EXCLUSIVE - Anil Mehta On Cinematography & The Role Of A DOP

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on August 12, 2015

One of the most important person behind a film is the cinematographer of whom, we in India rarely know about. Cinematographers down the ages have left an indelible print on the films they have shot. Sadly, we rarely get to hear or read about them.

So when we got an opportunity to meet Mr. Anil Mehta, one of the best cinematographers of our times, we jumped at it. Not often does one get to pick the brains of someone with as vast a repertoire of films as Mr. Mehta.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Khamoshi: The Musical was the first Hindi film he shot for. He is best known for his collaborations with directors such as Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Khamoshi: The MusicalHum Dil De Chuke Sanam), Yash Chopra (Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Veer Zaara) and Imtiaz Ali (Rockstar, Highway). He's also shot one of the few modern day classics of Indian cinema, Lagaan, 

The veteran cinematographer is an FTII alumni and had shot several ad films before he made the transition to shooting feature films. In his early days, Mehta had also assisted director Ketan Mehta on Mirch Masala and Holi.

We recently interviewed Anil Mehta. And in the course of the interview, the veteran cinematographer spoke about his early days, the importance of institutions like FTII , why he enjoys shooting on location, on how he approaches his work, the role of a cinematographer and the dynamics shared by a director and cinematographer.

The two part interview can be heard on our Soundcloud channel. Subscribe to it for more such in-depth interviews with the masters of Cinema.

Published below are some excerpts from the interview.

On His Early Days And The Importance Of An Institutions Like FTII

It is very difficult to pin point as to where my journey exactly began. To be honest, there were never any signs that this is where I would belong. In my early days, I was going through the same route like most of us do. I was doing B.Com, but I didn't want to be a Chartered Accountant. And that's when all the questions started popping up about what to do with my life.

During college, I got picked by a theatre group. A friend said he was applying to FTII and that's when I had first heard about it. I thought this might be a good opportunity to be in films, though my parents were not very happy. But in retrospect I can say that they were very liberal, open minded and supportive. My whole journey of cinematography started with FTII where I learnt and honed my skills

The value which a film school like FTII offers is incomparable. It also is one of the first places in which one engages in a real life debate. This is due to the students who come from very diverse backgrounds.  Sadly very few people understand the value of an institution like FTII. If you go to a film school, you imbibe a lot of values which stay on with you in your life.

On Why He Chose To Be A Cinematographer

This decision happened during FTII entrance where I had to choose a stream. I chose cinematography instinctively. I was happy to engage with machines that make movies. I got interested in cinematography as I was able to handle and make these machines work. Moreover, I had taken too many chances earlier and needed to make some clear career choices.

anil imtiaz highway

Anil Mehta With Imtiaz Ali On The Location Of Highway

On His Early Days In The Film Industry

I came to Bombay in 1985, after which I worked with Ketan Mehta on Holi and Mirch Masala  as an assistant director. Luckily, I got to assist in ad films and the person who supported me and was my early influence was Barun Mukherjee.

My early years with him were supportive and the work helped me to pay my rent. More important, the turnover in ad films is quick and the learning is varied, that helped me to learn a lot. Ads also try and stay at the cutting edge of technology, the feature film industry is more conservative in that sense.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali passed out of FTII two to three years after I did.  The fact that we both were FTII alumni and had a similar mindset, prompted me to take the decision to shoot his film. Its  ironic that this was around the time when I had just settled down in the ad world and was being called upon by producers to do independent work.

On How He Prepares For His Films

There is no specific method or approach I undertake. You bring your experience to the table. If you have an open mindset, you receive all the signals while interacting with directors. And the treatment emerges from there. You should be receptive to what the director is talking about and what his ideas are. That is how we also derive the look and feel of the film. Most of the times despite having a large Production setup in place, there will be issues. The challenge lies in overcoming these issues and doing your best.

On Working With Different Directors

Every director brings their personality to their films. But the good thing of working with first time filmmakers is that they are a little more excited on how to approach their work and execute it. Established directors know their space and territory as they have been there earlier.

