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‘Highway’ cinematographer says this was the most extreme condition he worked in

Ace cinematographer Anil Mehta’s images are a result of what the films demand them to be.

Updated: January 31, 2014 1:14:16 pm

PlayIn order to shoot a night sequence in Highway, cinematographer Anil Mehta, along with the cast and crew of the film, had to trek a snowy slope near Pahalgam, Kashmir, on ponies, carrying minimal equipment to reach a village atop a hill, that doesn’t get electricity after 4:30pm. A portable generator set provided the sole electric supply for two or three bulbs, to produce the minimum light.

The Highway team opted for a guerilla shoot process — delving into remote areas, resting on platforms that were constructed and attached to moving vehicles to capture intimate expressions of the actors (a significant part of the film takes place inside a TATA 407 truck) with a hand-held camera, as it took winding turns along the mountains.

In his 18-year-career, this was the most extreme condition Mehta has worked in. “We had to do it because the character of the film will come from the fact that we were able to go to these places,” he says. “You find solutions for different movies in different ways. Highway had to be made in the tightest way possible. It’s a film mounted on a indie spirit, getting a big, mainstream release. I couldn’t have asked for a set-up that one would have got for a film like Dhoom 3,” says the 54-year-old cinematographer.

Khamoshi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (HDDCS), Lagaan, Saathiya, Kal Ho Naa Ho, Veer-Zaara, Wake Up Sid, Rockstar, Cocktail and Jab Tak Hai Jaan are just some of the biggest, most significant films that Mehta has done. The basis to choose a film is “an intangible process, a mix of factors”, but what it largely boils down to is the director’s truthfulness to his material. “It’s about how much the director is ready to push it to achieve his vision,” he says. Mehta sees his own craft as a part of the whole, one that augments the director to reach his destination.

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“Before you start shooting, there are merely words in the script, or the director trying to explain things to you. My job is to understand the spirit of the script and the director’s head-space, and give it a kind of a visual identity,” says Mehta, who describes the cinema of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, his first director, as “elaborate, baroque-like spectacle and Imtiaz Ali’s as “truth of the moment that can be very simple”.

Mehta, a graduate from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, also directed Aaja Nachle. His next is Cocktail director Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny Fernandes.

Among cinematographers of international repute, he refers the “simple and elegant” style of Roger Deakins, the DOP of the Coen brothers, and the “non-intrusive and almost invisible” approach of Mahmoud Kalari, lensman to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and The Past. “Even in a film like HDDCS, which was a lot about grandeur, we managed to give it a slightly serious look,” he says about the film that got him the National Award in 1999.

Mehta’s instinctiveness with the camera reflects best in his explanation of how music on the sets informs a shot. “On paper I may have written a certain shot breakdown, but if there is music in the background, its rhythm, pacing, mood and energy decides the way you shoot it,” he says. While his previous film with Ali, Rockstar, saw him shoot lip-synced songs with great believability, Highway is “ambient, and all about the evocation of moods”.

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