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Jyotiprasad Agarwala: The Father of Assamese Cinema

18 May, 2020 | Short Features by Parthajit Baruah
A young Jyotiprasad Agarwala during his studies at Edinburgh University. Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.

Jyotiprasad Agarwala emerged as a new voice of modern Assam and brought about a renaissance in the realm of art and culture of the region. He was a playwright, musician and composer, poet, patriot and director.

Jyotiprasad was born on 17 June 1903 in the Tamulbari Tea Estate of Dibrugarh in an affluent family. His father Paramananda Agarwala was adept at playing different musical instruments, while his mother Kiranmoyee too sang folksongs. He went to Edinburgh University in September 1926 for his MA studies. He stayed in Edinburgh from 1926 to 1930 and visited the UFA studio in Berlin, Germany, to acquaint himself with film-making techniques.

During his training, he wrote a script, The Dance of Art, an English translation of his own Assamese play Sunit Konwari.
During his training, he wrote a script, The Dance of Art, an English translation of his own Assamese play Sunit Konwari. He knew Himanshu Rai (1892–1940), famous for his seminal films The Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1928-29). Himansu Rai inspired Jyotiprasad to submit his script of Sunit Konwari at the UFA, which Jyotiprasad did in 1930. However, UFA rejected Jyotiprasad’s script, mentioning that his story dealt with stereotyped Indian scenes and characters, and it would be risky to deal with such a production.
Back in Assam in 1930, Jyotiprasad established the foundation for Assamese cinema by setting up a basic film studio at Bholaguri, on the bank of the river Balijan, almost 300 km away from Guwahati. Named Chitraban, the studio was located in the midst of the lush green Bholaguri Tea Estate owned by his family.
Back in Assam in 1930, Jyotiprasad established the foundation for Assamese cinema by setting up a basic film studio at Bholaguri, on the bank of the river Balijan, almost 300 km away from Guwahati. Named Chitraban, the studio was located in the midst of the lush green Bholaguri Tea Estate owned by his family. It had a concrete platform, with open-air enclosures of bamboo mats and banana stumps. It was the first open-air studio established in India. He named his production company Chitralekha Movietone. The studio, equipped with a laboratory and sound-recording facility, was inaugurated by Jyotiprasad’s father Paramananda Agarwala in 1934. 
During the shooting of Joymoti. Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.
 
His first Assamese film Joymoti, and also the first in North-East, paved a way for the next generation of film-makers.
Jyotiprasad chose the drama Joymoti Konwori, written by the eminent litterateur of Assam, Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaroa for his maiden film. His first Assamese film Joymoti, and also the first in North-East, paved a way for the next generation of film-makers. The story was set in the Ahom royal palace of the seventeenth century. Jyotiprasad himself designed the Ahom royal palace with bamboo and banana stem. Japi, made of tightly woven bamboo or cane, has been predominantly used in the film – in the walls of the royal court – symbolically representing the cultural heritage of the Assamese people. Assamese traditional symbols like xorai and banbota made of bell metal and brass have also been used. The protagonist Joymoti’s silent but strong protest against the cruelty of the puppet king Lora Roja reflected how the apparently voiceless can drive resistance against the mighty. The character of the royal maid, Seuti, veiled in man’s apparel, horse-riding and fighting with the enemy, made a case for women’s empowerment.
 
Joymoti premiered on 10 March 1935 at Rounak Mahal, Calcutta. Lakshminath Bezbaroa did the honours, and guests like Pramathesh Barua, Prithviraj Kapoor, Kundan Lal Saigal, Debaki Bose, Dhiren Ganguli, Phani Majumdar were present.
Joymoti premiered on 10 March 1935 at Rounak Mahal, Calcutta. Lakshminath Bezbaroa did the honours, and guests like Pramathesh Barua, Prithviraj Kapoor, Kundan Lal Saigal, Debaki Bose, Dhiren Ganguli, Phani Majumdar were present. However, one technical glitch – the film’s sound – ruined the experience. Jyotiprasad was upset with the sound and decided to file a case against Faiz Mohammed who worked as sound recordist on the film. His letter sent to Faiz Mohammed on 29 March 1935 demonstrated how badly Jyotiprasad suffered due to the faulty sound in Joymoti. The court case went on but the issue was never addressed. 
 
A newspaper advertisement for Indramalati (1939). Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.
Jyotiprasad Agarwala made his second feature film Indramalati (1939) to recoup the losses suffered by Joymoti.
Jyotiprasad Agarwala made his second feature film Indramalati (1939) to recoup the losses suffered by Joymoti. The film was made on a shoestring budget of Rs 15,000. In fact, he had invested a sum of Rs 50,000 on Joymoti but suffered a loss of approximately Rs 28,000. Unlike Joymoti, Jyotiprasad did not choose Bholaguri as a location for the outdoor shoot. He opted for Taalbari, his family land, just three miles away from his hometown, Tezpur. (Jyotiprasad would later be cremated in Taalbari.) 

