The foundation of the film industry in Assam was laid by the pioneering spirit of Jyotiprasad Agarwala. A poet, playwright, composer and freedom fighter, he learnt the art of filmmaking in Germany in the early 1930s.
Agarwala made Assam’s first film, Joymoti, a talkie, in 1935. It was a herculean task because the region had no technicians and equipment. He was a veritable one-man unit, serving as producer, scriptwriter, editor, set and costume designer, lyricist and music director.
The film’s audiographer made mistakes and the sound recorded on location wasn’t up to scratch. So Agarwala had to step in and dubbed the voices of all the characters. Joymoti cost Rs 60,000. But the film did not get the expected response from the public.
There were no cinema halls in Assam back then. Agarwala travelled to different localities with a projector to screen Joymoti. Large parts of the negative of the film are missing, but filmmaker Altaf Mazid has made efforts to salvage whatever is left of the original print.
Agarwala’s second and last film, Indramaloti (shot in 1937-1938 and released in 1939) fared much better and fetched him some profits. Bhupen Hazarika, who went on to become Assam’s best-known composer, lyricist and singer, played a stellar role in the film.
Agarwala passed away aged 43. It took Assamese two years to recover from the irreparable loss. In 1941, Rohini Kumar Boruah made a film called Manomati. It was followed by films like Parvati Prasad Boruwa’s Rupohi, Kamal Narayan Choudhury’s Badan Barphukan, Phani Sharma’s Siraj, Asit Sen’s Biplobi, Prabin Phukan’s Paarghat and Suresh Goswami’s ‘Runumi’, all made in the 1940s.
The 1950s saw several important Assamese films being made – Phani Sharma’s Piyali Phukon, Nip Baruah’s ‘Smritir Parash, Maak aru Morom and Ronga Police, Bhupen Hazarika’s Era Bator Sur, and Prabhat Mukherjee’s Puberun. Hazarika composed the music for Piyali Phukon. Another important development of that decade was emergence of young film director Nip Boruah, who directed many popular films later.
Puberun was shown in the Berlin Film Festival. On the other hand, Piyali Phukon and Maak aru Morom earned a national-level certificate of merit in 1955 and 1957 respectively.
The period between 1959 and 1969 is generally regarded as the golden age of Assamese cinema. In all 25 films were made during the era and nine of them won National Awards.
In the 1960s, Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s Lachit Barphukan, Bhupen Hazarika’s musical Sakuntala and Chik Mik Bijulee, Nip Barua’s Narakasur, Anil Choudhury’s Matri Swarga, Brajen Baruah’s Itu Situ Bahuto and Mukuta and Anwar Hossain’s Tejimola were released.
Hazarika won the National Award for best music for his work in Abdul Mazid’s Chameli Memsaab, released in 1975. Mazid earned acclaim for subsequent films like Bono Hongso (1977) and Uttarkaal (1990).
From 197o to 1982, 57 Assamese films were made. Several promising directors emerged during this period. Samarendra Narayan Deb’s Aranya (1970), Kamal Choudhury’s ‘Bhaitee’ (the first Assamese film in colour made in 1972), Manoranjan Sur’s Parinam (1974), Deuti Baruah’s Bristi (1974), Pulok Gogoi’s Khoj (1974), Padum Barua’s Gonga Silonir Pakhi (1976), Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Sandhya Raag (1977) and Atul Bordoloi’s ‘Kallol’ (1978) were the notable films that gave Assamese cinema a new prestige.
Bhabendranath Saikia triggered a new wave of Assamese films with a socially conscious brand of cinema. An acclaimed writer, he directed a string of outstanding films in the 1970s and 1980s – Sandhya Raag, Anirban, Agnisnan, Sarothi, Kolahal, Abartan, Itihaas and Kaal Sandhya.
Another Assamese cinema luminary, Jahnu Barua, emerged in the 1980s. With films like Aparoopa, Papori, Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khay, Bonani, Firingoti and Khagoroloi Bohu Door, he established himself as a globally feted director. Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khay won the Best Film National Award in 1987.
Other prominent Assamese filmmakers who subsequently made a mark are Goutam Bora, Sanjeev Hazarika, Bidyut Chakraborty. Santwana Bordoloi, Manju Borah, Jadumoni Dutta and Sanjib Sabhapandit.
Goutam Bora’s Wosobipo, a film in the Karbi language, and Sons of Abotani (a documentary) earned much acclaim. Sanjeev Hazarika’s Holodhor, Santwana Bordoloi’s Adajya, Bidyut Chakraborty’s Rag-Birag, Manju Borah’s Baibhab and Laaj, and Jadumoni Dutta’s Jetuka Pator Dore (2011) are particularly worth mention.
On the other hand, a crop of commercial films enjoyed a brief run in the 1990s. Joubane Amoni Kore and Hiya Diya Niya were huge hits. The last of such box office success stories was that of Ramdhenu. In the past decades or so, Assamese cinema has struggled to woo the audience back to the theatres.
All through its history, Assamese cinema has experienced sterile phases. According to film critic and cultural activist Nayan Prasad, innovation is the only way forward. He points out that with the availability of new digital technology, shooting a film is today cheaper than ever before. “We have to adopt new technologies, manage financial resources better and make films with controlled budgets in order to be viable,” says Prasad.
On the other hand, National award-winning filmmaker Sanjeev Hazarika believes the current crisis in Assamese cinema is actually a part of the greater turmoil that “our society faces as a whole”. He says: “A positive social change is very important for progress in any cultural sphere.”