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Article Assam

Against all odds: Revisiting the making of the first Assamese talkie Joymati

Celebrating 90 years of talkies, Cinestaan looks at the remarkable tale behind the film by the multi-hyphenate filmmaker and cultural activist Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

When one looks at the beginnings of cinema in India, we tend to concentrate on the robust industry in the North, West and the Southern regions of the country, going as far east as Kolkata. However, there was one person who initiated filmmaking in Assam through his sheer perseverance and desire to showcase Assamese culture. This was Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, one of the foremost cultural figures from the state, bestowed with the title of Rupkonwar and on whose death anniversary, 17 January, Silpi Divas or Artists’ Day is observed across Assam.

A multi-hyphenate personality, Agarwala was a Renaissance man. He composed music, wrote plays, revolutionary songs and poems; was president of the first India People’s Theatre Association conference organised in Assam, and was constantly involved in various political activities against the imperial government. All these concerns were brought together in his film, which was informed by his engagement with Assamese identity and culture.

Educated at Edinburgh University, Jyoti Prasad learnt filmmaking at the German Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft (UFA) Studios, along with Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani. Fuelled with the desire to make a film, he was swept away by the freedom movement and composed revolutionary poetry which instilled the spirit of rebellion in the youth of Assam. Jailed for his political activities, he was released in 1934, when he once again embarked upon his project of making a film. 

Writer Pranjit Agarwala, who is Jyoti Prasad’s nephew, has been working to perpetuate the legacy of his uncle. He spoke to us about his contribution to forging an Assamese identity through the arts, and said, “He was a person who brought in the Renaissance in Assamese literature…he is credited with bringing in the modern Assamese identity and one of the manifestations was in Joymati (1935). The public of Assam reveres him as the person who created Assamese identity as we know it today.”

Jyoti Prasad Agarwala

Narrating the scenario in 1935 when his uncle had embarked upon making Joymati, he said, “To make a film in Assam [at the time] was unthinkable. There were no movie halls, no infrastructure, and communicating from Guwahati to Calcutta was very difficult. There were no roads, one had to go by the river…so Jyoti Prasad had to start from scratch, not just in terms of bringing the equipment to shoot the film but also in training the actors and actresses because no one was familiar with film acting. There was only stage acting at the time. Jyoti Prasad also wanted to shoot the film in a natural environment. At that time, most of the films were shot in studios, but he wanted to project Assamese culture and wanted to showcase the natural beauty of the state.”

Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani had also invited him to Bombay. He had presented a film script to UFA studio, which they liked but because he wanted to shoot in a natural location, they found it too expensive. “Jyoti Prasad was so concerned about exposing the culture of Assam that he decided to go back to Assam and try his luck there. Otherwise, I think the story would have been quite different.” 

Based on a play by noted Assamese writer Sahityayatri Lakshiminath Bezbaruah, the story of Joymati details the heroic struggle of a historic figure, a noblewoman belonging to the royal Ahom family, and examines incidents that took place in 1644-45. The woman makes a supreme sacrifice to save her country and husband from a puppet king controlled by a corrupt minister.

However, no one was willing to shoot the film outside of the studio but Jyoti Prasad, or JP as he was commonly known, was undeterred. He decided to bring the equipment, make a makeshift studio in Assam and start the shooting process. Pranjit Agarwala explained, “He made the studio in Gohpur bringing equipment from the Faizi Film Company in Lahore. He chose Faizi because it was an Indian company. He did not want to go in for Agfa or any other British company. He was very patriotic and nationalistic in his sentiments.” However, the sound system developed by the Faizi brothers was untested and not suitable for outdoor shooting. Its use backfired, with severe consequences for the film. 

“When he shot the film, Jyoti Prasad did not know that the audio quality was not good enough for a talkie. He found this out later, after he had completed the film and went to edit it in Lahore…but he was stuck. He could not find any Assamese people in Lahore! So, he dubbed the entire film, the defective portions in his own voice! He imitated the voices of the females and even sung a song as the female playback! This is something unique that has never happened in Indian cinema when one person dubbed for about 19 people and no one could make out,” said Pranjit.

Pranjit Agarwala

“It is believed that Joymati is the first film which used re-dubbing technology and it is also the first film which was based on a historical story but with a socio-political message, where the protagonist was a woman,” he added.

Although the filmmaker made only two films during his lifetime, his first project marked the beginnings of the film industry in Assam. Joymati was released on 10 March 1935 at Rounak Theatre in Calcutta, followed by Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir in Guwahati. The release was exactly four years after the first talkie Alam Ara (1931) had been released at Majestic Cinema in Bombay. Despite the commercial failure of Joymati, the film is seen as a major accomplishment. The social-realist film took inspiration from Russian filmmakers and had a strong political message. 

In 1939, JP made Indramalati, made with equipment hired from Calcutta. Noted singer and musician Bhupen Hazarika featured in the film as a 14-year-old boy. Inspired by this, others tried their hand at filmmaking and by the 1950s, there were several Assamese filmmakers.

Dwelling upon JP’s legacy today and the relative ignorance about his contribution to the country outside the state of Assam, Pranjit notes, “On the Eastern side even today, no one thinks beyond Calcutta and the Northeast is just coming into the mainstream so to say, in the last ten years or so, so that’s why, anything to do with the east is linked up with Bengal, so I think there has not been sufficient exposure…unless we can expose our culture on a national platform, people won’t come to know about it.”

Joymati was thought to be lost for several decades but in the 1970s, miraculously, seven reels of the film were found and restored. This is the film that survives today.

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Indian cinema