ Association, had in fact suggested a series of 13 documentaries on DOPs, beginning with V K Murthy. “Fly down to Bangalore with a small team, don’t spend too much. I’ll fix it for you,” he had exulted, intending to find an outlet for the documentaries on television. “Ho jaayega, ho jaayega, bas jaake karo,” was his exhortation. I felt flattered to be his choice for ddoing the series. Thank you sir, to which he’d crack, “Kya karen? You are the only one who mentioned my cinematography in the review of Utsav. Aur koi nahin karta.” Believe me, that was humbling.
He requested me to write a proposal to the association, which I am not very good at. Anyway since the fruition of such proposals can go on till kingdom come, Ashokji would vanish and then suddenly reappear at the office I was working at, “Darling, it’s on! Get ready for Bangalore.” His enthusiasm was consistent if not impractical. Where I could gather a team of technicians to head for Bangalore at 24 hours’ notice? For him, that wasn’t an issue. “Ho jaayega ho jaayega,” he’d whoop, taking off his hat, scratching a bald pate thoughtfully. I must have assured him half a dozen times, “Okay boss, I’m ready to go. Just say the word.” The word never came.
Instead, Ashok Mehta rang up one morning, to ask me if I knew about his illness. Yes, I did. “Toh kaam shuru karo,” he continued nonchalantly. “I won’t be here for very long.” So off, I went with my assistant Karan Desai, and began shooting, a particularly memorable shoot being at his home in Versova. A lavish breakfast was laid out for the unit. Somehow, he also persuaded his wife and son to talk about how good or bad he is as at home. But Ashokji, after a couple of hours, was fading…next day he was in hospital.
While seeking interviews with those who’ve been filmed by him, Shah Rukh Khan didn’t respond. No comments on that. Madhuri Dixit, whom he made look incredibly gorgeous for the Ram Lakhan song, O Ramji bada dukh deena, kept the unit waiting at Filmistan studio for an entire day. Nope, Ms Dixit couldn’t spare some bytes for him.
Now, you may well ask who has that hard disc? To my best knowledge, Arjun and Mehr Rampal do. They were producing the documentary, they had paid for the shoots in terms of hiring the equipment. Consequently, the material shot by me and Karan, was handed over to them.
Why? There were inevitable differences, I found myself unable to carry on. In hindsight, I have no issues with the Rampals about this at all. They stood by Ashokji steadfastly during his last days. They loved him unconditionally. I was sure they would complete the documentary, do a better job for sure. Ashokji’s disciples, now cameramen in their own right, would see the documentary to its conclusion.
Am I being hedgy about differences? If so, please let me clarify. It was just that I know the subject, my adorable Ashok sir, down the decades. I couldn’t be prodded during an interview, in the ribs, and told, “Wrap up” or which particular still to use and which not. Neither could my assistant be harangued for accounts every day, when the poor boy was striving to do his best with the creative side of things. There was a production person appointed, yes, but beset with his own personal problems. He had to go out of town, he was doing things just as a friend, that sort of stuff. He couldn’t be held accountable. Not that any money was being spent beyond the bare minimum.
In the process, I lost out on my friendship with the Rampals. I’m sure they are justified in their views. Maybe I am too, maybe not?
All things considered, though, the documentary just doesn’t compare to their closeness and care for Ashokji. For them, he was a parental figure. My association with Ashokji was purely professional. I admired him, I wanted his documentary done.
At the end of the day, or the end of this piece, I would just say, that forget me, forget differences, forget whatever, just get Ashokji’s last words, seen and heard. On his second death anniversary, on August 15, what else can I say? That hard disc says so much more.
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Categories: Bollywood Nostalgia