Tezpur, the cultural capital of Assam is also the birthplace of many cultural and literary icons. Today, as it stands witness to its glorious past, it wages a struggle to carry forward the traditions of its rich heritage. One such heritage symbol is the Jonaki Cinema Hall, the first cinema hall in the North East, constructed by Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwala to screen the first Assamese film Joymoti way back in 1937.
Doom and Gloom
The cinema hall, fighting to survive and keep alive the glory of its founder Agarwala, today lies in an almost dilapidated condition. With just a handful of cine-goers and barely any decent amount of returns, the hall faces the threat of closure in the near future.
‘We rarely go to Jonaki to watch movies. It’s in such a bad condition. Neither the seats are good nor is the hall clean. People eat inside the hall and throw bottles and plastic packets wherever they like,’ says Mrs. Chettry from Tezpur, a mother of two teenaged children.
‘Though smoking is not allowed inside the hall, people freely smoke there creating problem for others. Girls too feel uncomfortable watching movies in such an ambience. In fact, it is not a suitable place for families to go and watch movies,’ she adds.
Indeed, over the years, it has been seen that the condition of the hall has not improved even a bit even as all over the region, the movie watching trend among the people changed tremendously. With the coming up of multiplexes and high-end cinema halls all over, people no longer like to wait to watch a movie on television several months after its release. Instead, they are ready to pay a little extra, and get a better experience of watching movies in a hall with better ambience and infrastructure.
The Writing on the Wall:
In the words of Muktisman Hazarika, a research scholar in Tezpur University, “Jonaki is our pride and it’s high time the hall is renovated. Obviously, it would be a costly initiative and we know that when it is done the ticket prices would go up. However, I am such a movie buff, that I am ready to pay much more, provided the hall has good toilets, good sitting facilities, air conditioned and structured with better digital technologies for sound and picture.”
Trideep Konwar, another student from Tezpur University holds the same opinion. “I think the hall is not well promoted. I have come across many people in Tezpur town who don’t even know that Jonaki is the first Hall in the North East. It’s definitely a matter of shame. The establishment of the Jonaki hall is a historic event in the history of Assamese cinema and people should be made aware of it. It should be declared as a heritage symbol and somebody, be it the owners, or government authorities or other parties, should come forward to protect its legacy.” He says.
When Business and Culture collide:
The owners of the hall however have a different concern in mind when it comes to renovating the hall. Mr. Simanta Pratim Agarwala, nephew of Late Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, who is the present proprietor of the hall feels that investing in the renovation of this hall would not be a viable business proposition.
‘Turning this hall into a multiplex would mean spending a huge amount of money, nothing short of Rs. 40-50 lakhs, which we are not even sure of recovering, going by the trend of profits that the hall usually earns. Even once in a while when a superhit or a blockbuster movie is released, we hardly make about Rs 90,000 to Rs. 1 lakh in a week. And if it is a mediocre film or an Assamese film, the profits go down to as low as Rs. 10000-15000. In such circumstances, how can we take such a big risk singlehandedly?’says Mr. Agarwala.
‘At the same time, it is not really about people paying more money for tickets. Bordeuta (uncle) wanted Jonaki to be a hall which could be accessed by the common man and hence, we cannot really hike up the ticket prices to an exorbitant rate. However, that does not mean that we shall not work on renovating the hall at all. We definitely will provide better toilets and maybe install a few more fans. However, being a very large hall, it might not be possible to have a central air conditioning system.’ he continues.
While on one hand Mr. Agarwala does not wish to compromise with the wish of his deceased uncle, on the other hand, it is also known that several private businessmen have expressed their desire to take over the hall and invest money in it to transform it into a high-end cinema hall.”
Mr. Sushil Golcha, who has renovated Eleye cinema Hall of Jorhat from similar conditions and a number of defense installations across the country says, ‘
It is probably the owner’s lack of vision and desire to invest money that has resulted in the present state of affairs. Sound investment with proper business acumen with ticket pricing remaining more or less same, this hall can be transformed into a more family-oriented ambience, keeping its old heritage intact; and this hall would definitely draw in more viewers. We have done it in Jorhat, why not in Tezpur? From a loss making unit, Eleye Cinema is earning in leaps and bounds.‘
Losing an Emotional Connect:
One can understand the emotional connect of the owners to Rupkonwar’s vision of maintaining Jonaki as a hall for the masses and also the fact that the low price of the tickets is what is still keeping the audience trickling in. However, one also needs to take into account that the majority of the present hall-goers who frequent Jonaki comprise of young college students only, that too mostly boys. And the hall loses out on valuable family audiences who would certainly not want to miss out on catching up with the latest releases if provided with a better ambience.
Further, the perfect example to quote in this regard would be the Anuradha Hall in Guwahati, which was transformed by the owner Chinmay Sharma from similar conditions into one of the best halls in Assam that too keeping the ticket prices reasonable. Going by the past records, a couple of more such cinema halls in Tezpur have met the fate of being transformed into marketing complexes. Ananta Hall turned into Ananta complex and Tribeni Hall turned into Tribeni Complex. In the event that the owners opened up their options, or if the government came forward to protect and preserve a piece of our history, then perhaps we might still be able to save our Jonaki from turning into a Jonaki Complex.