Veteran cinematographer RD Mathur will always be remembered for his absolutely stunning camerawork in the classics Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Pakeezah (1972). Though he photographed several other films doing as fine a job in all of them, Mughal-e-Azam remains his best and most well known work earning him the title of 'Photographer ke Shahenshah' or the 'Emperor of Photographers!' Certainly it remains one of the highest achievements in the history of cinematography in Indian Cinema.
It was thanks to his forward thinking father that Rameshwar Dayal Mathur ventured into cinematography. Seeing his son's interest in photography even as he was doing his graduation at St. Stephens College, Delhi, Gouridayal Mathur encouraged his son to go and study photography and its allied subjects in America. (Remember, this was at a time when entering films was strongly opposed and considered unthinkable. And here the father himself encouraged the son who was all set to look for a decent job after graduation and continue to pursue photography just as a hobby!)
Mathur gained admission at the prestigious New York Institute of Photography and Cinematography where he studied portrait photography, commercial photography, cinematography and film processing. A science graduate, he was allowed to complete the one year course in six months. The remaining six months, the enterprising youngster spent in Hollywood undergoing practical training at the famous MGM studios and the Fox Film Corporation (Later 20th Century Fox).
He returned to India in 1934/ 35 and applied for a job as a technician with the famous Bombay Talkies Studio. Himanshu Rai, the head of Bombay Talkies, was keen on recruiting young, educated people with a good family background. He took on Mathur as an apprentice to the German cinematographer Josef Wirsching at a salary of a hundred rupees once he found out that Mathur was a nonsmoker! At Bombay Talkies apart from assisting Wirsching, Mathur also worked in the studio's laboratory taking over Ashok Kumar's duties when the latter became the studio's top leading man!
Due to the Second World War, the German technicians were called back and in Wirsching's absence Mathur got his independent break with Anjaan (1941) starring Devika Rani along with Ashok Kumar. In fact, Mathur was the first Indian cinematographer to photograph the 'first lady of the Indian screen' who up to then had only been photographed by foreign technicians. He went on to photograph several other films at Bombay Talkies including Basant (1942), Humaari Baat (1943), Jwar Bhatta (1944) in which Dilip Kumar made his film debut and Pratima (1945). In the meantime he also got involved with K Asif who was planning his magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam. But after 7-8 reels shooting the film was held in abeyance as the producer Siraj Ali migrated to Pakistan.
Mathur moved on to photograph and direct Gajre (1948), a Suraiya - Motilal starrer, Magroor (1950) starring Nigar, Rehman and Meena Kumari for Wadia Movietone, also photographing their Madhosh (1951) and photographing and directing Aagosh (1953) with Nutan and Nasir Khan.
Meanwhile work resumed in December 1951 on Mughal-e-Azam. The old cast of Chandramohan, Sapru and Nargis in the roles of Akbar, Salim and Anarkali were replaced by Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. (Incidentally in his Bombay Talkies days when Asif had first begun Mughal-e-Azam, Mathur had shot Dilip Kumar's screen test but Asif had rejected him!) Asif requested Mathur to give up his quest for directing and rejoin him as the film's cinematographer.
Mughal-e-Azam was a magnum opus in the truest sense. Produced at a cost of Rs. 1.5 crores in those days filming took over 500 working days! It was easily the costliest Indian film till date. Tailors were brought from Delhi to stitch the costumes, Hyderabadi goldsmiths made the jewellery, Kolhapuri craftsmen the crowns, Rajasthani ironsmiths fabricated the shields, swords, spears, dagger and armour, specialists from Surat-Khambayat were employed for the exquisite zardosi embroidery on the costumes while the elaborate footwear was ordered from Agra! For one of the songs, Ae Mohabbat Zindabad there was a chorus of 100 singers used! And for sheer size and spectacle its sets were unmatched. At times over 100 lights were used to used to light up the sets at Mohan Studios! Lights were borrowed from other studios, shooting done in the night and then returned in the morning to those studios for their shooting! Many a time the cast and crew laboured for hours and hours just canning two -three shots a night, such was the quest for perfection. For the spectacular battle scenes in those days Mathur Saab used at least 8 cameras to capture all the action!
