CultureCinema Axone: The Problematic Representation Of The Nepali Community In The Film

Axone: The Problematic Representation Of The Nepali Community In The Film

Dear makers of Axone, Nepali women need not be othered from empowerment. Axone betrays a decent portrayal of a Nepali character even when Upasana centres the maximum screen presence throughout the film.

The movie Axone, released 12th June 2020 on Netflix was a flick much awaited by the Northeastern population of India. With hardly any representation in mainstream Bollywood, a film with an all North-Eastern Indian cast was something that most of us had high hopes for. The director, Nicholas Kharkongor, does a good job in highlighting the hubs of the North-Eastern Indian population and the racism they face on a daily basis. It’s a simple story that weaves itself through a timeline of a single day – perhaps a way to show the depth of the problem that exists in mainland India. Though Axone was mostly praised and well-received by social media, my personal opinion is that this was because not everyone knew about the problematic undertones of this movie except mostly the North-East Indian population. ‘Axone’, the much-awaited movie which had stimulated the interest of many nation-wide falls short on several high expectations. 

Though Axone was mostly praised and well-received by social media, my personal opinion is that this was because not everyone knew about the problematic undertones of this movie except mostly the North-East Indian population. ‘Axone’, the much-awaited movie which had stimulated the interest of many nation-wide falls short on several high expectations. 

As soon as I completed watching Axone I wasn’t sure what baffled me more: the number of lazy assumptions about the Indian- Nepali speaking community or the misrepresentation of one’s race and food habits which was just plain ignorant. I believe that the movie deserves plaudits for including Nepalis and our own trivialised marginalisation and struggles both at the hands of North East and mainland India, and addresses casual racism and the causes of alienation. There are a lot of things that did not sit well with me and its negligence on our part will underpin such erroneous misrepresentation as part of our already existing complex nature of identity and culture.

The first misconception I would like to address is that Upasana Rai (the Nepali protagonist played by Sayani Gupta) mentions that Nepalis don’t cook Axone. One question that arises here is that if they mentioned that Nepalis don’t cook it then why was Upasana so keen on cooking it? The portrayal was extremely displeasing and piquing. Wasn’t there another way to subtly portray Nepalis as trying too hard to fit in the North East crowd?

Also read: Axone: A Rare Film About The Northeastern Experience In Our Metros

Axone known as ‘Kinema’ is an ethnic food of the Kirat community, mainly Limbus and Rais and in fact, these communities have a centuries-old tradition of its fermentation. Ironically, the most amusing part of Axone was that a ‘Rai’ character incorrectly stated that Nepalis don’t cook it. So Axone, in fact ridiculed and discredited centuries-old food culture of the Nepali and particularly, the Kirat Community. 

Moving forward, the biggest blunder that Axone committed was casting a non-Mongolian looking actress to play the character of a woman whose ethnicity is ‘Rai’. I personally ween that a movie which is only just about two hours long can’t carry the burden of pondering deep into the complexities of race and identity because ‘North-East’, as opposed to the mainland imagination of being a singular category, is a homeland to a large number of culturally diverse tribes and ethnic groups. However, the character of Upasana Rai leaves distasteful evidence of how little research has been done at the filmmaker’s part to flesh out a Nepali character.

The nature of identity politics in the Nepali community is complex be it in the country of origin i.e Nepal or in the case of Indian- Nepali speaking community in Sikkim or Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal or the sparsely scattered Nepali communities nationwide. I will now address why choosing ‘Rai’ as a typical Nepali girl was inappropriate to showcase Nepalis in general. I can only provide a brief outline on the subject of race which is as intricate as it is vast, in the case of the Nepali community.

There are distinct groups of Nepalis –

 i) The Khasas: Indo-Iranian: Chettri and Bauns with 100s and more of surnames under them who are migrants from India, who formed the Nepali nation-state and introduced the Nepali language.

ii) Janatis: Sino-Tibeto-Burmanese: They are Sherpas and Tamang who migrated from parts of Tibet; Rais and Limbus who are more Sinic and whose ancestry and migration is linked to China; Gurungs and Mangars are a mix of Burmese and Tibetid people. Each tribe has its own distinct culture and language

 iii) Newars and Tharu: Newars are a mix of Indo-Iranian and Sino-Tibetan people whereas Tharus are a mix of Tibeto-Burmese and tribal people of North Indian plains. 

