top of page

Jal Mistry (1923-2000)


Jal Mistry, born in Bombay in 1923, worked in Indian films as a cinematographer between 1949 and 1998. Jal, known for his low-key high-contrast lighting, shot over 60 films and bagged four Filmfare Awards during his career. Some of his important works are Barsaat (1949), Heer Ranjha (1970), Aakhri Khat (1966) and Bahaaron Ke Sapne (1967). He fell ill shortly after filming his final film, Jhoot Bole Kauwa Kaate (1998) and died on April 15 2000.

In her book Raj Kapoor Speaks, author Ritu Nanda narrates the incident that led to Jal Mistry landing his first film as an independent cinematographer, Barsaat (1949). Actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor, India's first showman, started shooting Barsaat with VN Reddy as the cameraman. Kapoor, hugely impressed with American cinematographer Greg Toland's use of the wide-angle lens in Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane (1941), wanted Reddy to do the same in Barsaat.

“Reddy, an orthodox cameraman, was appalled by the idea of pillars and columns getting shortened*, and refused. Finally, Jal Mistry had to be assigned the task of photographing Barsaat,” Nanda wrote.

Jal Mistry, who began his career in cinema as an apprentice at Siri Sound Studios in Mumbai, was 25 when he shot Barsaat. His first meeting with Raj Kapoor was at Famous Cine Laboratories in Mumbai, during the time he had finished shooting another film as a clash cameraman*. In an interview with cinematographer CK Muraleedharan he recounts the rendezvous:

He (Kapoor) entered the theatre and was looking at my rush prints. He liked them very much and asked who had done it. I said I have, and then he said that I am starting a new film called Barsaat, will you be able to do it. I said yes. (sic)”.

Barsaat, a film that memorably traversed the myriad shades of love, features some indelible images. Encyclopaedia Of Hindi Cinema says: “Jal Mistry’s Barsaat is an excellent example of matching outdoor and indoor shots in the same scene. It also has some beautiful outdoor sequences shot indoors, on the sets, lit beautifully to create the illusion of outdoors.” Film archivist PK Nair regarded Barsaat's final scene on a par with the iconic funeral scene in George Steven’s Shane (1953) in its expressionism. As Prem Nath lights the pyre of his lover, Jal goes for a low-angle close-up of his face burning in grief.

Apart from this artiste’s acting, the moment owed its greatness to the excellent photography of Jal Mistry as well as Raj Kapoor’s direction," wrote Nair.

Jal’s elder brother Fali Mistry was a towering figure in Hindi cinema in the black and white era. The Mistry brothers' interests in photography and cinema got early nourishment. Their father, Dhunjishaw Mistry, owned a vast library of books and magazines, local and international, popular and rare, that exposed the brothers to the larger world of cinema and photography at a very young age. Their uncle owned the first distribution outlet of Ilford Films in India, in Bombay. They had a younger sister, Mehroo Mistry, and a younger brother, Minno Mistry. The family was closely-knit. “At the end of every day, the brothers would speak on the landline phone, discuss their works - the lighting they did or a particular shot they took that day...” said cinematographer Faroukh Mistry, Fali's son. “The industry, in that period, was a warmer space. Fali and Jal kept in touch with other cinematographers...They all shared ideas and supported each other."

The brothers drew inspiration from Hollywood and European films that used backlight and low-key contrast lighting. In an interview, Jal recalls watching Hollywood classics at home and making screenshots of the images he liked. Later, he would enlarge them to study the lighting in detail. He cites How Green Was My Valley, John Ford’s 1941 drama set in Welsh mining fields, shot gloriously by Arthur C Miller, as a film “engraved in his mind”.

It is a well-photographed film that used source lighting, a technique that was then absent in Indian cinematography (sic),” he said.

A similar aesthetic could be traced in Jal’s works, especially in black and white films like Sazaa (1951), directed by Fali. In the opening scene of Sazaa, the camera moves into a grand living room of a bungalow animated into an eerie form by the shadow of a giant chandelier swaying in the wind. A few seconds later, a scream pierces through the air, but the viewer has already been informed of the tension in the scene, by the depth of Jal’s dreamlike, haunting visuals.

Jal won his first Filmfare award in 1968 for his work in Nasir Hussain’s Baharon Ke Sapne, an intense drama about unemployment and working-class struggle, headlined by a young Rajesh Khanna. In the film’s remarkable final sequence, an agitated workforce burns down a mill and grievously injures the hero, accusing him of betraying the class. In an awe-inspiring shot, Khanna limps towards the rioting mob in front of the burning structure spewing smoke to the sky, calling for peace.

