From Mani Kaul To Karan Johar – Anil Mehta On Directors With Different Voices

How does Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s working style differ from Imtiaz Ali’s? The cinematographer takes us through some of his most varied collaborations over 30 years
From Mani Kaul To Karan Johar – Anil Mehta On Directors With Different Voices

Cinematographer Anil Mehta has been in the business for 30 years. In this time, he's worked with a wide range of filmmakers. He spoke to us about his directors and his working relationship with them. "Every film director is unique because they've chosen one of most difficult professions there is. I am happy to encounter different personalities and different approaches. Working with most directors is easy if you go in with the spirit of wanting to tell their story," he says.  

Mani Kaul – The Cloud Door (1994)

There couldn't be anyone more different than Mani because his approach was truly his own. He was interested in telling the usual stories but his manner of telling them was completely his own. He would push himself to invent new ways of telling the same stories. In that process he really liked to engage with the camera because that's the first step of 'how' to tell the story. He would always have the most interesting and out-of-the-box solutions for how to film scenes. With him it was really about letting him design his shots because that was his forte.

One time I saw him standing in a corner trying to move his forehand while holding his elbow with the other hand. It looked like dance gestures and I thought he was figuring out some movement for the actors. But he was trying to figure out a crane move. He had fixed his elbow on the fulcrum and like a crane he was moving his hand and panning. His fascination with the camera was very interesting to me. He was like an inventor, taking the same piece of equipment and making it do different things.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali – Khamoshi (1996) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999)

With Sanjay, the conversations and engagement were significantly more. Because it (Khamoshi) was his first film and there was the pressure of the stars, of the budget, of a new production, it was a lot more stressful. We were pretty much novices.

With Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, he wanted to make a film that had a flamboyant language, and more colour. Because we were both from FTII and had the same approach to how films are made, there was a lot of short-hand at work regarding the lensing and the shot breakdown. We had to say very little for us to understand each other.

Sanjay is very definite about his shot-taking and his lensing and he would've already worked out how the shots will come together on the edit table even before he came to the set. You can see a progression of how refined his skills have gotten from Khamoshi to HDDCS to Devdas to Bajirao Mastani and now Padmaavat.

Ashutosh Gowariker – Lagaan (2001)

Ashutosh had lived with Lagaan for more than 3 years before the film went into production. The back-stories of all his characters were known only to him and the geography of the whole place was marked inside his head. It was not possible for the rest of us to assimilate that kind of information.  

Lagaan is a story of exploration. I came on very early into the project, although the script had been finalised by then. All the decisions of 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 by us. It could not have been made otherwise.

Yash Chopra – Veer Zaara (2004) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012)

With Yashji, the pre-occupation was completely different from say a Mani Kaul. He told me once that 'we have to treat our audience as little children and lead them on'. He wanted to explain everything. Because he had so much experience and such a great production house there was no stress at all. There was no question of 'if' we can get something. Everything was doable.

He used to say that 'outdoor is like picnic and we should all have fun'. He wouldn't get too involved with the lensing but he knew how his actors will play that scene and where that scene would go and where the movements will happen. He would be figuring out the soundtrack and the edit in his head simultaneously. Working with him was like a picnic in the park.

Karan Johar – Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)

Karan is not a person who is tech friendly. He doesn't enjoy it and doesn't want to get into it. But he knows how his drama is going to play out and he knows his points of emphasis within the drama and what he wants to see when those play out. So if I've framed the shot accordingly then it is fine with him. There is lot of clarity in the way he wants to see things. There are certain parts of the scene he's clear about emphasizing cinematically. Beyond that it's an open field, and if you are in sync with the material then there's no quarrelling. I don't recall ever having a major difference of opinion.

Imtiaz Ali – Rockstar (2011) and Highway (2014)

The brief is much more open and exploratory with Imtiaz. Both Rockstar and Highway were very different films. Imtiaz always has a plan but is very open to improvisation and interpretation. For example, he had very specific ideas of how he wanted to shoot the song 'Sadda Haq'. He wanted to use track-ins, crane-ups and track-arounds. But it wasn't working for me. After the first day of shooting that song, I said, "It's such a powerful song and these lyrical camera movements don't convey that energy, so let me do something different." He agreed and the next time we shot for the song, I took the camera on my shoulder, went on the stage and covered it like a real concert.

Sriram Raghavan – Badlapur (2015)

I knew Sriram from the institute. It's not as if we were friends on campus, but because we went to the same film school, there's a certain symbiotic relationship. There is an unsaid understanding about the grammar of filmmaking that binds us together.

Sriram is not vocal but he's got clear visual ideas. He has notions of how the shots will play. He's another guy who, while knowing his stuff, is also very open to improvisation. He doesn't like to commit himself to the dialogue draft till the scene has been played out. Even then if the actor is trying to say something which might add a line here or drop a line there, he will be continuously re-working even while the scene is happening.

If you see how he writes his screenplays, it's not in the conventional form. Most times the dialogue is only suggested. Sometimes in the middle of writing or describing the action, there will be some point he wants to make, which will be in an exaggerated font size. Maybe it's just a word, but you get a sense of what he wants, how he's seeing it. He gives you cues in unconventional ways.

With him the shots can emerge on the day, on the set as the action is playing out. It's fun because it's a live situation where both of us are responding to what's in front of us.

Majid Majidi – Beyond the Clouds (2017)

Working with an international director has its own challenges, the biggest of which is the language barrier. We worked through an interpreter and by the time we started filming we'd devised a shorthand. Majidi had very clear ideas about how he wanted his shots. He had to lay down the rule for everyone since he was on a different turf.

He would set up the action and the shot. But he wasn't too rigid about it. Sometimes he would go to lunch, come back and change the shots. In that sense Beyond the Clouds, was the most director controlled film I've worked on.

Dibakar Banerjee – Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar (unreleased)

Dibakar is very literate about the craft of filmmaking. He comes from advertising where you have to deal with a lot of agencies and hold them together. He's very articulate and very sure about the choices for the scenes and how it has to play out. Even with his lensing, he's very clear. In his film, there are specific delineations of where the shot will go, where the camera will pan up to and where it will end.

In this film he wanted to do a lot of coverage which is not something that I am used to, it's more what they do in Hollywood studio films. I found that a little difficult to reconcile with. I wonder how that is going to play out in the edit.

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