What were the makers of Axone thinking while casting a non-Mongolian looking actress to portray a character of Mongolian race? Sayani Gupta surely wasn’t an exemplary person to be cast as a Rai character in Axone given that it is a Mongoloid race which beholds physical traits like small eyes, small nose and round faces.

In case of Nepalese from Nepal, they equate their nationality to citizenship rates than ethnicity and in case of  Indian-Nepalis, it is just the linguistics that identifies them as ‘Nepalis/Gorkhas’ because they speak in Nepali despite belonging to different caste or ethnic groups. This background of ethnicity is referred to here, to highlight that ‘Rais’ belong to the Mongolian race and are one of the most Mongolian-looking ethnic groups in the Nepali community. So what were the makers of Axone thinking while casting a non-Mongolian looking actress to portray a character of Mongolian race? 

Sayani Gupta surely wasn’t an exemplary person to be cast as a Rai character in Axone given that it is a Mongoloid race which beholds physical traits like small eyes, small nose and round faces. Although her features are very close to that of Khas Nepalis of Aryan origin but that again, does not justify that the makers miserably failed to distinguish between the Mongolian Nepalis and the Nepalis of Aryan origin. The fallacious portrayal and misrepresentation based on their appearance was highly inaccurate and misleading and a disgrace to the Rai community. 

It is also to be reiterated that when the film prescribes to the notion that Nepalis do not look like a person from the ‘North-East’ – it could imply that Nepalis are not subjected to the same racial experiences and discrimination. It erases the history of violence and racial discrimination that the Nepalis are subjected to, in mainland India.  

Please do not misunderstand me – I have nothing against Bengalis (Sayani Gupta is a Bengali) and this is also not to instigate hate against the Bengali community, but given the power dynamics between the mentioned communities, the casting of a Bengali actress as a Nepali in Axone has hurt the sentiments of many Indian-Gorkhas. This takes us back to the century-old identity struggle for Indian Gorkhas, in the context of which, the Bengali bhadraloks have time and again asserted power over our fellow Nepalis. The imposition of Bengali language on non-Bengali speaking communities in West Bengal can be cited as one of the recent examples of the power monologue. 

Axone: The Problematic Representation Of The Nepali Community In The Film
Dear makers of Axone, Nepali women need not be othered from empowerment. Axone betrays a decent portrayal of a Nepali character even when Upasana centres the maximum screen presence throughout the film. Image Source: Rogers Movie Nation

Meanwhile, one needs to understand the different pattern of migration that has already happened in the series of histories of the Northeast region. In Axone, Nepalis have been spoken of as “outsiders” multiple times and to my understanding, the mention of ‘outsider’ is related to the anti-Nepali sentiments which had grown during the historic Assam Movement which was predominantly against Bangladeshi migrants but soon, Nepalis were also included in the anti-foreigner discourse. This sentiment soon extended to other North-Eastern states where it quickly turned into direct and violent attacks on Nepalis leading to ethnic cleansing. Looks like the makers carried along with them the Anti-Nepali sentiments in Axone as well and instead, ended up generalising and reinforcing such sentiments towards all Nepalis.

Dear makers of Axone, Nepali women need not be othered from empowerment. Axone betrays a decent portrayal of a Nepali character even when Upasana centres the maximum screen presence throughout the film.

Also read: Watch: Northeastern Woman Brilliantly Tackles Racial Stereotypes Using Satire

The Nepali character’s lack of relatability to the community was further underscored by her laughably unrealistic, cringe-worthy Nepali accent and tone. Chanbi and Minam were such strong and impressive characters. Where on one hand Minam was attempting to crack the civil service exam and on the other hand, Chanbi was portrayed as diligent and career-oriented. Meanwhile, Upasana was projected as naive and simple, only waiting for a man to come and marry her. Dear makers of Axone, Nepali women need not be othered from empowerment. This is very similar to how Nepali characters in Hindi Cinema have historically been typecast as either a ‘Darwan’ or a victim of trafficking. Axone betrays a decent portrayal of a Nepali character even when Upasana centres the maximum screen presence throughout the film. Also contrary to the movie’s depiction, most Nepalis living in the cities speak English quite eloquently without the distasteful accent. Though most of the Nepali speaking community are first generation learners, especially in higher education, they are doing quite well even though it might be tough for them. However, Axone has failed to showcase the good part and kept them docile while depicting the character of Upasana Rai in the larger discourse of Northeast people. 

