In the history of Indian cinema are a few filmmakers who, by virtue of their creative ability, intense labour and extraordinary perseverance, have come to be considered genius. D G Phalke, V Shantaram, Pramathes Barua, Himansu Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray are some such figures. Traveling through the little roads of Assam, we find another member of that pantheon: Jyotiprasad Agarwalla (1903-51), one of the greatest cultural figures to have been produced by the state. He made only two films, far less than other filmmakers, yet with his first film alone he could be distinguished as a radical auteur of all India. Nevertheless, he is little known.
Joymoti, released in 1935, added a new chapter in the chronicles of Indian cinema, primarily in the discourse of realism. Further, Jyotiprasad was the only political filmmaker of pre-independent India, though there were many in post-independent India, starting with Ritwik Ghatak. Above all else, Joymoti is a nationalist film in its attempts to create a cultural world using the elements of Assamese society. It is the only work of its kind of that period.
Biographers of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla are often mystified with the diversity of his interests. From a playwright in his mid-teens, to a popular dramatist, to a newspaper editor; first a student of law, then of music; composing tunes originally by blending local and Western music, later writing revolutionary poems and songs; writing children’s literature, then art criticism, then intellectual essays. Jyotiprasad established a makeshift studio to make the first Assamese feature film, and later transformed the space into a cultural centre dedicated to the causes of the people. He organised a volunteer force for M K Gandhi’s Salt March; he was labelled by the imperial government as an absconder, surrendered, and was imprisoned twice. He joined in the Communist-led uprising of 1942; he resigned from a government body in order to protest the compulsory contribution by the government to the World War II effort; he was president of the first India People’s Theatre Association conference in Assam. The list is endless. One constant remains throughout, however: politics was inseparable from Jyotiprasad’s works, whether in poetry or drama, dance or theatre, music or moving image. Throughout his varied career, we see the same conscientious artist striving to express himself in aesthetic terms – with a worldview of his own, immersed in deep love for Assamese literature and culture.
The making of the film Joymoti is remarkable on many counts, yet two things are particularly striking. First was the form of the constructed imagery that discarded norms of Indian cinema (read: ‘faded photocopy of spicy Hollywood’) that had been prevalent since its birth in 1912. Second was the director’s inflexible determination in achieving the concept of that form in the truest possible way. These two intertwined, complimentary aspects cannot be discussed separately. For revealing the natural life of a particular region of Assam, Jyotiprasad decided he would have to develop his own style rather than import elements from elsewhere. Established actors are far removed from the types of characters essential for a lifelike portrayal; studios based in other parts of the country are either too busy producing films for mass consumption, or too incapable of feeling the pulse of the alien concepts espoused by Jyotiprasad.
Jyotiprasad wished to follow the doctrine of cinematic realism as expressed by the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov (although back then, the term in vogue was ‘innovative cinema’). Kuleshov demanded that all things theatrical be banished from films, so as to make way for the aesthetic value of documentary truth, montage and real-life material. His ideas of a new film culture were founded as per changes that had occurred in the Soviet Union after the revolution in 1917. Jyotiprasad came across these ideas while studying in London. He was a visitor to the German government-founded UFA studio in Berlin for six months. There, he took up the idea of ‘innovative cinema’, as something capable of embracing the spirit of anti-colonial uprising in India. For his active role in the non-cooperation movement against the British, he had been officially declared an absconder prior to his journey to the West. For him, there was no question: only now could a new culture begin.
The content of Joymoti is also innovative: a widely popular legend of a 17th century princess of the Ahom dynasty who died of the torture meted out by a puppet king. Joymoti had remained silent about her husband, who had fled the state and whom the king had wanted to kill as a competitor of the throne. The oppression and passive resistance of the film’s story paralleled the situations prevalent in India during 1930s British rule. Thus, the realistic depiction in the film was a political approach, contradicting the theatrical style of acting, costume and sets, which at the time were the dominant features of Indian films. Cinematic content of productions in other Indian regions were also overtly religious, based on mythology. Contrary to such films, Joymoti was based on real historical materials – although history books are silent about a particular lady named Joymoti.
Studio in Assam While Jyotiprasad pursued Kuleshov’s ideas on filmmaking, he increasingly wanted the culture of film to take hold in Assam. He was perfectly capable of organising financing that could have allowed him to shoot his film in any major studio in Calcutta or Pune, but his ideology barred him from doing so. The idea subsequently arose of establishing his own studio in Assam. Jyotiprasad was deeply sceptical about any misrepresentation of the traditional culture of his land. He also felt that, as cinema had already attained worldwide popularity, without a filmmaking centre the people of Assam would lag behind culturally.
