The Mind's Eye: The Legacy of Legendary Cinematographers Fali and Jal Mistry

12 Feb, 2020 | Stories by Akshay Manwani
From Left to Right: Guru Dutt, Jal Mistry, Dev Anand, Chetan Anand and Fali Mistry on the sets of Jaal (1952). Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry.

Akshay Manwani spoke to cinematographer Faroukh Mistry, Fali Mistry’s son, and Jal Mistry’s nephew, about the Mistry brothers, their influences and legacy. 

Raj Kapoor, Madhubala, Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Waheeda Rehman and Dev Anand. These men and women do not need any introduction. Their beautiful faces and mesmerizing expressions, in front of the camera, made them household names as they starred in one landmark film after another. Then there were Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif and V. Shantaram, directors who helmed films that have stood the test of time. Even though they called the shots from behind the camera, their names, mentioned alongside classics like Mother India (1957), Do Aankhen Baarah Haath (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960), have allowed them to stay on in public memory. 

Cinematographers, writers and editors, very much a part of those very same films that gave their stars and directors fame and recognition, exist as mere footnotes in Indian cinematic history. A collective failure to record the legacies of these technical stalwarts have relegated them largely to oblivion. 
There are others, though, who haven’t quite enjoyed the same public recall. Cinematographers, writers and editors, very much a part of those very same films that gave their stars and directors fame and recognition, exist as mere footnotes in Indian cinematic history. A collective failure to record the legacies of these technical stalwarts have relegated them largely to oblivion. 

One such pair of brothers who have been overlooked given the cavalier attitude to archiving Indian cinematic heritage, beyond the big luminaries of Hindi cinema, are Fali Mistry and Jal Mistry. The Mistry siblings were cinematographers associated with films like Amrapali (1945), Barsaat (1949), Babul (1950), Nagin (1954), Guide (1965), Aakhri Khat (1966) and Johny Mera Naam (1970). Film historian and documentary film-maker Karan Bali wrote of the brothers, ‘Both Fali and Jal were known for shooting their stars in high glamour … They were also, in the fashion of the times, known for their expertise in low-key high-contrast lighting in night scenes. Not surprisingly, they became a source of inspiration to many other cinematographers including V.K. Murthy and Nariman A. Irani.’

Fali and Jal came from a big Parsi family that lived in Malabar Hill. Faroukh’s grandfather Dhunjishaw Mistry had a massive house, with a huge library. The books there ranged from physics to chemistry to yoga to nuclear physics, photography and painting. ‘There was an entire room just filled with books, ceiling to floor. I think the household had a lot of reading going on,’ Faroukh says, recalling the early influences that shaped his father’s interest in cinematography. ‘I have American Cinematographer and International Photographer [magazines] from 1935 onwards that my grandfather used to subscribe to. It was five cents a copy. They used to gather whatever they could from this.’
 
One of the many books on photography in Dhunjishaw Mistry’s collection that possibly inspired the Mistry siblings into seeking a career in cinematography. Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry.
International Photographer and American Cinematographer magazines from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that are in Faroukh Mistry’s possession. Fali and Jal Mistry devoured these magazines to keep themselves abreast of cinematography styles in the West. Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry.
It weren’t the books alone that influenced the Mistrys. Dhunjishaw’s brother was one of the first people to distribute Ilford Film, a well-known still photography brand. The books combined with the professional family pursuits within the field of film and photography played a decisive role in the Mistrys seeking a career in the same line. 
Dhunjishaw’s brother was one of the first people to distribute Ilford Film, a well-known still photography brand. The books combined with the professional family pursuits within the field of film and photography played a decisive role in the Mistrys seeking a career in the same line. 
Although Fali, who was elder to Jal by six years, started helming films as the lead cinematographer only in the early 1940s, he worked as an assistant cameraman before that with Wadia Movietone. The production house, established by J.B.H. Wadia and Homi Wadia, made Hunterwaali (1935) and Diamond Queen (1940), with the legendary Fearless Nadia aka Mary Ann Evans cast in the central role and performing her own stunts. ‘Riyad Wadia [JBH’s grandson] told me that he had seen my father’s credit in some JBH film. He assisted somebody over there and then turned cinematographer,’ Faroukh says. 
 
A page from The Indian Cinematograph Year Book, 1938, which confirms Fali Mistry worked as a cameraman at Wadia Movietone. Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry.
 
