Mumbai: Ashok Mehta, the cowboy hat-sporting cinematographer with a reputation for creating magical visuals out of next to nothing, died in Mumbai on 15 August. He was 66. Mehta, who started his career as a lowly camera hand and trained himself to become one of India’s most celebrated cameramen, had been diagnosed with lung cancer last year. He died from multiple organ failure at 1.25pm at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in suburban Mumbai.

“I don’t even have the words to describe his contribution to cinema," said Nitin Maruti Ghag, secretary of the Western India Cinematographers Association, of which Mehta was the president. “He didn’t work for money but for the love of art. He didn’t care if the director was famous or unknown."

A still from Bandit Queen, one of Mehta’s best known works. Mehta, who started his career as a lowly camera hand and trained himself to become one of India’s most celebrated cinematographers, had been suffering from a brain tumour for the past few months.

Mehta left his mark on both arthouse and commercial cinema, bringing his innate sense of light and composition to Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane, Shyam Benegal’s Trikal and Mandi, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, Ghai’s Ram Lakhan and Khalyanak and MF Husain’s Gaja Gamini. “I rate him the greatest cameraman of his time after Subrata Mitra," said cinematographer and filmmaker Rajiv Menon, who first met Mehta on the sets of Shyam Benegal’s Susman in 1987 and became a close friend. “He opened my eyes and gave me the ability to look," Menon said. “That man didn’t know how to pronounce the name of Ingmar Bergman – he used to call him Burman – but he had a sense of light like nobody in that generation. Cinema lost contrast for a long period after Subrata, people were just bouncing light off the ceiling. Ashok didn’t even know what he was creating, he wasn’t able to discuss his art in depth, but he was a lighting guru."

Mehta became a professional cinematographer almost overnight, recalled Benegal. The filmmaker first met Mehta in 1967 during a shoot for the Films Division documentary Close to Nature, about the tribes of Chhattisgarh. Mehta was a camera hand who was carrying equipment for cinematographer MJ Muqaddam. His chance to switch roles came when Muqaddam contracted malaria and had to leave the shoot. “I knew how to operate the camera a bit, so Ashok said, you operate and I will handle the exposure," Benegal said. “He later said, let me handle the whole thing, and that’s how he became a cameraman."

Benegal teamed up again with Mehta in 1985 for Trikal, a drama set in pre-independence Goa. Mehta used available light and lit several scenes with candles and lamps, contributing greatly to the movie’s ghostly ambience. “Mehta was a very adventurous cameraman and very fearless," Benegal said. “For Trikal, I had told him that there was no electricity in Goa in those days, and that homes were illuminated with Petromaxes, oil lamps candlelight. I suggested using only candlelight at night, so Ahsok went to every candle maker in Bombay. We did several experiments in my office, and he gave me a very fine result."

Mehta’s reputation as a lighting whiz had already been sealed with his crisp and textured black-and-white camerawork for Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), for which he won the National Award, and Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1985), which is bathed in soft, golden hues that were produced through oil lamps rather than artificial lighting. “I was greatly inspired by Ashok’s style, the way he used lights, his detailing," said cinematographer Ravi K Chandran, whose films include Virasat, Dil Chahta Hai and Black. “My work on Black was inspired by Trikal. He even made commercial films like Khalnayak look stylish and classy. When he called me to shoot a portion of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar [directed by Jabbar Patel in 2000], I was thrilled. I thought I had won an award."

Mehta was as mysterious off the screen as he was famous behind the camera. He was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on April 22, 1946. Little is known about his family, except that they moved to Delhi when he was very young. He came to Mumbai to work in the film industry in 1961, and sold boiled eggs on the streets before signing up as a camera hand with Muqaddam. 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. Mehta was known to be extremely agile during shoots, driving nails into the walls of a set himself, constructing platforms on which to place equipment and perching on the taraafa, or catwalk, that is built over sets for top-angle shots. Collaborators and admirers described him as a down-to-earth person who never forgot the obstacles he overcame on his route to the top. “Lots of cinematographers, including me, are temperamental, but Ashok was very good with people," Chandran said.

Mahesh Limaye, who shot Natrang and Dabbang, was charmed by the great man after meeting him at a dinner a couple of years ago. “The way he came up is amazing – he is the greatest example of how you can change yourself," Limaye said. Visuals created by Mehta in the movies and in advertisements are imprinted on Limaye’s mind. “The first time I saw him work was for a Ceat Tyres advertisement, in which the model Naseer Abdullah plays a photographer chasing a tiger. I still remember the advertisement, it was pictorial and yet candid. He has made so many visuals that you still remember."

Mehta’s last feature was Teen Thay Bhai in 2011. He directed a film, Moksha, starring Arjun Rampal and Manisha Koirala, in 2001, apart from two short films. He is survived by his wife, Neerja, and a son. He will be cremated on Friday.

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