Close Reading: Joymoti by Jyotiprasad Agarwala

in Article
Published on: 16 April 2020

Aparna Sharma

Aparna Sharma is a documentary filmmaker and theorist. She has made two documentary films on Assam 'Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes' (2012, distributed by Berkeley Media LLC) and 'Mihin Sutta, Mihin Jibon' (The Women Weavers of Assam, 2019, distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute). Her book-length study 'Documentary Films in India: Critical Aesthetics at Work' examines non-canonical documentary practices from India (2015). She works as Associate Professor at the Dept. of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA.

Introduction and Concerns

Few cinemas in the world can claim that the first film in their history focused on a woman protagonist, depicted in politically assertive terms. Assamese cinema commands this distinction. The film in question is a freedom fighter and cultural pioneer Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Joymoti (1935). Joymoti revolves around the pivotal role of Princess Joymoti—played seamlessly by Aideu Nilambar Handique—in an episode of political upheaval in the seventeenth-century Ahom kingdom. The film presents her as being skilled in statecraft, quietly dignified, and firmly committed to the culture and well-being of the people of her land. This is complemented by a broader ecology in which she receives the support and considered counsel from ordinary people, officials and courtiers. The film’s breathtaking cinematography, editing and performances indicate the arrival of a culturally-rooted cinema, devised through a cultivated cinematic eye.

Joymoti is based on Assamese litterateur Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s acclaimed 1914 play titled Joymoti Kunwari. Bezbaroa was a prominent figure of the Assamese cultural renaissance, and his plays are known for making key chapters and personalities of Assamese history accessible to a broad and secular audience in Assam. [1] The film itself had a chequered life. On its release, it received mixed responses, and it is said that the film could not even recover its costs of production. It had a limited release in 1935 and, for decades since, its prints have remained hard to come by. In 2000, Assamese filmmaker Altaf Mazid restored a 60-minute version based on footage from a documentary by the acclaimed Assamese singer and music composer Bhupen Hazarika, titled Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Aru Joymoti (1976). This documentary included footage from the original reels of the film shot by Agarwala, which had been recovered by his younger brother, Hridayananda Agarwala. This version is in wide circulation now.

Joymoti is an iconic text in the cultural history of Assam, and its presence in the collective consciousness of the Assamese peoples is based as much on the experience of the film itself as it is on the lore surrounding its making, reception and afterlife. [2] However, it is necessary to separate the film from the stories and mythology that surround it, to make way for a critical appreciation of the film’s distinct aesthetic vision and finely executed form.

My reading of this film is based on the 60-minute version restored by Altaf Mazid. Like many contemporary viewers, I have not seen the film in full and perhaps may never do so. However, knowing that one is viewing a partly restored version of the film provokes a heightened awareness towards the possibility that it may not exist in its fullness. In the restored version, the film’s audio is limited and often carries noise/distortion. While the film’s subtitles allow one to follow its dialogues and narrative arc, the absence of defined and whole sound elements is nevertheless particularly felt. Film sound is not limited to dialogue or music. It includes all those elements of sound that create an aural atmosphere; little details—the sounds of wind, water, insects, animals, people—these all create a sense of what it must feel like to be at the location where the scene is set. Joymoti’s sound was lost and considering the technical limitations of the era in which the film was made, we are likely not experiencing the film at its aural best. However, given Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s commitment to Assamese cultural heritage in this film and his life’s work more broadly, it can be conjectured that his approach to sound, the film’s aural design was motivated by a will to emplace the viewer in the setting of Joymoti.

The aural experience of the restored version of Joymoti carries within it a reminder that what the viewer is experiencing is marked by a loss—a loss as much of aural clarity as of its content and design. To view Joymoti is thus to view this iconic work in partiality, and as such, any reading of the film contains within it an essential limitation.