Some might be clear about how the dolly should move, while some might be particular about their lensing and lighting. I would like to quote an example of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Sriram Raghavan. Both are from FTII and passed around the same time. Bhansali is very clear with regards to the picturisation of his songs & dances, While Sriram’s pre occupation is more with how he can capture a particular moment and is less concerned about the lensing, framing etc.

While Imtiaz Ali has not gone to film school, he has an organic understanding & is informed of lensing. He will describe the situation and mood with a shot breakdown but he will improvise freely during the shooting, you have to stay alive to the situation.

anil badlapur

Anil Mehta With Sriram Raghavan And Varun Dhawan On The Sets Of Badlapur

On The Role A Cinematographer Plays In Films

The role of a cinematographer cannot be put down in 5 lines and that’s why I keep talking about the process. When cinematographers are reading the script,  they should inhabit the space completely,  or else they should choose not to shoot the film.

Despite the fact that I do not understand the placement of songs in films, I was totally invested in it while shooting Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. That was the relationship I shared with Sanjay Leela Bhansali.  I had to teach myself how to get into that headspace and choreography etc., I learnt that if you do not get invested in the film,  you shortchange the film and your work.

On The Dynamics Between A Director And Cinematographer

On a film set, a cinematographer is very powerful and is the second most important person. If he assumes charge and thinks that he will run the movie, it is wrong. You have to be careful and not step on the toes of the director. The dynamics between the director and a cinematographer changes on a daily basis, from person to person.

The treatment for a film emerges from being sensitive to directors, their ideas and through constant interaction. I have hardly worked with directors who have fed me stuff and pre cooked ideas.

Internally if you are clear that this is your space and if you inhabit it with integrity, you will be in sync with the material. So if you have chosen to be a cinematographer, respect the director, the material and then think how you can help translate this on screen. If you do this, the director will respect you much more.  If a cinematographer thinks he can do a better job with the script, then he should direct and not shoot the film.

On Why He Enjoys Shooting On Location

I have a feeling that I am inclined towards that. During Saathiya, Shaad Ali approached me to do the film and showed me pictures of the locations where he wanted to shoot the film. These included the railway crossing of Bandra station, Bandra railway colony and Marine Lines station.

And after seeing the pictures, I instantly agreed to shoot. I had never shot in a local train or suburban bombay,  that's what I found exciting. Live locations bring a lot of character to a film and that’s why I enjoy shooting on location.


On His Influences

Subroto Mitra is an early influence. He used to do workshops while we were at FTII. The films he shot had the sophistication of international cinema. Then there was Ashok Mehta whose 36 Chowringhee Lane left me amazed.

I was impressed by Court in recent times, the film I.D also caught my attention.

And then there is Roger Deakins and the work he has done for the Coen Brothers. There is a simplicity and grace in his work.

On The Transition From Film To Digital

There has been much hue and cry about this transition. But what is the benchmark for this development and technology. In my opinion, this benchmark is personal. I tried a using digital camera during Wake Up Sid, but it didn't work for me then. However, during Highway this personal transition happened and I decided to shoot it in digital. Also the Digital Image making had developed a lot. There were some films, which didn't demand a digital setup like Veer Zaara. But the story of Highway demanded a digital setup and it worked in its favour. This transition however has not changed our role in any way, except for some logistical changes. The image making and thought process has not changed. I now end up spending a lot of time in DI, VFX unlike earlier. The low light sensitivity of digital is helping us to shoot easily. I don't have to use heavy lighting gear for shooting like earlier.

On The Evolution Of Cinematography

Although times and technology have changed a lot, some things have not; like the early days, it is still difficult to find work. The uncertainty of the profession does consume you even if you are qualified and trained, you have to go out find work and sustain yourself over many years, It is a scary thought but you have to do it.

The medium is more accessible now and you can ‘do it yourself’, but, the fundamentals have not changed. One must understand, that is necessary to keep refining your work till it becomes a fine art.


5 Comments so far

Share your views

Wanna be a filmmaker?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get ahead.