Understanding Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Cinematic Vision

in Article
Published on: 16 April 2020

Anirban Kapil Baishya

Anirban Kapil Baishya is an Assistant Professor at the Communication and Media Studies Department, Fordham University. He completed his PhD from the University of Southern California, and his Masters and M.Phil. at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His M.Phil. research focused on the history of Assamese cinema and his dissertation titled “Imagining Assamese Cinema: Genres, Themes and Regional Identity” was completed under the supervision of Prof. Ira Bhaskar in 2013.

The name of Jyotiprasad Agarwala is intrinsically linked to the artistic milieu of modern Assam. An accomplished author, playwright, essayist and musician, Agarwala was the archetypal Renaissance man of twentieth-century Assam. Despite his many talents, it is perhaps for his cinematic achievements that he is best remembered today. He made the first Assamese film, Joymoti, in 1935, roughly two decades after Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913). These were still formative years for cinema in India, and in that sense, Agarwala’s pioneering efforts can be seen as being constitutive of regional cinematic formulations in the country.

Agarwala came from a culturally active and economically prosperous background. His family-owned tea plantations in Tezpur, and two of his uncles, Chandra Kumar Agarwala and Ananda Chandra Agarwala, were well-known in Assamese literary circles. By the age of 17, Jyotiprasad Agarwala had written the play Sonit Kunwari, which later became part of the curriculum at Gauhati University. [1] This literary background influenced Jyotiprasad’s career as a filmmaker as well. Chandra Kumar Agarwala was the founding editor of Jonaki, an important literary magazine that included the writings of literary stalwarts such as Lakshminath Bezbaroa. It was Bezbaroa’s play Joymoti Kunwari that Jyotiprasad adapted into the film Joymoti.

In 1926, Jyotiprasad left India for Scotland to pursue an education in economics in Edinburgh. He left Edinburgh for Germany in 1929, where he intended to learn filmmaking. In Berlin, he became acquainted with Himanshu Rai, and, on Rai’s recommendation, found work as an apprentice at Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft (UFA), the pioneering German film company. As renowned author and friend of the Agarwala family Lakshminath Phukan notes, ‘When Jyotiprasad went abroad for his studies in 1926, he must have had an idea of making an Assamese film, otherwise he would not have gone to Berlin to get experience and training in filmmaking.' [2]

At UFA, Agarwala learnt the craft of filmmaking and also interacted with Franz Osten, the German filmmaker who had directed a number of Indian and Indo-German co-productions, including the Himanshu Rai starring—The Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929). [3] Needless to say, this period of training in UFA introduced the young Agarwala to the possibilities of the film medium. Agarwala laid out his vision of the ideal film, drawing from his exposure to cinematic traditions of Europe. In an essay titled ‘Asomor Film Silpa Gorhat Asomiya Dorkhokor Dayitwo’ (The Responsibilities of the Assamese Film Viewer in Shaping Assamese Cinema), Agarwala mentioned that the inspiration for Joymoti lay in the realist film traditions of England and Russia, rather than the theatrical style of Hindi and Bengali cinemas of the time. [4]

In his biography of Agarwala, author Apurba Sarma notes, ‘Jyotiprasad, during his long stay in Europe . . . must have seen, read, or heard about the contemporary [sic] masterpiece, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by Karl Dreyer and despite its totally different treatment, was inspired by the theme of a women's protest against the powerful royalty for the good of the people.' [5] Sarma also emphasises Agarwala’s devotion to local traditions of art and culture, and points out that the filmmaker draws from historical and mythical sources including traveller’s notes, images from religious scripts, and the architecture of the Satras to aid his set-design, while also studying ‘the behavioural attitudes of the Assamese aristocratic women as also of the common man on the street.' [6] Thus, Agarwala’s cinematic vision was a syncretic one that sought to fuse his knowledge of film form and technique drawn from European cinemas with the cultural experiences and historical specificities of Assam.


