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Jonaki still burns bright

- Assam’s first hall to celebrate platinum jubilee on Jan. 17

Guwahati, Jan. 15: Jonaki had lit up the “dark unfrequented backyard” of Poki, Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla’s residence at Tezpur in Sonitpur district, when it first came up and brought the joys of celluloid to the people.

Seventy-five years down the line, the first cinema hall of Assam continues to draw cine-goers. Along with the state government, its owners — the Agarwalla family — are upbeat as they prepare to celebrate the cinema hall’s platinum jubilee on Thursday.

“On the occasion, the pro vice-chancellor of Tezpur University, Amarjyoti Choudhury, will recite poetry and singers like Malabika Bora, Durgamoyi Bora and other promising talents of Tezpur will perform the songs of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Parvati Prasad Baruva, Rudra Barua, Bhupen Hazarika and Jayanta Hazarika,” said an organiser.

The programme will start at 5.30pm at the hall. When Jyoti Prasad completed the first Assamese film Joymoti in 1935, there were no regular cinema halls in the state. He had to screen the film in makeshift auditoriums, schools, godowns and theatre halls, before he established Jonaki in 1937.

Initially, family members were sceptical about the venture but Jyoti Prasad’s pioneering zeal saw that the auditorium, built with iron trusses, brick and lime paste, mud-plastered walls and a wooden balcony, was completed within a month.

The original building was 27 feet wide and 80 feet long and 18 feet from ground to the ceiling.

“The location he (Jyoti Prasad) chose for the purpose was the dark unfrequented backyard of the Agarwalla family’s ancestral home, Poki. To brighten up and reclaim the area, he aptly named the auditorium Jonaki,” said Sreemanta Pratim Agarwala, who is currently running the hall. Sreemanta Pratim, a documentary maker, is the son of Jyoti Prasad’s youngest brother Hridayananda.

Though acquiring a cinema exhibition licence during the British Raj was a difficult proposition, Agarwala managed one in the name of Chitralekha Distributors. Just prior to the Durga Puja in 1937, Jonaki was inaugurated with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer’s Elephant Boy and it had a good beginning. After a period of ups and downs, the government cancelled Jonaki’s licence on the grounds that the structure of the building was weak.

Sreemanta Pratim said Hridayananda reopened the hall after he returned completing his education in Calcutta. “After necessary repairs and having satisfied the authorities, my father was able to obtain a cinema exhibition licence. On June 20, 1941, Jonaki was reopened. In 2009, Jonaki’s first digital offering was the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire,” Sreemanta Pratim said.

Veteran actor Nipon Goswami said he felt proud that when many cinema halls have been closed down owing to lack of audience, Jonaki has survived. “My first film, Sangram, premiered at Jonaki. I have a photograph of how Jonaki was decorated on the day.”

Even today, it is the only movie theatre in Tezpur.


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