Pick of the Week: Axone
A rare and important film that peels off layer by layer the inherent racism stewing in Indian society. Before we go about debating Indian celebrity support for Black Lives Matter, this delightful, homegrown film about a group of friends from the Northeast of India living in New Delhi, trying to throw their friend a wedding party, is an essential watch for every Indian.
At a time when xenophobia and prejudice, intricately woven into our collective mindset are being regurgitated in acute and violent ways, Nicholas Khargonkar’s indie Axone brings them to life with a novel, sharp yet humorous narrative. The film opens with two women, Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Upasna (Sayani Gupta) frantically running from pillar to post trying to cook a special dish for a special occasion: it is their best friend Minam’s wedding day and the dish is her favourite: smoked pork with ‘axone’ (“akhuni”), a fermented soybean paste, commonly used in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast to give a distinctive umami flavour to food. Akin to a lot of fermented foods, it has a sharp, strong aroma which unfortunately seems to be repulsive for people who have not grown up eating it. Making things worse for Chanbi, Upasna and their friends, they’re attempting to cook the axone in their rented apartment in Humayunpur, bang in the middle of an unforgiving city like Delhi.
On the surface, Axone is a slice-of-life film, steering away from any didactic. It is a film about a group of 20-somethings trying to ensure their friend has a bit of home with her on her special day, by cooking their favourite food. You might find yourself asking - but isn’t that a basic right? Why do they have to struggle so much for the right to cook their own food in their own home? It’s because food is only the beginning in Axone. During the course of the day, as the group navigates everything that could go wrong: from bigoted neighbours and an uncooperative gas cylinder to interpersonal jealousies and disputes, the film unravels a whole set of problems that the characters have to deal with, not unlike the experiences many Northeastern folk living in the “mainland” have. In an interview with The Telegraph, director Nicholas Kharkongor says, “It’s actually not difficult for someone from the Northeast to think of a story like this... For a North-easterner living in Delhi or Bangalore, it’s a rite of passage to be able to cook your food. So, everyone goes through an Akhuni story or a Tungrymbai story (both fermented soya bean dishes typical to the North-east).”
The film brings to life the incredibly layered levels of prejudice faced by the Northeastern community in mainland cities. Ranging from ‘casual’ discrimination to instances of violence being discussed, the racist attitudes towards Northeast Indians is infused into almost every character in the film, whether it is the typical Delhi-aunty character of Maataji (Dolly Ahluwalia) and her good-for-nothing son-in-law, their freeloading landlord Gajendar Chauhan (Vinay Pathak) or the thin tightrope being walked by her grandson Shiv (Rohan Joshi), who despite being friends with the group and eventually helping them with their mission, can’t help but give in to his ingrained presumptions about his neighbours, hiding his insensitivity and lack of awareness behind dry humour and irony, because “arrey Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, hain na?” He comes from a good place, and his intention may be to help out his ‘new’ friends. But systemic prejudice runs so deep that problematic attitudes immortalised in oft-heard ‘jokes’ roll off his tongue effortlessly, regardless of being free from malice.
Khargonkar continues to dig deeper. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, Chanbi and her musician boyfriend Bendang are buying vegetables when they hear obscene comments being passed about Chanbi. It is an everyday reality for women from the northeast to be subjected to derogatory racist and sexist comments like ‘malai’, to which Chanbi confronts them. In the dispute that follows, one of the men slaps her, leaving her in shock. To add to this, when Bendang is asked whether he heard any lewd comments passed, he submissively shakes his head. Bendang’s story too is interesting, his history and experiences of facing discrimination in Delhi having reached breaking point before. From his frustrated attempts at trying to learn the words to the popular song ‘Uthe Sab Ke Kadam’ from Basu Chatterjee’s Baton Baton Mein because his clients want Bollywood to his complete reclusion when Chanbi questions his manhood, the film very cleverly weaves in the effects of systemic prejudice on modern millennial relationships.
But Axone goes beyond highlighting racism against Northeast Indians to pointing out the prejudice amidst the victims themselves. This comes out in one of the most effective scenes in the film, when Bendang pushes away Shiv and yells, "Get away, you f*cking Indian!" Shiv is visibly shocked and hurt. He asks Korem (Tenzing Dalha), "Tum log apne aap ko Indians nahi samajhte kya?" (Don't you guys consider yourselves Indians?). Another instance of a simmering rift within is the fact that Upasna is not Northeast Indian. She’s Nepali and constantly feels like an outsider to their group. But in some ways, it is this very aspect of the screenplay that eventually bogs the film down - while attempting to capture every aspect of the group’s internal and personal relationships, the plot becomes convoluted and feels a bit burdened. We were also wary of some of the casting choices. An interesting cameo by Adil Hussain playing the prying vagabond bystander, presumably the wary eye of society on the Northeastern migrant community, doesn’t really propel the film in any particular direction. Sayani Gupta’s Nepali accent also feels contrived as she slips in and out of it conveniently and takes away from an otherwise endearing character.
Kharkongor talks about casting and the politics of it in an interview with The Indian Express, saying, “In Axone, for example, actor Tenzin Dalha, who is of Tibetan origin, plays Zorem, a Mizo. “You can begin by thinking that it would be nice to cast a Mizo actor for that role, but it’s not possible in an indie film. You can’t get actors from all the tribes of the Northeast, so you have to keep the larger objective in mind.” No actor from the Northeast has found acceptance in the film industry. There’s the exception of Danny Denzongpa, and although he became one of the most iconic faces of the Hindi film industry, it didn’t stop him from becoming typecast as the ‘ultimate baddie’ with a love for tiger skins and no mercy.
With the coronavirus pandemic resulting in greater accounts of racism as people ignorantly attribute their “anti-China” attitudes towards Northeast Indians, Axone becomes even more relevant now. And the director effectively uses the metaphor of smell to highlight this alienation faced by the Northeast Indian community. But to its credit, the film refuses to be insular in its telling even if it is constructed within a tight-knit group of Northeast Indian friends. It feels balanced, lived in, and steeped in a variety of experiences they go through while making a home in hostile cities amidst racist people. That, along with shots of the narrow lanes and cramped spaces, heighten the sense of claustrophobia that the community faces without ever making it feel foreign. But even with its honest and relatable screenplay, strong cast of supporting actors, and tactful and humorous handling of systemic prejudice and alienation, what we liked most about the film is that it never strayed too far from being a movie about a group of friends who simply want to do something selfless for their friend. And yet, it also made the ground reality of facing racism as palpable for the audience as it is for Indians hailing from the Northeast every single day.
Now streaming on Netflix. Nicholas Kharkongor is a screenwriter and director. He debuted with the film ‘Mantra’ starring Rajat Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin and Adil Hussain. Axone is his second film.