Joymoti in its Political Milieu
Jyotiprasad Agarwala was a prominent cultural visionary of Assam whose prolific work spanned theatre, cinema, music and poetry, alongside political activism. Joymoti was the first film he made, and its making was imbued with a vision for celebrating the rich history, unique cultural life and manners of the Assamese peoples. This celebration of Assamese cultural history and life was far-sighted; it sought to chart and define a course for an Assamese cinema of the future. In terms of the political milieu in which Agarwala was working, the making of Joymoti was aligned with a tendency towards a reformist consciousness that characterised the Indian nationalist movement, generally, and shaped many dimensions of cultural production in pre-Independence India. Assam’s own colonial history was quite specific, wherein alongside economic exploitation, particular political geography had been imposed on the region to divide it spatially and culturally. [3] The region’s numerous languages and cultural practices had been denigrated to such an extent that the enforcement of colonial policies brought entire ways of living among some communities close to annihilation. Against this backdrop, cultural self-assertion was a tool of resistance against colonial domination.

Joymoti has often been considered as an allegory of Gandhian resistance. The film’s narrative centres on the episode in which Prince Gadapani goes into hiding at the behest of his wife, Princess Joymoti when he is being pursued by the followers of the unstable adolescent king Lora Roja. Princess Joymoti is then captured by Lora Roja’s soldiers. In confinement, she is persistently tortured to reveal her husband’s location and moves. She remains stubbornly silent and eventually succumbs to the torture. The film closes on a moving musical note where, against the vast Brahmaputra, we hear a song calling us to remember Joymoti’s life and sacrifice for her land. Joymoti’s silence constituted an act of political resistance and non-compliance against Lora Roja’s designs. In this measure, her silence can be seen as a form of Gandhian satyagraha, a cognate of Gandhian non-violent non-cooperation against a devious and unjust establishment. [4]

Agarwala’s turn to the narrative of Princess Joymoti reveals faith in tradition as a source of knowledge that can be called up to resist domination. The adaptation of this narrative for the medium of cinema indicates Agarwala’s acumen in reworking tradition into a form of radicalism suitable to a specific historical juncture and artistic medium. This process of transforming an iconic cultural figure for clear political purposes is akin to a process of aesthetic translation that, according to art critic Geeta Kapur, characterised the visual and performing arts of India during the nationalist movement. This process, Kapur notes, involved bringing to the surface and making visible traditional ‘myths, legends, structures of feeling embodied in symbols and revelatory icons’, adding: '. . . so as to take on new or newly adapted forms in the various arts. Tradition is thus mobilized, it shows itself to be a living tradition by fronting itself. This is particularly relevant to the visual and performing arts (as also cinema).' [5]

Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s vision for an Assamese cinema was also instilled with a will towards distinction from the popular Hindi and Bengali cinemas of the time. Through Joymoti, as through his later works, he was actively contesting popular modes of cinema that he felt would, through their reach, dominate the cinematic landscape and in turn reduce possibilities for smaller, more culturally diverse cinemas such as those of Assam. The following statement suggests his sentiments:

'In India, Indian films must be made, otherwise it would be impossible to put an end to the suction of money by foreign films . . . For some time the Assamese people, instead of comparing an Assamese production with Bengali, Hindi or American films, must take an Assamese film eagerly and
endearingly as one belonging to the first grade despite its lack of quality if there be any . . . ' [6]

Joymoti—An Experiment in Cinema Aesthetics:
Agarwala’s commitment to regional cultural assertion found a forceful articulation in his cinematic aesthetics. In the restored version of Joymoti, certain aesthetic features of Agarwala’s cinematic approach stand out. Agarwala mainly used non- and first-time actors. In his writings, he had asserted that he was influenced by the realist cinemas of Europe, and it is pertinent to note that Agarwala’s interest in realism was geared by a desire for cultural authenticity. His realism was driven by a commitment to reflecting cultural life in its everyday forms and practices. Agarwala’s work with his actors included training them for performance before a camera. Because all of them were Assamese, Agarwala also tapped into a repertoire of embodied cultural knowledge and translated it for the camera. Gestures of the body, modes of movement spanning everyday activities onto such practices as dance, speech tones and modulation, body postures including the particular gait of the eyes in interpersonal interactions—Agarwala built upon these to recreate the political and cultural climate in which the story of Joymoti is set.

