Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, a scion of the Agarwalla family of Tezpur, was a multi-faceted genius, who besides being Assam's first filmmaker was also one of the greatest Assamese playwrights. He was also the first to introduce the `western wave' in Assamese filmmaking.
A lyricist and composer who gave shape to modern Assamese music and dance, a poet with deep patriotic fervour, a journalist, eminent prose writer and an artist-philosopher whom the people lovingly named Rupkonwar, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla straddled the social arid cultural life of Assam like a colossus. He imbibed his poetical and journalistic talents from his uncle Chandrakumar AgarVvalla who too was a great poet and the editor of Chetana and Asamiya, two famous Assamese journals. He was also deeply influenced by Gandhiji, who stayed at his house during his visit to Assam.
Jyotiprasad was born on June 17,1903 at Dibrugarh. His great grandfather Navrangram Agarwalla had come to Assam in search of business and had first settled in Goalpara, later he shifted to Gamiri, a town in Darrang, now known as the Sonitpur district. There he married Sadari, a daughter of the local Rajkhowa family
His eldest son Haribilash married Kumari Maloma, daughter of Bharam Hazarika of Gohpur and had five sons - Bish nuprasad, Chandrakumar, Paramananda, Krishnaprasad and Gopalchandra. Jyotiprasad was the son of Paramananda whe shifted from Gamiri to Tezpur. In 1936 Jyotiprasad married Devjani, daughter of Khargeswar Bhuyan of Dibrugarh. Thus, over the years, the Agarwallas completely merged into Assamese lift through marriage and active participation in the social life and ways of the local people. They adopted Assamese as their own language and dedicated themselves to the cause of the people.
Jyotiprasad wrote his first play Sonit Kunwari at the age o1 14, when he was still a school student. After finishing school in Assam, Jyotiprasad went to Calcutta and joined Subhas Chandra Bose's Calcutta National College. When the British shut down the college, he went to England and joined the Edinburgh University. In England he became more interested in studying British dramaturgy Visionary that he was, he was nurturing the idea of making a film in Assamese.
Soon after he left England for Germany where he finally got a chance to transform his vision into reality He visited some of the film studios in Germany and tried to pick up the art and tech nique of film making. But this was a time-consuming task and Jyotiprasad became restless. So he came back to Assam to take up the task of filmmaking.
True he had picked up some theoretical knowledge but he did not have the time to learn the technical know-how and other practical aspects of filmmaking. He was, however, lucky enough to get in touch with Himansu Roy and Devika Rani who werE busy completing their own project Karma and Light of Asia. Jyotiprasad discussed some of the prospects of filmmaking with them. Taking along all these ideas he returned to Assam.
Two lead characters of Joymati Kuwari, Godapani and his consort Joymati, belonged to the Tunkhungia clan of Ahom but Godapani though quite fit to be king was dislodged through conspiracy by one Lora Raja who with his collaborators managed to kill or maim all who could stake a claim for the throne. Godapani aware of the plan, fled to the adjoining Naga hills to free himself from death or being crippled.
Unable to find Godapani, Lora Raja's men imprisoned his consort Joymati and started questioning her about her husband but Joymati despite inhuman torture did not disclose any information about her husband. Godapani in the meantime got asylum in the house of a Naga couple whose young and lovely daughter Dalim gave him company for a few days. Their relationship turned romantic but Godapani who always had Joymati's thought in his heart controlled himself and ultimately left Dalimi and came back to the plains. When he heard about the death of Joymati he gathered his men and with grim determination fought and Lora Raja and assumed the throne as Godadhar. This part was however not adapted for Jyiprasad's film Joymati.
Jyotiprasad did not take the whole play for his film. He actually adapted the theme and made required additions and alterations for his film. He introduced different forms of Assamese dances particularly the jhapi and khatasur badh bhowna (traditional ritual theatre prevalent in the villages) to create greater local appeal.
Jyotiprasad was very fastidious about having an authentic Assamese backdrop in the film, which is why he had great difficulty in choosing indigenous costumes, ornaments, utensils, dolas and other paraphernalia. Choosing suitable faces for the female roles seemed almost insurmountable. He had to visit different villages in search of typical Ahom faces. At that time Assam did not have any professional theatre group unlike Bengal. Assam did not have a silent era of filmmakers either.