The emergence of Joymoti and Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s vision of film also need to be considered alongside the context of colonial India. Agarwala himself was a Gandhian and after his return to India in 1929, was involved with the Tezpur Congress. In 1932, Agarwala was arrested for his involvement with the Civil Disobedience Movement and served 15 months in prison. Lakshminath Phukan writes that during his incarceration, Agarwala became even more obsessed with the idea of making an Assamese film. [7] he wrote of Joymoti: 'Joymoti tells the story of the Ahom princess who was killed in a particularly bloody period in the history of pre-colonial Assam. This was the period between 1679 and 1681, when the 28th king of the Ahoms, Ratnadhwaj Singha, assumed power at the age of 14. Because of his young age, Ratnadhwaj Singha was known by the sobriquet ‘Lora Roja’, meaning ‘boy-king’. But the actual power was held by his Prime Minister, Laluksola Borphukan. His reign was infamous for the mutilation and maiming of possible claimants to the throne, in order to firmly secure his place as king. Joymoti’s husband, Gadapani (later Gadadhar Singha) had to flee the kingdom because of this, while Joymoti was tortured to death for information about his whereabouts.'

In the context of colonial India, the tale was rife with political potential. The story of Joymoti’s martyrdom and its subsequent role in her husband’s ascension to the throne assumed an allegorical power that symbolised patriotism and the determination to struggle for freedom at any cost. This is reflected in Joymoti as the film ends with a song featuring the river Brahmaputra; coming right after the scene that depicts Joymoti’s death, the lyrics of the song run: Leaving the earthly frame, our Joymoti took on the body of light and left an imprint, everlasting, of true love on earth. Joya had, for her land, shed her blood . . . you maids and mistresses of Asom, prepare to shed a tear or two. [8]

The theme and lyrics of the song bear a strong resemblance to some of Jyotiprasad’s other compositions. In 1929, he had written and sent two songs from Berlin, to be sung at a meeting of the Asom Chatra Sanmilan presided over by Tarun Ram Phookun. One of the songs was titled, ‘Kone Kole Tuk Xoktibihin Buli?’ (Who has called you powerless?), while the lyrics of the other song ran: ‘Konkonahiseaai’kpujiboloi . . . kiyopahorilibijoyabahu’rbol, tur ostrokeni nu gol’ (All those who have come to worship the motherland . . . why have you forgotten the strength of your victorious arms, where have your weapons disappeared?). [9] Thus, Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s film utilised the story of Joymoti to strike a chord with the patriotic spirit of the time.

But its political message is not the only reason Joymoti is remembered. The production of the film itself has become legendary and highlights the challenges faced by the early filmmakers in the country. Lakshminath Phukan writes that on being released from prison, Jyotiprasad Agarwala took on the responsibility of the family’s tea garden in Bholaguri near Tezpur, and simultaneously established his film company, ‘Chitralekha Movietone’. [10] Agarwala took advantage of the space of the estate and set up a makeshift studio in which his film would later be shot. In Cinema in Assam, Prafulla Prasad Bora recounts how the tea factory was also used as a rehearsal space and the residential nature of the studio that doubled up as a training camp for actors and technicians. [11] This arrangement was facilitated partly by the support of Agarwala’s own family. Named ‘Chitrabon’, the studio was inaugurated in March 1933 by Jyotiprasad’s father, Paramananda Agarwala. Lakshminath Phukan recounts how Jyotiprasad termed his father, Paramananda, the pitamahswarup (grandfather incarnate) of Assamese film. [12]