Axone certainly is an eye-opener into the world of racial discrimination and prejudice that people from the North-East are constantly subjected to in metropolitan areas. I believe that Axone truly is a stepping stone to encourage acting talent cast from the North-East and possibly widening of Bollywood to include and portray beyond North-India. 

This article is based on a purely subjective experience because everybody puts their own spin on the movie from their perspective. This article is not to denigrate the cast and makers of Axone but rather comes from a need to rectify such misconceptions, which if not corrected might engender new forms of social stigmatisation, generalisation and stereotypes against the Nepali community. 

The writer is currently pursuing Masters in Sociology under School of Liberal Studies from Ambedkar University, New Delhi. She can be found on Instagram.

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  1. Niyama Rai says:

    First of all, I laud and thank the writer for bringing this to a larger audience. Like all the others, I with all my friends was excited for the movie, we’d planned days before to watch it as soon as it was released on Netflix, and when it finally did come out, the sheer level of ignorance and misrepresentation of the nepali community appalled and angered me. As someone belonging to a pure “Rai” ethnicity (not to be confused with Rais from Bihar), I was surprised to know that Upasana played by Sayani Gupta was a Rai. Because, no way in seven heavens would a Rai girl look like that. Rais, as the writer has already said “are more sinic”, and Upasana?? Did she look like that?? Hmmm…?.I guess no one googled “Rai” before casting Sayani Gupta as one. She fits the criteria for a “Pradhan”, maybe a “Chettri” Girl, but definitely not a “Rai”.
    And at the very beginning of the movie, Upasana says that Nepali people don’t eat Axone. Really??? Kinema (Axone) is almost synonymous with Rai people and she playing a “Rai” character, says that…?. Lord help me.

    Yes, this movie sure has brought the issues of NE people to the forefront, but the misrepresentation and misinformation about the Indian-Nepalis is something to be pondered upon, because that is what is being projected to a much larger audience and the misconceptions about the already poorly treated Nepalis is not something to be taken lightly.

  2. Chandini Singha says:

    I have many nepali friends with the surname “Rai”. Few of which do not have mongoloid look that you are referring to, nor they have ever tasted axone in their life.. and i accept Sayani’s accent was a little weird but she did look like a nepali..
    Nicholas has Made a Naga comedian act as a Khasi in the movie too and seems like everyone is fine with it(Merenla Imsong), knowing they dont belong to the same race.
    So please, dont bring cast, creed , race, etc. in everything u do in life. Get over it.
    See the intention behind making this movie..
    The message was to create awareness amongst the mainland indians and also among the northeasterners.
    The movie shows what a northeasterner has to go through everyday in the mainland and also Depicts what a non tribal from the north east feels between his/her tribal friends.
    At the end, we are human living in the 21st century..
    Get over it.

  3. Ronit Sharma says:

    Could be! Questionable! Why is she chosen despite there are many from Northeast who could better fit the character and play the role?That would have portrayed the scene more genuinely.

  4. Yam Bhurtel says:

    Firstly, being Indian, people should stop calling themselves as Nepali/ Nepalis, which literally means a person of Nepal. All Gorkhas are not Nepalis, all Nepalis are not Gorkhas. So, let’s learn to call oneself Gorkha, speaking Gorkhali language.

  5. Yam Bhurtel says:

    In this article, if the word Nepali is replaced with Gorkha (for community) & Gorkhali (for language), then the concerns raised in the artical are genuine. The Gorkhas are group of tribes like the Khas, Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Tharu, Limbu, Newar, Khambu, Dhimal, etc. And the Gorkhas are may be Indians, Nepalis, Bhutanese, etc. But refering the Gorkhas as Nepalis solely will be wrong, as even in Nepal all Nepalis are not Gorkhas, though Nepal is also called the country of the Gorkhas. In Nepal there are other Nepalis like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Marwari, etc. who are not Gorkhas. The language of the Gorkhas is also Gorkhali, which was later renamed by the Govt of Nepal and later by Govt of India as Nepali. Hence, it should be simply Gorkhas, whose language is also Gorkhali.