However the piece-de-resistance of the film was the famous 'Sheesh Mahal' or Palace of Mirrors set. This provided Mathur Saab the biggest technical challenge of his life. The set was full of mirrors and initially gave Mathur Saab sleepless nights as to how he would light it. He went through several photographic journals trying to find a solution but in vain. Finally with a lot of trial and error he decided to use bounce lighting instead of direct lighting. More than a 100 reflectors were hung or suspended on the sets. Dozens of different types of clamps and hangers with arms were made to order to hide the lights behind pillars, arches etc. The songs Jab Pyaar Kiya to Darna Kya and Jab Raat Hai Aisi Matwali were shot on the set in colour and the exposed film sent to Technicolour Ltd. in London for processing. Looking at the rushes, the technicians there were amazed at the results achieved. Mughal-e-Azam went to become a huge success at the box-office and Mathur Saab's expansive camerawork was as much a star of the film as its actors, dialogues, music and of course direction. The film also won the Filmfare Award for Mathur Saab for Best Cinematography. Colleague Radhu Kamarkar, himself a very fine cinematographer, hailed Mathur Saab's camerawork in Mughal-e-Azam as 'a masterpiece.'
Following Mughal-e-Azam, Mathur Saab and K Asif re-teamed for Sasta Khoon, Mehnga Paani - a Rajendra Kumar - Saira Banu starrer and the epic Love and God (1986), starring Sanjeev Kumar and Nimmi, a jinxed project on the Laila - Majnu tale. The initial hero, Guru Dutt, died in 1964 to be replaced by Sanjeev Kumar. Then Asif passed away in 1971 and Sanjeev Kumar in 1985 with the film still lying incomplete! Mathur Saab remembers completing it using stand-ins! The film though stunningly shot died a disastrous death at the box-office on its 'release' in 1986. Sasta Khoon Mehnga Paani never got completed either.
Mathur Saab in the meanwhile also photographed HS Rawail's Dilip Kumar - Vyjayanthimala starrer Sungharsh (1968) and then was called in by Kamal Amrohi for Pakeezah when his old boss Josef Wirsching, who was photographing the film, died.
Pakeezah, being made in colour, too like Mughal-e-Azam had huge sets rich in architectural grandeur familiar now to Mathur Saab. A highlight of the portion shot by Mathur Saab in the film is the song Chalo Dildar Chalo across the wide expanse of sea and sky to the boat on which the lovers ride. It is is romanticism at its best. The song was picturized by Kamal Amrohi and Mathur Saab in the day using colour filters to get the desired effect of moonlight and then adding blue to the final print in the laboratory! Following Pakeezah, Mathur Saab also shot Razia Sultan (1983) for Kamal Amrohi - again a film rich in grandeur and style. Apart from this he mainly shot films for Sultan Ahmed who was K Asif's assistant - Heera (1973), Ganga ki Saugandh (1978), Dharam Kaanta (1982), Daata (1989) and his last film Jai Vikranta (1995).
Speaking about his approach to his work, Mathur Saab used to say that he firstly sort to give depth and perspective to the sets through lighting and proper exposure. To quote him,
"It is my aim that whatever the art director has created should be visible on the screen in minute detail."
He was also known for his splendid close-ups courtesy his studies on portrait photography. Mathur Saab instinctively knew how to bring out strengths and hide weaknesses of faces through make up suggestions and lighting. Often it took time but even the biggest of stars never complained because they knew it to be to their advantage!
A calm, soft-spoken man and a firm believer in God, Mathur Saab lived a quiet retired life in Delhi with his family till his death in 2001.