In a 1934 article in the newspaper Asomiya, Agarwala recounts that Joymoti had been made despite considerable difficulties and vagaries of weather. [13] Given that the film was made at a time when there was absolutely no infrastructure for filmmaking in Assam, such difficulties were bound to arise. This story of Joymoti’s making against all odds persists in later accounts of the film as well. For instance, Prafulla Bora writes that ice, which was needed for developing film, was brought ‘from Calcutta by steamer up to Gamurihat . . . by train up to Rangapara [and] thereafter by motor about 50
miles to the studio’. [14] Thus, despite the availability of such capital, the making of Joymoti was clearly ridden with risk—both financial and technical. Agarwala employed the services of an untested sound system developed by the Faizi brothers of Lahore. His motivation to utilise the Faizis’ system remains unclear, but it is widely known that the sound recording was below par and backfired immensely. Film critic Altaf Mazid calls the Faizi brothers ‘the most despicable villains of Assamese films’. [15] According to some accounts, failure brought out the genius in Agarwala. Bora writes: There were many flaws in the sound-recording done by Faizi. After film shooting and sound-recording, the film was taken to Dacca by Jyotiprasad for editing. It was really bolted from the blue for Jyotiprasad to detect in the editing table that there was no sound for half the film . . . But Jyotiprasad never gave up hope. He did a miracle. He hired a sound studio in Dacca for a day and he alone dubbed the voices of about 30 male and female artists and recorded 6000 feet of dialogue. [16] Although accounts such as these lean towards the hyperbolic, they hint at a kind of artistic entrepreneurship on Agarwala’s part—an idea that is central to the haloed stature of Joymoti in Assam’s cultural landscape. Lakshminath Phukan recounts that even during its own time, the shooting of the film and the process of filmmaking attracted intellectuals and writers such as Nilmoni Phukan and Ananda Chandra Barua, [17] which reflects the curiosity and enthusiasm that Agarwala had managed to generate about the medium of film. Early advertisements of the film showcased the pioneering nature of the venture and emphasised that Assamese artists were not lagging behind in technical prowess. For instance, an advertisement by Chitralekha Distributor in Dainik Batori (August 30, 1935) says: 'The film Joymoti has sparkled in the hands of its Assamese craftsmen. Watching this film, the Assamese people will feel courage in their hearts, strengths in their minds and enthusiasm in their work. This film is a shining proof of the fact that the Assamese people can hold their own in front of others. [18] A later advertisement from 1949 in the newspaper Asomiya (April 30) also declares that Joymoti is a demonstration of ‘how much Assamese artists have achieved in their very first effort’ [19]

In 1934, in a brief article in Asomiya titled, ‘Joymoti Film: Raizoloi Gohari’ (An Appeal to the People), Jyotiprasad Agarwala wrote: 'I hope everyone will watch Joymoti with fondness since it is the first Assamese film and the first attempt of Assamese boys and girls at acting . . . Just as this film has drawn out the shining face of Joymoti from the dark vaults of history, our venture hopes to shine the light of Joymoti across the different states of India . . . Through the light of Joymoti, Assam will shine with pride in the eyes of entire India'. [20]

Thus, Jyotiprasad Agarwala presented his vision of the film as something for and by the Assamese people. However, the reception of the film was mixed. The film was first shown at Calcutta’s Raunaq Mahal theatre and only then in Assam at the Bhaskar Natya Mandir in Guwahati. Lakshminath Bezbaroa, the playwright of Joymoti Kunwari, on which the film was based, praised Joymoti as an attempt to make a film with a distinctively Assamese cultural idiom, in the March 19 (1935) issue of Tindiniya Asomiya. [21] In the March 23, 1935 issue of Asomiya, Gopinath Bordoloi, then chairman of the Municipal Board (and later Assam’s first Chief Minister after independence), wrote a glowing review of the film, noting its historical value and its realism in the depiction of the life of the Assamese society of the past. Bordoloi wrote: ‘Seeing the depiction of the Assamese court, I am reminded of the European pictures that depict the courts and palaces of Rome, and I can freely say that the film made by Chitralekha Movietone is by no means of any lesser quality than those.' [22] However, other reviews were not as kind. Agarwala’s friend and acquaintance, Umesh Chandra Barua, criticised the film in the April–May (1935) issue of Abahon, saying that if the novelty of the product were set aside, Joymoti, as a film, had glaring faults in terms of screenwriting, tempo, camera work and sound. [23] Similarly, Lakshminath Phukan, despite noting the film’s importance and acknowledging Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s genius wrote: ‘I was not as dazzled by Joymoti as I thought I would be. The cinematography and sound were not up to the mark. Otherwise, the film would be able to compete at par with technically sound Hindi and Bengali films.’ [24] At the end of the day, the film was a financial failure. Made on a budget of Rs. 50,000, Joymoti recovered less than half of its cost of production.