    • Devita says:

      I didn’t like the portrayal of Nepali people in this movie Axone which I was eagerly waiting for. Article well said about cringe Nepali accent, words used were funny. There should be more research on Nepalese community before depicting it in any kind of media.
      But I guess even some people who claim to know are not aware of the fact. For instance, Gorkha it is a place is Nepal and these people from Gorkha along with Prithivi Narayan Shah united Nepal as a whole country. Gorkhali is people from Gorkha who were a brave warrior. These people prevented British invade in Nepal but this asked for Nepalese people to fight for British that is why we had Gorkhali in British india and in independent india. They settled everywhere around the world but after Nepal’s majority, it is in India.
      I don’t know what do you want to call yourself but if you are using word Gorkhali your ancestors would be from Nepal.

  6. Gargi says:

    While l can’t claim to understand the identity conflict and/or confusion many Nepalis must have felt with this particular portrayal, I could not help but notice that there is no mention of the Madheshis, an immigrant community who are mostly settled in the Nepal Terai. They do recognise as Nepali although their physical attributes are not in line with the average person’s perception of Nepali people. If you are explaining ethnic groups from Nepal, should this particular community not be mentioned at least in passing? Isn’t this a case of marginalization as well?

  7. Yam Bhurtel says:

    That’s what I have mentioned. Nepali is not a community but it’s purely those citizens of Nepal, be it Gorkhas of Nepal or the non Gorkhas ( Maithili, Bhojpuri, Marwari, etc) of Nepal. All are Nepalis. The Gorkhas seem confused with community n nationality, thanks to the selfish Gorkha self proclaimed leaders who continue to create confusion among general public by calling the language of Gorkhas as Nepali, instead of Gorkhali

  8. Prescilla Tamang says:

    To all my Fellow Nepalis who resonate with my stance on the movie I understand where the concurrence is coming from -with our voices being unheard and suppressed and us being treated with disdain as second class citizens in our own country . Clarifying the use of term ‘Gorkha’ ‘Nepali’ and ‘Nepalese’ in academic terms the use of the words ‘Gorkha/Nepali’ is used to denote Indian- Nepali speaking community and ‘Nepalese’ to indicate Nepalese from Nepal. The word ‘Gorkha’ is more political. With the Indo-Nepal treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950 ,the influx of Nepalese migrants from Nepal jeopardised our identity as Indians again and therefore the Gorkha leaders encouraged the use of the term ‘Gorkha’ (although the origin and use of the term happened way before the treaty) to denote Indian-Nepali speaking population to distinguish us from later migrants. I have therefore used both the terms ‘Gorkha’ as well as ‘Nepali’ “. About not including Madhesis in the article please note that my article solely represents Indian Nepalis not Nepal’s identity politics therefore being inclusive of Madhesis in the Indian Nepali discourse would be a blip on a radar here making it useless to even spitball about it. And to people who have Rai friends who look nothing like Mongolian please note that I’m representing the community as a whole including their history of race. In Nepal organisations like MNO (Mongol National Organisation) exists ,who emphasis on racial identity to differ themselves from the Nepal’s mainstream Hindus . This is mentioned here to clarify that there are organisation who claim their community to be Mongolian therefore please don’t mention such exceptions like your friends not looking like Mongolian your are generalising plus ridiculously disgracing complex identity politics of Mongolian Nepalese. Also your friends not eating ‘Kinema’ by choice or not being introduced to it doesn’t mean that the whole Nepali community doesn’t not eat it . In fact it is a much relished dish in every Nepali household possible. I have mentioned that Sayani Gupta does hold features close to that of Aryan Nepalis but if you read my article attentively I have mentioned distinctive races and their ancestry links to clarify that you can not Generalise all Nepalis to look racially alike. Sayani Gupta holds similar features to that of a upper caste Aryan origin Nepali Hindu woman.

  9. SHIBANI GHOSE says:

    Is the writer feeling offended due to the actor’s dark complexion?? Just wondering?

    • Prescilla Tamang says:

      My point is you can’t generalise all Nepalis to look racially alike. Nobody raised the issue of skin colour (all skin colours are beautiful ) . I have a dark complexion myself .

  10. narayan says:

    I can empathise and broaden the premise even further to accommodate many other minority communities in it when Prescilla Tamang writes brilliantly (but in brief) on the improper conduct in the field of art and creative expressions…..the fault of poor knowledge….I think it’s elementary and people need to work on to improve their own blurred vision rather than looking at the size of an eye.