The studio in Bholaguri was a large concrete platform, with open-air enclosures of bamboo mats and banana plants. It used the sun as its only source of light. Jyotiprasad floated newspaper advertisements for actors and actresses, mentioning brief outlines of the film and descriptions of the characters. His idea was to get ‘types’ for his characters, not seasoned artists, even offering remunerations for successful candidates. One of his preconditions was that potential actors needed to be from ‘respectable’ family backgrounds, as opposed to those from red-light areas that had been used during the 1930s in Calcutta. After a prolonged search and detailed interviews, he brought together the chosen ones to acquaint them with his characters as well as with the techniques of filmmaking, with an eye towards establishing a film industry in Assam. Few of them had ever even seen a film. He sought out a trio, Bhupal Shankar Mehta and the Faizi Brothers, from Lahore as cameraman and sound-recordists. He brought to Guwahati those individuals who were still fresh and yet to be weighed down by the commercially-dominant Hindustani cinema (the term Jyotiprasad used in his writings), whose hub at that time was in Lahore, across the expanse of the Brahmaputra, Ganga and Indus plains, in Punjab.
Jyotiprasad designed the set using bamboo hats and mats, deer and buffalo horns, Naga spears, and other traditional materials. A museum-like property room was also created, where the director culled traditional costumes, ornaments and handicrafts for the set’s decor. For developing film, ice was brought from Calcutta by steamer, train and automobile. Joymoti might have allowed Jyotiprasad to project the political values of the ‘Assamese’ screen-images. But compared to the works of other filmmaking regions of undivided India, it was a disaster in terms of technical quality – particularly sound. The cheap battery-operated sound-recording system chartered from Lahore turned out to be quite inadequate, which he found out only at the editing table in Lahore during ‘post-production’. With limited money, he could not return to Assam for re-recording. In that part of then-India, there was no possibility of getting another Assamese-speaking person. Finding no other option, Jyotiprasad accepted the default output and dubbed about thirty characters with his own voice, including those of the female characters.
Back home, there existed just two cinema houses in the then-undivided Assam, in Guwahati and Shillong. These were highly inadequate to ensure a return on his investments. He proceeded to build a movie theatre for himself in Tezpur, and arranged a number of itinerant shows around the state. People turned out in large numbers to witness the marvel of Assamese moving images, besides paying homage to the legendary protagonist namesake. Nonetheless, the audience failed to appreciate its merits, partially due to naiveté in recognising the film’s realistic approach.
Although he had been an heir to his family fortune, Joymoti left Jyotiprasad bankrupt. Despite his pre-eminence, he was never a representative of the film trade, nor was he able to change the course of mainstream filmmaking. Four years later, in 1939, he made his second and last film, Indramalati. It was shot in a Calcutta studio with an eye towards the box-office. Although he was able to recoup his original productions costs, proceeds from Joymoti never materialised, and Jyotiprasad shuttered his studio thereafter.
Regional realism Discussions about realism in Indian cinema (here confined to ‘nationalist’ and socially conscious films that have been regarded as landmark Indian works) usually start with four films made within a four-year period prior to 1947. They are Bimal Roy’s Udayer Pathe (1944) and its remake, Humrahi (1945), Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1945), and K A Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal (1946). After Independence, this list would include Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Pachali (1955), this last of which opened a new discourse on ‘regional reality’.
With the exception of Pather Pachali, this list includes several dominant themes and oppositions: the struggles between the haves and have-nots, the country and the city, and the tenant or peasant and the landlord or moneylender. In format, the films are characteristic in turning to Hollywood as a model – although this dynamic still takes place within the Bombay mode of production. There are no radical stylistic departures in demand for realism. The actors in these films were mostly established stars, although studios tried to refashion them as ‘common’ men and women.
Joymoti has yet to figure in discussions related to realism and Indian cinema. This oversight may be partly due to the film having been made in a marginal-language area, and partly due to non-circulation of the film since its release in 1935. When compared with those films listed above, Joymoti appears as perhaps the most pioneering work in depicting realism in Indian cinema – both in concept, and in the persistence in realising that concept. Even the phrase ‘regional reality’, which has been used for Pather Pachali, perhaps could be redefined by going back to this work of Jyotiprasad’s.
Joymoti may also be seen as India’s first feminist film. Three of the film’s female characters – Joymoti herself, her close friend Seuti, and the king’s mother – were against the royal court’s politics. Although they were not vocal in their disagreement, their tactical and silent protests are quite noteworthy. Furthermore, viewers see a host of women joining them, all of which are unusually realistic female depictions. Indian cinematic women were otherwise painted as mother, goddess, vamp, prostitute, hunterwali, et al – full of grace, beauty and seduction (See Himal Nov-Dec 2005, “’She’ and the Silver Screen”). Jyotiprasad’s care in his depictions of his female protagonists can be traced from his very first play, written at the age of 14. Throughout his subsequent decades of playwriting, there is one binding commonality through his plays: the critical hand that the female characters have in determining the stories’ major events. After Joymoti, however, the Indian woman would have to wait until the 1950s to appear in her full, real form on movie screens of the Subcontinent.
It is not appropriate to say that Jyotiprasad Agarwalla of Assam needs to be re-discovered by the world of Southasian cinema, because he was never discovered in the first place. It is time, in the rush of today’s Hindi/Hindustani film world to embrace the world market, to look back at an unsung director who was a true pioneer of realism. It is even possible that digging so far into the past will inform current media practitioners in a way that their own future works may steer closer to reality, and away from the frivolity to which many seem to have succumbed.