Assam’s first actress was lured into acting
Do you know that Assam’s first actress Aideu Handique had to be lured into acting as director Jyotiprasad Agarwala had difficulty in finding a leading lady from the conservative society for the first Assamese film in
the early 1930s?
And after acting, she was socially ostracised by the villagers for three years, compelled to live in the confines of her father’s house and remained unmarried.
These are some of the interesting facts that find mention in a new book “The Moving Image and Assamese Culture: Joymoti, Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Assamese Cinema.”
Authored by Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of Assam State Film Finance & Development Corporation, the book explores the inception of Assamese cinema in the context of the state’s history and culture and its progress up to present times.
After contemplating making the first Assamese film, Agarwala found that apart from the huge expense involved, another pressing problem was the lack of actresses. As he was finding it difficult to get the lead actress for his film, he got an assurance from one of his acquaintances Dimba Gohain that he would help him in his hunt.
One day, Gohain took his teenage niece Aideu, who was then 13 years old, to the banks of the Brahmaputra river on the pretext that she would be taken on a ship ride, the book, published by Oxford University Press, says.
She was also told that a big house was floating on the river which had lots of people, markets etc.
“Having never seen or heard such a thing, a curious Aideu got on to the ship which had a house-like structure on its top. She thought she would return home but that was not to be and she found herself on the other side of the bank and in the Bholaguri tea estate in Tezpur in Agarwala’s open-air studio Chitrabon,” Sharma writes.
Aideu was very scared and started crying. When Agarwala came to know that Gohain brought her without her parents’ knowledge, he soon sent a telegram to the young girl’s father asking him to come and meet him. Agarwala assured him that once the shooting was over, Aideu would be securely sent home.
Her father first did not agree but after much persuasion, he ultimately gave in.
And just before the film’s release, newspapers published a public appeal by Agarwala on March 5, 1935. “As the first attempt at film performance by the Assamese boys and girls in an Assamese film, it is hoped that the people of Assam will view this film with a considerate eye, and bless the Assamese film artistes to fulfil their golden dreams of carrying on future film projects,” he wrote.
Written by eminent litterateur Lakshminath Bezbarua, “Joymoti” is the story of an Ahom princess (Joymoti) who sacrificed her life for the sake of her husband Gadadhar Singha, also known as Gadapani. Gadapani is the fugitive prince, who takes refuge in the Naga Hills.
The ruling prince, Lora Roja, is on a massive manhunt to kill Gadapani, and when his aids fail to find his whereabouts, they torture Joymoti so that she will tell them about her husband. But Joymoti prefers death to betrayal. “Joymoti” is a tale of supreme faith and sacrifice – a fight against oppression and dominance.
“Joymoti” premiered on March 10, 1935 in Calcutta’s Rownac Hall, under the Chitralekha Movieton banner and the show was attended by famous film personalities like Pramathesh Barua, Prithviraj Kapoor, A K Saigal and Devaki Kumar Basu among others. The original film print of “Joymoti” is no longer available. Agarwala made a reprint of the film in 1949
and re-released it.
On March 20, 1935, “Joymoti” was shown in Assam for the first time by a mobile unit at the auditorium of the then Kamrup Natya Mandir in Guwahati, currently the Bhaskar Natya Mandir.
Agarwala’s intention was clear: he wanted to make a film which could convey a cultural statement, the author says. In doing so, he chose to appeal to Assam’s history, to trace her roots to a ‘meaningful past’, to an object of pride. He found it in the legendary folk narrative of the story of Joymoti.
The film “Joymoti” showcased all that was essentially Assamese. It was neither chauvinistic nor an exclusively urban display of ‘Assameseness'; rather, it was a conscious effort to incorporate all that was indigenous to Assamese life.
This book is a journey in search of the roots of cultural self-assertion that found expression in “Joymoti”. It attempts to give an insight into the cultural history of Assam chronologically, with emphasis on the history of the performing arts, starting from folk elements to the beginnings of technical art forms like cinema.
The book includes rare photographs, newspaper articles, and interviews to take into its purview the political history of the region and the socio-cultural milieu within which “Joymoti” was made. It also includes an interview of Aideu taken by the author in 1997.
The author says the films immediately after “Joymoti” were also either historical or patriotic in nature and had a social message. The film “Siraj” ran for four weeks and within approximately one year after its release, a second print was made.
Sharma cites an interesting incident that took place in November 1950 in a tea garden named Hingirijan near Moranhat. The tea garden labourers wanted to watch an Assamese film during the Kali Puja celebrations.
Accordingly, “Siraj” was planned to be screened. However, the manager of the garden decided to show a Bengali film instead.
This was vehemently protested against by the labourers who cut off the electricity supply and ultimately, the show had to be cancelled.
Assamese cinema completed 75 years on March 10, 2010. “Within these years, we have witnessed the transition from black and white to colour films as well as technological developments from 16 mm to 35 mm blow-ups, to present experiments in digital cinema,” Sharma says.
However, she laments that through these years, Assamese cinema has also found itself struggling to keep itself alive amid the growing popularity of the pan-Indian mainstream cinema in Hindi, with some films trying very hard to be bad copies of fast-paced Bollywood films, and thereby failing miserably at the box office.
“The invasion of the home through television, cable, and satellite networks has been another major threat to the existence of Assamese cinema. Thus, within these 75 years, Assamese cinema has passed through many shades of light, both dark and bright,” the author says.