Based on his own story, Indramalati, set in the town of Tezpur, narrates the story of love between Indrajit Barua and Malati. Indrajit’s father Mahendra Nath Barua, a famous barrister, brings him up as a single parent after his mother’s demise. Indrajit, an attractive young boy, studies at a college in Calcutta. During his summer vacation, he comes to Tezpur and also visits his uncle’s house at Sonapur. There, he meets a village girl, Malati, the daughter of his father’s childhood friend. He spends a few days in his uncle’s house and gradually falls in love with Malati. He goes back to Calcutta for his studies, leaving Malati in the village. In the meantime, Chandiram, a rich farmer’s son in Sonapur, takes advantage of Indrajit’s absence and proposes marriage to Malati. When both Malati and her father reject his advances, Chandiram kidnaps Malati and takes her to a nearby tribal village. Hearing about this, Indrajit reaches Sonapur with his friend Lalit from Calcutta. After a long search, he rescues his beloved Malati.
 
Jyotiprasad Agarwala at the editing table. Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.
Jyotiprasad made brilliant use of music in Indramalati, and the film has a number of melodious romantic and patriotic songs, all of them composed by Jyotiprasad himself.
Jyotiprasad made brilliant use of music in Indramalati, and the film has a number of melodious romantic and patriotic songs, all of them composed by Jyotiprasad himself. Songs like ‘Mure mon bonote toi ki bahi bojali’, ‘Rupore panite xunore panchoi/ Meli de oee’, ‘Biswa bijoy nava juwan’ enriched the film. A ten-year-old child by the name of Bhupen Hazarika would win the hearts of people by singing the complicated ‘Biswa bijoy nava juwan’ and also playing the role of a shepherd in the film.
Jyotiprasad arranged a special screening of Indramalati in Guwahati on Sunday, 30 July 1939, at 4 p.m. A newspaper article said that the film would be officially released on 1 August in Sati Talkies. The film was relatively successful. In contrast to Joymoti’s historical dimension, Indramalati focused on a simple theme of romance and yet won the hearts of the Assamese audience.
 
A stamp commemorating Jyotiprasad Agarwala. Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.
Jyotiprasad Agarwala made just two films in his lifetime, and yet pioneered cinema in Assam.
A newspaper advertisement for the re-edited version of Joymoti. Image Courtesy: Parthajit Baruah, personal collection.

Jyotiprasad re-edited Joymoti in 1948 in Calcutta with the addition of new songs. A new set of people were engaged in the venture: Santosh Banerjee as sound recordist, Ajay Chaliha as assistant editor and Dilip Sarma as assistant music director. Initially, they thought of replacing the character of Joymoti in the second edition, a fact that can be gleaned from the advertisement in a newspaper asking for auditions for the role of Joymoti. But they dropped the idea. He wanted to do the re-editing work at Aurora Film Corporation of Calcutta. Aurora Film Corporation wrote to Jyotiprasad, ‘It is gratifying to note that you intend to re-take certain scenes of Joymoti and also to produce another new Assamese film in our studio.’ Senola Musical Products Co. of Calcutta asked Jyotiprasad to transfer the right for the recording of the songs: ‘Xunore palengot o monetora’ and ‘Luitore pani jabi oi boi’. They also asked permission to release the disc under their label, offering a royalty of five per cent on the net sale. Newspaper advertisements and circulars were distributed about the arrival of the re-edited Joymoti which was released on 28 May 1949 at Elli Cinema Hall, Jorhat. This time, the response was warm.

Jyotiprasad Agarwala made just two films in his lifetime, and yet pioneered cinema in Assam. He planned to make other films based on his own scripts, which unfortunately never took off. These include The Dance of Art, which he had submitted at UFA, Berlin; The Sanyasin; a Hindi and Bengali version each of Joymoti; Aamar Gaon; Kanaklata; Luitor Paror Agnixur/ Manor Dinor Agnixur (based on his story ‘Sandhya’). He also wrote two articles on cinema titled ‘The Film Industry of Assam’ and ‘The Responsibility of Assamese Audience towards the Making of Assamese Film Industry’.

He breathed his last on 17 January 1951, leaving behind two sons and three daughters. On 17 June 2004, the Government of India released a commemorative postage stamp on the birth anniversary of Jyotiprasad Agarwala for his contribution in the field of the art, culture and literature of Assam.  
 

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About the Author

Parthajit Baruah is an Indian film scholar and documentary filmmaker. He won the Assam State Best Film Critic Award for his book Face to Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan (HarperCollins 2016), and the Prag Channel Best Film critic Award for his book Chalachitror Taranga (Assamese). He did two film research projects at NFAI, Pune. He has presented papers on cinema at various international conferences. His article 'Shakespeare in Assamese Cinema' (Shakespeare and Indian Cinema, 2019) was published by Routledge Publishing House. His documentaries have won many awards at International Film Festivals. He teaches English and Cinema at Renaissance Junior College, Assam.