Axone is a film by Nicholas Kharkongor, which charts the life of young northeastern residents in the narrow lanes of Humayunpur in New Delhi. Starring Sayani Gupta (who’s the most known face in the main cast) along with Lin Laishram, Lanuakum Ao, Tenzin Dalha, Dolly Ahluwalia, Vinay Pathak and Adil Hussain (in supporting roles), it’s perhaps the only film highlighted in mainstream media which narrates the experiences and the alienation of north-easterners in India.
The film maps a day in the lives of these young people who are trying to make axone or akhuni, a dish with smoked pork that is most frequently made by the Sumi Nagas of Nagaland along with various other parts of the north-east in different forms. The only problem is that it’s extremely pungent and their Punjabi landlady (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) would never allow it. They must make it for their friend Minam’s wedding in the evening. On her special day, they want something to remind her of her home, in a city that has still not accepted them in spite of having given it years.
Their only consort is Shiv, the landlady’s grandson who helps them get a cylinder and even a place to cook once they are driven out of the building. Axone describes not only the north-easterners’ experience but also the migrant woman’s plight by using their eclectic, unexplored cuisine as a tool.
Axone starts when Upasana (Sayani Gupta) comes to Zorem’s shop to buy spices for the dish. When she leaves, an oldster smoking a hookah on the street corner stares at her continuously (played by Adil Hussain, who makes his presence felt without having a single dialogue in the film). At the same time, Chanbi, her flatmate who goes to buy vegetables, hears two boys passing vulgar comments about her body and ethnicity. When she confronts them, everyone around her denies having heard anything of the sort and she ends up getting slapped by the same men. She’s humiliated and hurt, but bystanders tell her to move on and not create a scene.
This scene feels too real as a woman and former resident of Delhi, but one can never compare it to the added ostracisation that northeastern women feel. They’re constantly harassed and presumed as sexually loose, apart from being alienated and called ‘chinkis’ in metropolitan cities. I’ll refrain from even talking about how all their identities are clubbed into one, much like the clubbing of all south-Indians as ‘madrasis’ in the cow-belt. The most recent incident occurred when a woman, traveling in a train, was spit at and called ‘Corona’. She was brave enough to call out this abuse by posting a paan-stained picture of herself on social media, which most people are not able to do. One of the characters in the film is shown to have faced violence for having dyed his hair blond, which ends up having a deep-impact on his personality and leaves him with lasting trauma.
Having said that, the film balances its moments of seriousness and wit. The funniest line of the film has to be when they’re trying to enter a friend’s house and a neighbor asks who they are, since there’s a new face every day and all their faces look the same, to which one girl replies by saying, “If we all look the same, how do you know it’s a new person every time?”. There is another time when they take help from a friend called Martha, who is married to a Sikh man. Only when you get taken aback by their son, Jassi with a turban and northeastern features do you realize that no matter how liberal or woke you think you are, there is always space to drive out another ounce of prejudice.
In spite of having moments that make you think and question your thoughts about your own treatment of people who come from different communities, Axone flounders. It seems like a series of short films put together into a feature where it’s difficult to trace the progression of the plot. There are no explanations given for the motivations of the main characters nor do we see any insight about the reasons for their decisions. The cinematography by Parasher Baruah is like a fly on the wall. It shows you the smaller details and evades the harsh light of Delhi’s summers that perhaps cannot seep into these narrow lanes.
Sayani Gupta’s accent seems contrived as she keeps floating through the film claiming that she’s ‘properly’ from the northeast even though she doesn’t look like them. It’s interesting that the director has cast only one actor in this group of youngsters who doesn’t look northeastern. It puts light on the ghettoisation of communities that we often question, having overlooked grave concerns that people might have about their safety, other than wanting to relate to their peers.
Axone is an important but meandering film about the different identities and forms of discrimination that make a country. Hindi cinema is guilty of pandering to the majoritarian conscience of the Hindi-speaking male character from the northern belt. The representations that we see of women, Muslims, Dalits or people of various other ethnic groups generally come out of either tokenism or gross stereotyping. Here’s hoping that filmmakers soon realize that exploring characters from different communities will not only make for layered, culturally vibrant storytelling, but also push cinema as an art, ahead and beyond the horizon.
Aishwarya Iyer is an alumna of AJKMCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia and a freelance video producer based in Mumbai. She is interested in the relationship between politics and the visual arts which influences representations in Cinema and Popular Culture. She is an aspiring screenwriter and self-taught illustrator who hopes to increase visibility and improve representation of women on screen. You can feel free to write to her or request illustrations on Instagram about issues that bother you. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Mumbai Live