When Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwala completed the first Assamese film ‘Joymoti’ in 1935, there were no regular cinema halls in Assam. He had to screen his creation in makeshift auditoriums, schools, godowns and theatre halls. Only Guwahati, Dibrugargh and perhaps Shillong had temporary facilities to screen movies. Jyotiprasad established the first auditorium ‘Jonaki’, specifically constructed for the purpose of screening films on a regular basis in the year 1937.
Though people around him were sceptical about the success of such a venture, his pioneering zeal helped the construction work of the auditorium, built with iron trusses, brick and lime paste, mud plastered walls and a wooden balcony, completed within a month. The original building was 27 ft wide, 80 ft in length and stood 18 ft from ground to ceiling (one of the original iron trusses measuring 34 ft now rests on the entrance pillars of Jonaki complex).
The location he chose for the purpose was the extreme backyard of the Agarwala family’s ancestral home ‘Poki’ at Tezpur. The site was covered with tall mango trees and overgrown with weeds and scrub and rarely frequented by people. Jyotiprasad’s intention was to brighten up and reclaim the area. He aptly named the auditorium ‘Jonaki’ with a view to entertain and give pleasure to the people for years to come.
Getting a cinema exhibition license during British rule was a difficult task. But the rulers, perhaps, thought it would be best to accede— it would keep Jyotiprasad busy and away from his revolutionary activities. Thus armed with the permission to screen films under the banner of Chitralekha Distributors, just prior to the festive Puja season of 1937, Jonaki was inaugurated with the screening of Metro Golden Mayer’s ‘Elephant Boy’. This English film which had an Indian boy, ‘Sabu’ in the lead, attracted a steady flow of cine-goers and Jonaki did well at the start.
In those days films were transported by rail and steamer from Calcutta. With dwindling audience in the small town of Tezpur, Jonaki’s business gradually took a downturn. Jyotiprasad with his boundless talent and drive concentrated on matters of cultural and national importance and left the running of the hall to his younger brothers. Kamala Prasad Agarwala, however, was drawn into politics, while Bibekananda Agarwala was called to manage the family owned tea estate Bholaguri. With none to run the business and the population of Tezpur being insufficient to support regular shows, Jonaki was facing closure. Thus it was decided to lease out the hall to Abdul Hussain of Tezpur, at a rent of just Rs 42/- per month. Abdul Hussain tried to take the advantage of the Puja season of 1940, but failed. In the meantime, the government also cancelled Jonaki’s license on the ground that the structure of the building was weak.
Jyotiprasad’s youngest brother, Hridayananda, who had just appeared for his B SC examination in Calcutta, came home and was disappointed to find Jonaki in this dire state. His resolve to resurrect Jonaki grew strong and without much personal capital he jumped into the task. Several people helped him but he was ever grateful for the financial and moral support from his cousin Tarun Kumar, son of the Chandra Kumar Agarwala. Jyotiprasad advised Hridayananda to run the business on his own. Thus after necessary repairs and renovation, he was able to obtain a cinema exhibition license in his personal name. On 20th June 1941, Jonaki reopened with MGM’s ‘Blockhead’ featuring the famous comic duo Laurel and Hardy.
During those times, the manager’s monthly pay was Rs 15/- and machine operator’s pay was just Rs 10/- per month. The daily sales at that time ranged from Rs 60/- to Rs 70/- but sometimes dipped to a mere Rs 2.50/-. Hridayananda decided to continue his education and enrolled in the M Sc course in Calcutta. He also believed that he could select and send good pictures for Jonaki from there. But with the commencement of World War II, Japanese bombardment of the city and various types of uproar and unrest, no study atmosphere existed in Calcutta. Abandoning his studies, he returned to Tezpur in the month of November 1941 and totally immersed himself in the cinema business.
At that time, the quaint town of Tezpur was over-flowing with allied forces and a daily change of English movies altered a faltering trade to a thriving business. Daily sales varied from Rs 100/- to Rs 250/. Fortune favoured the brave and with the earnings from Jonaki, he could acquire and revive Jayashree Talkies in Nagaon and successfully run touring cinemas in other locations of the northeastern region.
In 1944, a Cinema Distribution firm was also started. Later in 1950, new RCA Projectors were installed in Jonaki and Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad expressed great satisfaction at the revival of the cinema business. Jonaki’s good fortune also helped Hridayananda to successfully involve himself in the production of Assamese feature films and documentaries.
During the 60’s, cinema exhibition business in Assam thrived. However, the roller coaster nature of the cinema exhibition business once again required fresh investment to compete with the new emerging cinema halls of Tezpur. The order of the day was to increase capacity and satisfy the film distributors who had a strangle hold on the industry. In 1970, my father Hridayanada was besieged with health issues. Having completed my education, I became involved in the expansion plans of Jonaki Cinema. Funds were scarce, and we managed to get finance of Rs 1 lakh from LICI and the original Jonaki auditorium was demolished and a new structure was established on 3rd December, 1973. Unable to execute the complete plan, with a capacity of 700 seats only, and rising competition, Jonaki’s fortune was all but buoyant.
In 1978, Hridayananda’s nephew Monoranjan Agarwala of Tamulbarie Tea Estate stepped in with financial and managerial expertise. He entrusted me to oversee the construction aspects of extending the length of the hall by another 40 feet. Under the banner of Krishnashree Enterprise, with a house capacity of 1,000 seats, despite the competition of three other cinema halls in Tezpur, my cousin, Monoranjan Agarwala successfully managed Jonaki Cinema for two decades.
During this period, the advent of television, availability of films on home devices and video piracy, affected the cinema business and saw the closure of many halls all over Assam. In Tezpur, only Anwar Talkies and Jonaki Cinema braved on. To help Cinema exhibition industry to survive, the Assam government introduced service charge on tickets. The amount collected was allowed to be retained solely by the exhibitors for improvement of their halls. At the turn of the century, despite such laudable efforts, the cinema business was once again at its low ebb.
In 1999, Monoranjan Agarwala passed away, and the onus of keeping Jonaki going once again fell entirely on the family of Hridayananda Agarwala.
This was again a very critical period for the survival of Jonaki. Despite my father’s failing health and continuous losses in business for several years, he insisted that under no circumstances we should close down the business. Box office figures hit rock bottom. But this time, technological changes in the cinema industry came to Jonaki’s rescue—the digital era of cinema projection had arrived in Assam. Though hesitant at first, my father Hridayananda Agarwala, always a forward thinking man, agreed to digitalise the projection system of Jonaki. At this time, the advice and support, from my friend Swaraj Das, a prominent businessman and himself a cinema owner from Guwahati, also convinced us to take this important step.
On 28th February 2009, Jonaki’s first digital offering to the people of Tezpur was the Oscar winning film ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. Since then business has improved considerably. In fact, some months before he passed away, my father had the satisfaction of knowing that the entire year’s (2008) box office collection was equalled by three weeks screening of the all time hit Hindi film ‘Dabang’. It is still very much a cinema hall of the masses with levy of Rs 20/- for ground floor seats and Rs 40/- and Rs 55/- for balcony and upper circle seats. Jonaki is enjoying monopoly status at Tezpur for the past year. But in the era of multiplexes, single screen cinema halls will fade away. The effort to make Jonaki everlasting remains.
The chequered history of Jonaki continues. The blessings of our forefathers, I am certain, will guide us in the future. Today in its 76th Year, Jonaki Cinema lives because of the concerted effort and contribution of several members of the Agarwala family. Perhaps the time has come for government intervention in the form of financial support and encouragement which will go a long way in keeping this historical institution and the memory of its builder, Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Agarwala, vibrant and alive for years to come.