Jyotiprasad himself appeared in a small role and danced the jhapi in Joymati. Jyotiprasad planned the decor and indigenous materials like bamboo, timber, the trunk and bark of plantain trees were used. Some of the sequences such as one spy jumping from the top of a beetle nut tree to another were captivating. The wide Brahmaputra, the hills and hillocks of Assam and the silvery streamlets provided Jyotiprasad with exquisite landscapes for the film.
At first Jyotiprasad wanted to make a silent film. That would have also cost him much less and he could have avoided much of the difficulties he had to later face. But to his misfortune, during the early period he met one Faizi Bhai of Lahore who claimed to have developed his own sound system. He assured Jyotiprasad that including sound in the film would not add much to his costs.
Lured by Faizi, Jyoti floated a company called Chitralekha Movietone and put up an improvised studio called Chitrabon in one of the warehouses of their tea garden Bhoilaguri at Tezpur itself. Naturally it had to be a rudimentary studio without any laboratory or printing machine to enable Jyotiprasad to check the rushes. He could see only the finished product which was 6,000 ft in length. He and his associates found that the finished film was an all-round disaster.
Faizi Bhai's sound system utterly failed. Dialogues and songs were distorted and on many occasions these were not audible at all. A horrified Jyotiprasad did not know how to resurrect the film. He went to Lahore with a copy of the film but Faizi Bhai was unable to help.
Jyotiprasad, in an attempt to salvage the film, he hired a studio in Lahore and single-handedly tried to do something. He edited the raw film, and then put his skills in ventriloquism to use as he recorded the voices of more than half the actors including some of the ladies. All this in the days before dubbing! With the fresh copy of the film he went to the Kali Films and Film Services Laboratory in Calcutta, to do whatever was possible to resurrect the film. While re-working it, he introduced some rudimentary colour. Finally he was able to release it.
While in Calcutta he persuaded Leela Devi (Lily) to record the last song of the film in her deep sonorous voice, bringing out the pathos of the film. Though sung as a background number, the song was very poignant.
Thus Joymati the fourth audio-visual film of the country was released at Rounak Mahal showhouse in Calcutta on March 10, 1935. Later, on March 20, it was brought to
Guwahati and released at the Kumar Bhaskar Natya mandir, where it ran for a full month. The viewers received the film with warm appreciation and congratulated Jyotiprasad on his first venture, in spite of some defects still being there in the film. The number of cinema houses in those days was very limited which is why Jyotiprasad's cousin Tarun Chandra Agarwalla joined him with a touring cinema unit and moved about in some of the towns and villages of Assam.
Borphukan's speeches in the royal court dubbed by Jyotiprasad himself gave us an idea of how Assamese was spoken in the royal court. Critics and connoisseurs agreed that despite its faults Joymati was a great achievement.
A couple of years later, in 1939, Jyotiprasad launched his second film Indramalati. His primary aim was to recover some of the losses incurred during the making of Joymati. It was based on his own story and surprisingly he finished the film with only two days of shooting in the studio. Late Gyanadaviram Barooah, the then principal of Guwahati's Earle Law College, added dignity to the film by participating in a small role. Gyanadaviram Barooah's eldest son Manobhiram was the hero and the heroine's role was assigned to a young girl named Raseswari. Bhupen Hazarika also sang a few patriotic songs as a cowherd boy. This film, made on a shoestring budget, gave some profit to Jyotiprasad.
But after this, his health completely broke down. He could not concentrate on his work but was unable to totally suppress his creative urge. He wrote a few poems and songs, revised his play Rupalim and Nimati Koina and with great difficulty wrote a new play Labhita which also broke new grounds in Assamese drama.
Jyotiprasad died on January 17, 1951. Throughout Assam, this day is still observed as Sadou Asom Silpi divas in memory of the Rupkonwar. In 1961, the government mooted the idea of establishing a public sector studio, the first of its kind in India, on the outskirts of Guwahati in Jyotiprasad's memory. The studio was named Jyoti Chitrabon Studio. And was later transferred to an autonomous society for better functioning and has now been improved with central government finance. Recently a life-size bronze statue of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla was installed in the studio.