Some of Jal’s greatest works were with Raj Kapoor, his brother Fali who directed three films between 1950 and 1953, and Chetan Anand and Navketan Films. Aakhri Khat (The Last Letter, 1966), directed by Anand, the debut film of Rajesh Khanna, was centered on a toddler who gets lost in the big Bombay city. It was a small-budget experimental work, much unlike any film Anand had directed in his career. He did not use a shooting script for the scenes involving the little protagonist, the one-year-old Bunty Behl, but let the toddler freely wander through the busy roads and railway tracks in Mahim. Jal Mistry followed the child with a handheld camera. In the song, Rut Jawan, where playback singer Bhupinder Singh appears as a jazz musician, one sees a different Jal, in his signature form, employing trolley shots and the play of low-key light.

"Aakhri Khat, with its non-linear narrative, semi-documentary style, bold imagery and a jazzy soundtrack, surpasses them all with its inventive cinematic form," wrote author-filmmaker Helio San Miguel in World Film Locations: Mumbai.

Going by the accounts of his colleagues, the taciturn Jal was a perfectionist. In fact, the Hindi film industry in the 60s even coined a phrase - “Jal Ki Jaali (Jal’s Net)” - to describe his genius lighting style. “Now, once I lit up the set, it would stay so,” he told Muraleedharan. “Before the artistes would come, I would place some people as stand-ins, and make it so perfect that when the artistes arrived and did the rehearsal, there would be only slight little change (sic)”

Actress Nimmi who starred in the 1952 film, Aandhiyan directed by Chetan Anand and shot by Jal Mistry, recalled in an interview how the director and cinematographer waited seven days to shoot the storm sequence to get the perfect red sky before the storm. Writer-researcher Debashree Mukherjee quotes Ram Tipnis, actor and make-up artist in her book A Material World: Notes On An Interview,

“Camerawork and lighting are also like painting. There was this cameraman, Jal Mistry. We had to shoot a close-up of Nutan and it took six hours to light that shot! But when we saw the results on screen, it was beautiful.”

But, in the Hindi film industry, where time is money, Jal’s passion for exactitude might not have been well-received every time. “In India, a cameraman is the only person who has to save time, who should do quick work,” says the cinematographer in the interview with Muraleedharan. “Nothing is planned here. You have to go ahead with whatever little time you have...” He recounts working in Naseeb, Manmohan Desai’s multi-starrer, where he was given ten minutes to do the lighting for the main stars. They were on an extremely tight schedule, so the camera team would light up the whole set two days before the shoot of party scenes.

Jal was well-known for his accomplished facial lighting techniques. In the black and white medium, he used diffusers -a technique widely practised by still photographers -to shoot the heroines' faces. It helped remove severe shadows and hid the thick make-up. One of his ingenious techniques was using battery-operated pen-lights mounted on a camera to light up the eyes in close-up shots. In Kudrat, he experimented with thin, mild gauze - delicate black chiffon fabric imported from London -and fog filters to create a moodiness with heightened contrast.

"When I have a heroine before my camera for the first time, I make certain tests before the shooting. I switch on a baby light and play it on her face from different angles to find out what would be the best lighting for her. When I turned the baby light on Nutan, I found she had that rare thing, a perfect face,” Jal said in a magazine piece he co-wrote with his brother Fali. “Today’s fast emulsion black and white film needs little or no diffusion of light to achieve the

plastic texture of the skin obtained in the past with slower emulsions.” He was particular about hairstyles. In the interview with Muraleedharan, he recalls asking Madhuri Dixit to keep a simple hairdo during the filming of Prem Granth.

Bombai Ka Babu (1960), directed by Raj Khosla, marked Jal Mistry’s rare involvement in film production. He also worked as the film’s cinematographer. In the thriller that film historian Gautam Chintamani regards as the starting point of Hindi cinema’s Angry Young Man genre, Jal captures unique close-up shots of the faces of the lead stars Devanand and Suchitra Sen, emphasizing their expressive eyes.

Jal bagged Filmfare Award for cinematography four times, for Baharon Ke Sapne (1968), Heer Raanjha (1971), Jheel Ke Us Paar (1974), and Kudrat (1982). He was 75 when he shot his final film, Jhoot Bole Kauwa Kaate. “Camerawork is a fascinating art. I would like to continue even now, but with the right film. After travelling so much abroad, I feel that we should have all the things that they have, but where is it?” he told Muraleedharan in the interview in December 1996. Four years later, on April 15, 2000, Jal passed away from an age-associated illness.

Jal also studied and practised still photography religiously throughout his life. “However, the negatives and prints are lost forever,” said Faroukh. "My uncle was a man of few words. He believed in letting his work speak for itself. But he, like many of his contemporaries, did not preserve their work. It is unfortunate."

*Fore-shortening is a unique characteristic of ultra-wide angle lens wherein the subject close to the lens gets stretched out and hugely distorted and appears overtly dominant in the composition.

A short bio of the author:

aswathy photo.jpeg

Aswathy Gopalakrishnan is a film critic and journalist from Kochi, India. She has written extensively about Indian cinema on Silverscreen India and also contributes to a handful of other publications. She is an alumna of IFFR's Young Film Critics programme and has been a member of the selection committee (Indian films) at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival for the last three years. You can find her works here and here. Follow her on Twitter.

bottom of page