  11. Abhishek Singh says:

    Well, Prescilla, well most things are correct but within Nepali Speaking Community, this is misunderstood.

    If you go by ethnicity, Nepali are actually Newari People. The Khas King expansionist idea made the language common. Nepali language evolved over time.

    And your very idea that Khas migrated from India is totally wrong. People were staying in present day Nepal from 1000s of years. You cannot say they migrated from India.

    @Yam, if you do not want to identify yourself as Nepali and want to identify as Gorkhali it’s fine. But most Gorkhali identify themselves as Nepali.

  12. Tamang says:

    Replying to miss chandini singha ! Just because u have one or two RAI friends who do not look like a nepali/gorkha doesn’t mean u can generalise the whole RAI community having Indian features which infact isn’t true also just because ur friends haven’t tasted axone/ kinema doesn’t mean it gives u or the makers to manipulate facts and food history of a particular community or a region. Yes merenla imsong has been potrayed as a khasi girl is quite understandable because she has got monoglian features typical to the northeast Indians! Fun fact naga and mizos are from the similar race while their communities are different while in the case of sahani gupta she belongs from a different race forget about the community! Also a mainlander telling us not to question the makers is the perfect example of power assertion over the minority just because her perception of a RAI person is different than the actual reality. Let me give u an example would it be ok if a Asian/White girl played a role of an Indian lady in a Hollywood movie? I bet not!

  13. Sabi says:

    My two cents. Is this a documentary on the ethnic communities in Nepal? No. Then why are we even bringing in this point about the features of a Rai versus others. This movie was an attempt to show the discrimination that people from north east face in india. And I think it did deliver on that.

    Many times we see movies where the actors do not look like the protagonist in real life but they do such a wonderful job with the acting that at the end of the movie, they seem just like the character. I think that’s what Sayani Gupta did. I have a couple of friends from Nepal and I could relate to their mannerisms, accent while I was watching this movie. I would say she did a good job.

    The movie is about being discriminated, and by bringing in Rai vs others, or bengali vs whatever, we are defeating this real issue. My request please go beyond these notions of looks etc. We should rather discuss if we have issues with the content of the movie or how the characters acted, cinematography etc.

    At the end of the day, we are Indians, and this is the 21st century!

    • Prescilla Tamang says:

      When T-series ( an Indian YouTube channel) released a song sang by a Pakistani Artist ,Indians started to beat the drum of jingoism and patriotism and finally had the video removed but when a person from minority community clarifies their communities misrepresentation and raises questions against casting of a Bengali woman as a Nepali many insensitive people ask them to “get over it”. Hypocrisy ka level earth ko cross Karjata hay . Also when a person from educating you on their grievances and oppression please kindly try and listen to them . Not everything can be considered as an academic debate.

  14. Naga says:

    Axone in not kinema ethnic food . It was invented by SUMI’S of Nagaland.
    Don’t spread lies if u don’t know the history.
    Who gave the right to kinema to change the name of Axone.
    What a shame…!

    • Prescilla Tamang says:

      Hi please read or re-examine my article carefully . I never stated that ‘Axone’ (known as Kinema in Nepali ) was introduced to India or elsewhere by Kirat Community. It is as original and authentic to Kirat and Nepali Community as it is to Nagamese.

  15. Yang Rai says:

    It is just a movie, a FICTION!
    People needs to get some chill, learn to enjoy things, enjoy life. Too much of butthurt culture everywhere.

    There is a thing call documentary incase someone wants to showcase in detail a history, culture, history.

    There is enough of so called critics everywhere, you’ll find them pop up in every hooks and corners, spilling unnecessary awareness that only cause harm/hatred.

    Learn to get less offended, life is so much better and easier that way.

    From a Rai.

    • Kezia Jacobs says:

      Don’t be Mr innocent/Mr Ignorant please, I know what you mean.
      I know it, I’ve been there too when I was a child but I grew up and realised that we need to talk about things that are important. It is important because it carries truth.
      My dear friend wrote this, she is smart and intelligent and if you say “people needs to take a chill” please think again.
      This isn’t a lie like Harry Potter or some folklore, she’s spreading our culture’s root which is important for people to know and educate their minds.
      You talk about hatred dear, but ain’t you reversing it as well.
      Lots of love, don’t take this in your heart please rather support and learn.

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