Anil Mehta doesn't really need an introduction. Even if you aren't the type to dig around for credits on IMDb, you're probably familiar with his work. He is one of the most important, if not the most important cinematographer in Bollywood today. His films range from the realism-tinged Khamoshi to Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and its grand operatic romance, suffused with rich colours and dramatic lighting. From Lagaan, shot in the wilderness of Kutch, to Wake Up Sid, the warm, coming-of-age tale of a confused young Ranbir Kapoor shot in Mumbai. His repertoire also includes the tragic, old-school love story Veer Zaara,the revenge saga Badlapur and urban love stories like Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
If there's a Bollywood look – a signature visual treatment that makes our films stand apart from those from the rest of the world – then he's one of the men responsible for it.
Alma mater: Batch of 1985, FTII
Camera of choice: Whatever the story dictates and the film needs.
The earliest images that I recall are of our childhood home in Kolkata – the high ceilings of the house, the sights and smells of where we lived, the playground in front of the house, the ber and jamun tree, the monkeys on the window, the electric pole, the shop that sold cold drinks, the corner barber who used to give me the most brutal hair cut, the sidewalks, the gates, the monsoons and the paperboats.
For a middle class family like ours, going to the movies was a big outing. From that early phase, the film that made an impression on me, and I still remember the experience of it, was The Sound of Music. It was a big release and we watched it in a big theater with 70 mm and stereophonic sound. The film made quite an impact on me.
The job of the cinematographer is perceived in a very narrow way by the public. It's from the inception of the film that a cinematographer actually starts working. For example on Lagaan, I came in very early, just after the script had been finalized. Every single thing like where the village will be located, how it will be built, the model of the village, the palette and colours of the film, the costumes and every other thing was decided collaboratively.
The job of the cinematographer is not over with the shooting. The time spent in colour grading has increased for the cinematographer. The cinematographer's job is not just the photography part of the film but we are also collaborators throughout the making of the film. Of course our emphasis is on the visual component of the film.
Subrata Mitra's approach to cinematography was an inspiration to me when we were in the Institute. In the good old days of studio filmmaking where the norm was the heightened studio lighting idiom, he was looking for a more naturalistic, easy-going principle in his approach by using bounce, diffused, or ambient lighting. This was very refreshing for us as cinema students.
Then there's V. K. Murthy, whose work in Guru Dutt's films is a seminal influence. His approach was diametrically opposite to that of Mitra's. He is almost melodramatic in his use of lighting. He is actually looking for the dramatic emphasis, looking for his own logic in the shots and how to dynamize it. For me Indian cinematography is an exploration between these two reference points.
But then every film calls for its own expressions and one has to find and follow it to make it work. I don't feel that you can identify one master and emulate his path. You let all the influences inform you and then you find your own way through the muddle.
The values that you learn at home are what you imbue your work with. Frugal, economical, truthful – these are values that come from my home, my mother, the way she ran her kitchen – clean and methodical. Yet there was warmth. I think these have percolated into my work and informed my aesthetic.
I listen to what the screenplay is trying to do and what the film is trying to be and then just follow that lead without overthinking. Because I don't like waste, I find my lighting pattern following the same principles. If something can be done with less, then I do it with less. Don't put the extra light there if it's not needed, remove whatever is superfluous or excessive. I believe if you are able to say something simply and economically then it will ring truer, rather than if it is overcooked.
The mainstream Hindi film has a very strong identity, one that has sustained for long. It's not like any other kind of cinema. Our way of telling stories is different from the way the world tells its stories, especially the West. We are more of an oral tradition, we like to hear our stories recited to us by our grandmothers. We can sit all night and hear the same stories over and over again and still be moved by it. When we watch our films we know when things will turn bad, when they will turn romantic, when there's a song coming, and yet we are happy to watch and enjoy it.
Once you understand this and stop quarreling with it then you find the idiom to tell it. So if this narrative is asking for a slightly hyper-real treatment then you better go out and do it. If there's a wedding in the film and there's going to be a wedding song, then you can't say I'll light the song naturalistically. As a cinematographer my job is to help play the narrative out, to service it. The narrative calls for a certain texture, a certain treatment and the logic for framing and lighting should be driven by that.
All through this month we will be running a series of articles and videos on Anil Mehta and his work and expose what goes into creating the images that have become an indelible part of our popular culture.