“I think there was a lot of European influence, which is there in their work - expressionistic cinema, noir,” Faroukh told me.
The presence of European technicians like cinematographer Josef Wirsching and director Franz Osten in the nascent Bombay film industry at that time also possibly influenced the Mistrys. “I think there was a lot of European influence, which is there in their work - expressionistic cinema, noir,” Faroukh told me. But Faroukh also remembers his father keeping abreast with the American films that would release in Bombay. “He would go regularly every week to Sterling [cinema] to catch films there. They kept in touch with what was happening internationally. So whichever film released in Hollywood, they would check it out, both brothers. I know it was a regular thing with my dad.”
A close viewing of films like Babul (1950) and Sazaa (1951) shows how the siblings incorporated these American influences in their work. “If you look at their low shadow, the backlight, the way they lit their actors, it is classic Hollywood cinema,”
A close viewing of films like Babul (1950) and Sazaa (1951) shows how the siblings incorporated these American influences in their work. “If you look at their low shadow, the backlight, the way they lit their actors, it is classic Hollywood cinema,” Faroukh observed. He also commented upon the way the heroine Nimmi was picturized in the acclaimed Sazaa song, ‘Tum na jaaney kis jahaan mein kho gaye’, by his uncle Jal Mistry. “This is classic Hollywood pushed into that high contrast zone,” said Faroukh, but also pointed out a key difference. “In Hollywood not too many films would have this kind of contrast in glamour. This contrast will be there in expressionist, noir. This is that genre,” Faroukh noted.
  
Sazaa was directed by Fali MIstry. It is among the three films that the renowned cinematographer directed, Jan Pahchan (1950) and Armaan (1953) being the other two.
Sazaa was directed by Fali MIstry. It is among the three films that the renowned cinematographer directed, Jan Pahchan (1950) and Armaan (1953) being the other two. Jan Pahchan was also produced by Fali Mistry after which he also put in money on Taj (1956) and Chandan (1958). But his luck didn’t hold well here and he stopped directing and producing films after these not-so-successful ventures. “It was a business decision,” Faroukh explained. “The films weren’t a commercial success. He [Fali Mistry] decided to stop after that.” 

The decision to quit film-making led Fali Mistry to focus solely on his work as cinematographer. He even carried forward the high contrast style as Hindi cinema transitioned to colour. The similarity in frames can be seen very evidently when comparing Babul with some of the visuals from Neel Kamal. The two films are separated by a gap of almost two decades since the latter only released in 1968. 
 
Babul (1950). Image courtesy: Babul/Shemaroo/YouTube.
 
Neel Kamal (1968). The similarity in the lighting of the two scenes from the two films separated by nearly two decades is evident in these shots. Image courtesy: Neel Kamal/Shemaroo/YouTube.
The one scene from Neel Kamal that Faroukh completely fawns over is the one that comes well past the halfway mark in the film. It is when the song ‘Babul ki duyaaein leti jaa’ is being rendered for a second time in the maudlin voice of Mohammed Rafi.
The one scene from Neel Kamal that Faroukh completely fawns over is the one that comes well past the halfway mark in the film. It is when the song ‘Babul ki duyaaein leti jaa’ is being rendered for a second time in the maudlin voice of Mohammed Rafi. Waheeda Rehman’s character is shown in the foreground, with her vile mother-in-law (Lalita Pawar) and sister-in-law (Shashikala) looking down at her and heckling her from the floor above in the background, as Waheeda’s character mops the floor of the palatial house.  This visual is among the early pan focus depictions in Hindi cinema. “It’s a stunning shot,” complimented Faroukh. “It came in from Hollywood. It is a mix of Hollywood and European cinema. It is Citizen Kane [1941]. The foreground is also in sharp focus and the background is also in sharp focus.” 
 
The Neel Kamal pan focus shot that Faroukh Mistry calls ‘stunning’. Image courtesy: Neel Kamal/Shemaroo/YouTube.
 
The mise-en-scène in the sixty-odd seconds that Natwar works his magic is something Hindi cinema had hardly experienced in its near-seven decade history to that point.
Even in a much later commercial mainstream entertainer like Mr. Natwarlal (1979), that featured the Big B at his peak, these touches of genius by Fali Mistry are conspicuous. Consider the scene early in the film where Natwar (Bachchan) tries to break open a safe to rob a necklace in everyone’s presence. The mise-en-scène in the sixty-odd seconds that Natwar works his magic is something Hindi cinema had hardly experienced in its near-seven decade history to that point. The dramatic element of the scene is enhanced by psychedelic lighting, hurried cuts between the characters, but also by extreme close-ups of the actors and quick, handheld camera movements.  “To do handheld at that time with Amitabh Bachchan…,” gushed Faroukh. “I think it’s a mix of director’s vision and what a DP brings to the table. The closest style that comes to mind is the French New Wave: handheld, documentary, cinéma vérité, cameras moving all the time. You are working with close-ups of people, with the camera swishing from one end to the other.”
 
The heist scene from Mr. Natwarlal (1979). Image courtesy: Mr. Natwarlal/Youtube.