Agarwala never recovered from this financial loss and the commercial failure of the film continued to haunt him. In his essay ‘The Responsibilities of the Assamese Film Viewer in Shaping Assamese Cinema’, Agarwala’s words indicate disappointment as he writes: ‘The history of Assamese film art in Assam is a tragic story.' [25]

Agarwala made only one film after Joymoti. His second film was titled Indramalati and released in 1939, but unlike the historical subject of his previous film, Agarwala’s second film was based on a romantic relationship. The film was titled after the names of its two lead characters, Indrajit (played by Manabhiram Barua) and Malati (played by Raseswari Devi). It also featured a very young Bhupen Hazarika who acted in the film and sang the song, ‘Biswo Bijoyi Naujowan’. Indramalati was shot on a meagre budget that severely limited the resources available to the filmmaker. In an essay titled ‘Asomor Film Silpo’ (The Film industry in Assam), Agarwala writes that Indramalati helped cover the loss for Chitralekha Movietone but at the cost of aesthetic finesse. [26] Nonetheless, when the film was released on July 31, 1939, the Asomiya newspaper carried a favourable review, noting its ‘beautiful photography, clean sound, appealing art-direction and Bhupen Hazarika’s harmonious song’. [27] The premiere of the film was inaugurated by Gopinath Bordoloi at Guwahati’s Sati Talkie House, and the review carried high praise for the film from him. This review mentioned Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s filmmaking as a contribution to the development of Assamese society and culture, especially his tenacity in training young and inexperienced Assamese youth in the art of acting. It is
perhaps for this reason that despite making only two films, Agarwala is remembered as a pioneering filmmaker. His stature is not merely a result of the fact that he made the first Assamese film. Rather, it was his acute sense of responsibility towards Assam’s cultural sphere, and his introduction of a literary and artistic sensibility into his filmmaking philosophy, that made Jyotiprasad Agarwala an important figure in the landscape of Indian cinema.

[1] Hazarika, ‘Ekhon Sithi,’ 579.
[2] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 3.
[3] Borpujari, ‘The Hills Have Eyes.’
[4] Gohain, ed., Jyotiprasad Rachanavali, 537.
[5] Sarma, Jyotiprasad As A Film Make, 27.
[6] Ibid.,32.
[7] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 3.
[8] The lyrics, translated by Pradip Acharya, are from the digitally reconstructed version of Joymoti compiled by Altaf Mazid.
[9] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 4.
[10] Ibid., 3.
[11] Bora, Cinema in Assam, 10.
[12] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 4.
[13] Agarwala, ‘Joymoti Film: Raizoloi Gohari.’ 3.
[14] Bora, Cinema in Assam, 10.
[15] Perspectives on Cinema of Assam,
[16] Bora, Cinema in Assam, 11.
[17] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 3.
[18] Chitralekha Distributor, ‘Joymoti.’ Author’s translation.
[19] Asomiya, ‘Joymoti,’ 5. Author’s translation.
[20] Asomiya, ‘Joymoti,’ 3. Author’s translation.
[21] Gohain, ed., Jyotiprasad Rachanavali, 595–596.
[22] Bordoloi, ‘Joymoti Filmor Bixoye,’ 5. Author’s translation.
[23] Gohain, ed., Jyotiprasad Rachanavali, 597.
[24] Phukan, ‘Otitor Rengoni,’ 6.
[25] Gohain, ed., Jyotiprasad Rachanavali, 536. Author’s translation.
[26] Gohain, ed., Jyotiprasad Rachanavali, 532–532.
[27] Asomiya, ‘Indramalati,’ 7.


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———. Joymoti. Film. Bholaguri: Chitralekha Movietone, 1935.

———. ‘Joymoti Film: Raizoloi Gohari.’ Asomiya, n.p., 25 Phagun (1856 Xak), 1934.

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