It is at the Bholaguri Tea Estate that Jyotiprasad Agarwala, considered the Father of Assamese Cinema shot his maiden film, Joymoti
Words and Photographs by Maulee Senapati
Bholaguri tea estate located near the historic town of Gohpur in Biswanath district, Assam, remains etched as a significant landmark in the chequered history of Assamese Cinema. It’s here the tall cultural doyen of Assam, Jyotiprasad Agarwala shot his and Assam’s maiden Assamese feature film, Joymoti in 1935.
Based on the father of modern Assamese literature Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s story by the same name, Agawala chose to weave the narrative of Joymoti around the most tumultuous phase of mediaeval history of Assam, presenting in the process a tale of deceit, treachery, royal ambitions and machinations to overthrow a deserving prince from power and instead make the undeserving rule the land, traits that distinguished colonialism. In doing so Agarwala presented a distinct dialectical premise to the first Assamese feature film when films were mostly made on myths in rest of pre Independent India.
The very choice of Agarwala to weave a narrative of political relevance and discourse in realistic style, avoiding the more common melodramatic approaches of his time automatically places the multi talented filmmaker Jyotiprasad far advanced then his contemporaries in the understanding of Cinema. In doing so Joymoti was symbolically supportive of Mahatma Gandhi’s non cooperation movement and the supreme sacrifices by the countrymen to save a nation from the clutches of exploitative colonial power. Despite such a remarkable achievement Agarwala’s name rarely features in books on history of Indian Cinema which is most certainly an injustice towards a towering artist and cinema of the country at large.
Joymoti is a woman centric story that revolves around the supreme sacrifice of Ahom* princes Joymoti to safeguard her husband, Gadadhar Xingha, who had to flee from the then Ahom capital Gargon and was forced to be in hiding in the neighbouring Patkai hills(now Nagaland)to evade capture. Despite the extreme torture and brutality carried out on Joymoti, she displayed unfathomable resilience by abstaining from divulging information about her husband. She proved her utmost loyalty not only to him but more significantly towards her ‘motherland’, to save it from the grasp of ruthless rulers who were later defeated by Gadadhar. Joymoti, however, did not live to welcome her husband back home or to witness him defeat the diabolical powers. She died on March 27, 1680 (13 Choit of 1601 Saka) after 14 days of brutal torture.
Agarwala was greatly Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi since his childhood since the latter had stayed at Jyotiprasad’s ancestral home in Pokhi, Tezpur, during his visit to the Brahmaputra Valley in the late 19th century. Joymoti is Agarwala’s powerful protest against the colonial powers while attempting to awaken the collective consciousness of masses towards the Mahatma’s non-violent movement that was gaining ground across undivided India.
Indian Cinema between 1930-40could be very well defined as cinema of resistance. This was also the time when sternly patriarchal repressive issues like Sati got addressed in Indian Cinema for the very first time. While the Colonialists banned films across India for their anti-colonial nuanced narratives, Jyotiprasad’s work escaped that fate. He magnificently wove a cinematic narrative of political relevance and narrated it with such subtle flourish that the colonial powers failed to recognise the underlying political message in Joymoti. Jyotiprasad’s maiden cinematic creation is, incidentally, one of the earliest Indian films with a story revolving around a woman, her woes and resilience, told from a progressive perspective and in a way far ahead of prevalent cinematic approach of that time in pre-Independent India.
The multi-talented Jyotiprasad Agarwala did not rush into filmmaking like many of his contemporaries from the rest of pre Independent India. In 1926 the playwright, music composer, litterateur Agarwala went to Edinburgh to study economics but returned in 1930 before completing his course. On his way back, he spent seven months at the famed UFA Studio in Berlin, Germany, learning filmmaking when German Expressionism was already pronouncedly influencing cinema too besides literature and painting, thus presenting the medium with one of the most distinct approaches of storytelling that subsequently gave birth to several other genrés and sub-genrés like horror and noir films, before Italian Neo Realism turned cinema into an art as much as a realistic philosophical discourse on human situations.
Six years back, when I visited Bholaguri tea estate where the journey of Assamese Cinema had begun with Jyotiprasad Agarwala converting the factory of their family owned teagarden into a film studio, to passionately realise his dream despite several challenges he had to face including casting, this place bore scars of utter negligence, limping towards turning into a ruin. While a section of the factory was still used for tea processing by another company supported by the state government, overall the place wore a desolate picture almost similar to that of the legend’s protagonist, Joymoti, tied to the pole at the centre of Jerengapathar, abused and left to languish, to perish with time.
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Maulee is an award-winning filmmaker from Assam. An alumnus of FTII, Pune, his films have travelled to international film across India. He has authored a few important essays on filmmaking while practicing the subject. Currently he is a professor at Pandit Lakhmi Chand State University of Performing and Visual Arts. Senapati is also an avid still photographer and painter.