Joymoti’s visual and scenic design references a whole range of Assamese material culture and practices such as weaving, folk architecture, costume design and music. Remarkably striking are the film’s sets that were made using materials such as native bamboos, banana stalks and grasses. The sets were decorated with Assamese folk art objects including the xorai (offering tray) and jaapi (traditional conical hat). A close examination of the film’s mise-en-scene reveals that Agarwala had used these objects not merely to ‘decorate’ the set, but utilised their lines and shapes to create dramatic backdrops and foregrounds within the filmed frame. Agarwala constantly experimented with camera height, distance and magnification. Joymoti is dotted with striking long-distance shots where bodies are integrated into—and co-extensive with—the landscape, thus upholding a collective consciousness of the Ahom peoples, as opposed to an individualist one.

Another distinguishing feature of the film is its extensive use of outdoor locations. Joymoti, in contrast to most films of the time being produced in studios elsewhere in India, used outdoor locations, which provide us with documentary insight into the Assamese landscape at the time of the film’s making. Visually, Joymoti offers us a very specific vision of Assam—one in which Assamese landscape and material culture are integrated into the film’s visual aesthetic, and serve in distinguishing the film’s narrative in cultural and historical terms.

Agarwala’s evocation of Assamese culture and history through Joymoti is also underpinned by an avant-garde sensibility. The most compelling articulation of this is in the film’s editing, which often deploys juxtaposition between competing perspectives. Here, the influence of the Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein’s practice of montage editing on Agarwala is evident. For instance, after Joymoti’s capture, the film uses a powerful montage sequence that intercuts scenes of her torture with Gadapani’s escape and liaison with a young Naga Princess, Dalimi, in the Naga Hills. Besides depicting parallel actions, such juxtapositions offer nuanced critical context to better appreciate Joymoti’s sacrifice.

Agarwala shot the film at a family-owned tea estate—Bholaguri Tea Estate. In 1934, this estate was converted into a film studio called Chitralekha Movietone. Chitralekha Movietone was a unique institution functioning as both a film company as well as a film school that provided training in all aspects of filmmaking. Many members of the company had the experience of being both in front of the camera as performers, and behind it, serving in some technical department of production. The reason that this institution served this twin function is that Agarwala was not simply making a film; he was laying the
foundations of Assamese cinema. While firmly rooted in an Assamese regional aesthetic, Joymoti also belongs to an international gallery of famed avant-garde works. It brought Assam’s history and culture into conversation with radical cinematic traditions of the time, while also serving a critical, anti-colonial function within its own context.


[1] Bhuyan, Lakshminath Bezbaruah, 270–71.
[2] Baishya, ‘Restore, Revisit, Remember.’
[3] Baruah, India Against Itself.
[4] Mazid, ‘Jyotiprasad and Joymoti,’ 37.
[5] When was Modernism?
[6] cited in Mazid, ‘Jyotiprasad and Joymoti,’ 37–38


Baishya, Anirban K. ‘Restore, Revisit, Remember: Reinstating the Region in Three Assamese Films.’ South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 40, no. 3 (2017): 431–46.

Baruah, S. India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. New Delhi: Oxford
University Press, 2011.

Bhuyan, P. C. Lakshminath Bezbaruah: Influence of Tradition on his Writings. New
Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1995.

Kapur, Geeta. When was Modernism? New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000.

Mazid, Altaf. ‘Jyotiprasad and Joymoti: The Pioneer and the First Assamese Film.’ In Perspectives on Cinema of Assam, edited by M. Barpujari and G. Kalita, 29–50. Guwahati: Gauhati Cine Club, 2007.