Restoring a piece of cinematic history
By Utpal Borpujari
New Delhi: Ever heard of a royal palace made out of banana tree stems? Incredulous it may sound, but that was one of the innovations that a cash-strapped cultural genius in Assam had to deploy while making Joymoti, the first film of Assam and the entire present-day North-East India that was released in 1935.
Assam’s cultural icon Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, deeply influenced by emerging European cinema, was mad enough to make a film in Assam 73 years ago, that too giving it a realistic treatment when filmmakers elsewhere in the country were largely tackling socio-religious themes. Mad because he spent a huge sum of his own money, earned from the family-owned tea gardens, to make the film when the state practically had no cinema theatres.
A similar madness seems to have seeped into Altaf Majid, a critic-turned-documentary filmmaker, who has spent a huge sum of hard-earned money from his own pocket to digitally restore the available seven reels of the original print of Joymoti, without any help from anyone, including the state government.
The restored version, that gives a more or less complete narration of the storyline of the original film, comes with English subtitles, and was first screened internationally at the Bollywood and Beyond film festival in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2006, followed by at the Encounters With Asian Cinema festival in Rome and the Munich Film Festival. As the film gets screened at the ongoing 10th Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian & Arab Cinema in New Delhi, it will come with a “slight sound correction” that Majid has carried out with the help of Kolkata-based sound engineer Subhadip Sengupta, again spending around Rs 31,000 from his own pocket.
“In that sense, it is an ongoing project for me – I try to improve on the restoration work as and when I save some money,” says Majid, quite aware of the reality that it will have to be personal effort since the Assam government, despite the archival importance of the work and despite being clearly aware of it (state culture minister Gautam Bora had travelled to the Stuttgart festival to bask in reflected glory), has not stepped in to help fully restore this film that arguably is the first Indian film to have a realistic treatment.
“Sometime back, I had got an estimate done by Prasad Film Laboratories of Chennai, and they had informed me that around Rs 30 lakh would be required to fully restore the film. A Singapore-based company informed me that to do the full sound restoration alone, Rs 12 lakh would be needed, but that would be useless if the visual part is also not corrected,” says Majid, whose restored version comes with the inherent location and camera noise of those times.
Joymoti remains a highly-important but still-unknown entity in Indian film history, and that has to do with more than it being the first Assamese film. Agarwalla, the scion of a family that had migrated to Assam from Rajasthan for better opportunities but ended up actively participating in Assamese literary and cultural movements, combined the knowledge acquired during a brief training at Berlin’s UFA Studios, inspiration from Soviet realist filmmakers of those times, Assam’s socio-cultural history and his highly-nationalist feelings to churn out a well-told screen story.
It is also a tale of the innovations that Agarwalla had to deploy to shoot his film at a makeshift film set he had erected at family-owned Bholaguri tea estate on the north banks of the Brahmaputra.
The film, like many others of that time, virtually got lost, till the director’s younger brother Hridayananda Agarwalla accidentally discovered seven reels of it in a depleted condition within the junk lying in his car garage. Dr Bhupen Hazarika, another cultural icon of Assam who had cut his cultural teeth under the tutelage of Jyotiprasad, used these seven reels to make a documentary titled Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Aru Joymoti (Jyotiprasad and Joymoti), and Majid culled out the original footage of the film from this documentary to develop a one-hour film that tells the story of Joymoti. “I watched Dr Hazarika’s film in 1985, during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Assamese cinema, and found that ‘Joymoti’ was a bit different from the other Indian films of the 1930s. I found that Jyotiprasad was the only filmmaker of those times who had followed the Soviet realist school of filmmaking, when others in other parts of India were completely devoted to Hollywood. This finding compelled me of seeing the film with a complete new perspective,” says Majid.
“There is no doubt that Jyotiprasad is one of the few original filmmakers. But we the Assamese are yet to discover ‘Joymoti’, though we have discovered, to tailor our ultra-nationalist agenda, his songs, poems, and to some extent his essays,” he says. It goes without saying that the rest of India is yet to discover the creative genius that Agarwalla was.
Incidentally, Joymoti is also about the tragic life story of its heroine, Aideu Handique, who was socially-boycotted for her almost entire life by villagers and was forced to remain unmarried just because she had addressed a stranger as “Bongohor Deu” (as Ahom royal women used to address their husbands) on screen. Director Arup Manna has just won a National Award for his Assamese film Aideu, on this tragic story, but the film is yet to get a commercial release in Assam. But that is another story of yet another mad filmmaker from Assam.
(An abridged version of this article was carried in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, on 11-07-08)