Fali’s seminal film, however, was Guide (1965). Directed by Vijay Anand (Goldie), and featuring his older brother, Dev Anand, in the leading role, the film stands out for a variety of reasons not least among them being its songs, the performances by the lead pair (Waheeda Rehman shines here too) and the terrific collaboration between Goldie and Fali Mistry in executing many of the film’s stunning sequences. Waheeda’s graceful yet animated snake dance routine or the two-cut song ‘Tere mere sapne’, which noted film critic and author Jai Arjung Singh termed a visual treat, are two such highlights that come readily to mind whenever Guide is mentioned. 
Faroukh, though, reserves his highest praise for a moment in ‘Gaata rahe mera dil’, another evergreen number from the film
. It happens soon after the mukhda of the song has been sung at the beginning. The camera then moves past the two actors from above and Dev Anand is shown leaning in towards Rehman for a tender display of affection. “Do you remember the movement of that kiss? I think it’s a phenomenal movement,” cooed Faroukh, talking through the moment. Part of the shot’s magic, as Faroukh explains, is that it implies that the characters have had a tender moment of affection while subtly managing to elude the censor’s scissors. “How do you take a shot like this?” asked Faroukh, admiringly. “How do you do this? How do you explain to this an actor? How do you explain this to your cameraman that the actor’s face will come into the camera, you tilt up, aur woh frame se out ho jaayega. How do you design it?”
Both Mistry siblings forged wonderful professional relationships with the Anand brothers.
Both Mistry siblings forged wonderful professional relationships with the Anand brothers. While Jal Mistry worked with Chetan Anand on two milestone films, Aakhri Khat (1966) and Heer Ranjha (1970), Fali had Guide, Johny Mera Naam (1970) and Ram Balram (1980) to his credit with Vijay Anand. Fali also worked as the director of photography in the Dev Anand-directed Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) and Heera Panna (1973). “It was a tight knit family,” recalled Faroukh of his father’s and uncle’s relationship with the Anands. He believes that the reason Fali and Jal were able to forge successful cinematic partnerships with Vijay and Chetan Anand is because there was a meeting of minds. “Indian cinema has always been more narrative oriented. With Dev sa’ab it was more narrative and less visual. I think with Goldie sa’ab they found a good balance between narrative and visual. With Chetan sa’ab again it was the same thing.” 
 
From L to R: Fali Mistry, Vijay Anand and Dev Anand when the trio went to New York to have Guide (1965) processed at Pathe Lab Inc. Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry.
“Once I asked him, ‘Goldie sa’ab why did you stop making films? What happened?’ I will never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘Faroukh, when I lost SD [Burman, the composer], I lost my left hand. When I lost Fali, I lost my right hand.’”
Faroukh also remembered a much later conversation with Goldie that emphasized his father’s importance to the legendary filmmaker. “Once I asked him, ‘Goldie sa’ab why did you stop making films? What happened?’ I will never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘Faroukh, when I lost SD [Burman, the composer], I lost my left hand. When I lost Fali, I lost my right hand.’”

There is a sense of anguish In Faroukh’s voice as he talks about his father’s death. He was too young, just in his teens when his father breathed his last. At that stage, so early in his life, he didn’t fully understand what his father’s legacy was. The conversations at home never centered around film craft. “When we grew up, dad would go for shooting and come back. We did not know what it meant. Dad is shooting, mummy [Faroukh’s mother, and Fali’s wife, Shyama was an actress] is shooting. They go somewhere, do something, come back and look after the kids.”
 
Fali Mistry’s Hasselblad camera, which was used by Dev Anand for his professional photographer character in Heera Panna (1973). Image courtesy: Faroukh Mistry. 
The only film-related discussion Faroukh recalls his father having was when Fali Mistry would pick up the phone and call up all the other cinematographers in Bombay. “Dad would call Faredoon Irani. Dad would call Nariman Irani, Jal sa’ab, Dwarka Divecha. Then he would call VK Murthy. All these guys would call each other up after shoot. ‘Jal maine aisey light kiya aaj, tuney kya kiya?’ So Jal saab would say whatever he did on set. Then, ‘Nariman maine aisa aisa kiya, tuney aaj kya kiya?’” 
“There was a free flow of ideas,” explained Faroukh. “There was no internet, just one landline. It was not the kind of competition you see today. Everybody had their own directors, producers they would work with. But they would all fill in for each other as well.” 
These conversations indicate the warmth and camaraderie that existed between the cinematographers of the time. “There was a free flow of ideas,” explained Faroukh. “There was no internet, just one landline. It was not the kind of competition you see today. Everybody had their own directors, producers they would work with. But they would all fill in for each other as well.” 

There wasn’t much more. Fali Mistry passed away on 16 December 1979 at the relatively early age of 62. “He had been ailing for a year before his death,” said Faroukh. His attempts to archive his father’s achievements through conversations with his uncle also didn’t help much. “Jal sa’ab was a man of very few words. He would not talk too much,” laments Faroukh. But the one true line that holds true for both Mistry brothers, and puts their contribution in proper perspective is when Faroukh says of his uncle, “Most of the time he was lost in his own world. He was a dreamer,” only to conclude most poignantly, “They were both dreamers.” 
 

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About the Author

Akshay Manwani is a freelance writer, author and NBA commentator. His work reflects his twin passions for Indian cinema and basketball. He also undertakes research assignments for film, television and other content-driven projects.