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In Axone, Northeastern Women Are Cooking Up A Lesson For An India Where Casual Racism Is A Diet Staple

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India’s unity in diversity is a concept that is drilled into our heads since school. Unfortunately, no amount of essay writing and textbook chapters can override the prejudices we pick up from the real society we live in. The norm today is if anyone looks, speaks, dresses, eats or even prays differently than us, we immediately turn belligerent towards them. Here we are, sympathising with Black Lives Matter, when in our own backyard, we treat our countrymen as outsiders. Nicholas Kharkongor’s film Axone, about the ‘other’-fication of Northeast Indians in their own country, drops on Netflix at a time when they’re being targeted because they look like our hostile neighbours, the “Cheeni”, who “gave us coronavirus”. And while we’re all about ‘Migrant lives matter’.

What’s cooking in Axone?

Axone, pronounced as Akhuni, is directed by Nicholas Kharkongor , and stars Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram, Tenzing Dalha, Lanuakum Ao, Merenla Imsong, Asenla Jamir, Rohan Joshi, Dolly Ahluwalia, Vinay Pathak, and Adil Hussein (in an interesting cameo). It is the story set in the span of a single, exhausting day in the lives of a group of friends who are preparing for a friend’s intimate wedding ceremony. A crucial centrepiece of this wedding feast is a Naga dish of smoked pork, which is cooked with the titular Axone.

The use of Axone in cooking results in a pungent smell that could be unbearable to the untrained nostril. And this, as these friends know, is a huge puncture in their plan. Why? Well, for starters, the women, Upasana and Chanbi, who are trying to cook for their bride-to-be roommate Minam, are all Northeast Indians who live in a rented apartment in Delhi. For those familiar with the lay of the capital land, it has designated areas based on people’s geographical affiliations, religious beliefs and even language.

These girls, though living in an area that has a sizeable Northeastern population, are aware that they’re still treated as ‘outsiders’. To show you just how much, a multitude of instances are peppered throughout the film. Like when Chanbi gets eve-teased as she and her boyfriend Bengdang are buying groceries, not just because she is a girl, but a girl who looks ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’, which for some reason has always appealed more to the sexual fantasies of testosterone men. When she tries to stand up to him, she’s pacified and her allegations dismissed.

As for her boyfriend, his refusal to support his girlfriend may seem like meekness or cowardice, but it has a more sinister origin that can be attributed to the very same bigotry.

But you see, their joy and eagerness for the special day emboldens them. And despite their best efforts, their cranky old landlady and the rest of the building can smell the cooking. The African expats living in the building can’t bear the smell, a plot point that plays out very well. The scene where one of the men in the building unwarrantedly threatens a Chanbi is a powerful scene that depicts just how strong our bias against and alienation of another culture can be. Even someone as headstrong as Chanbi, who was ready to fight just a few scenes before, cowers in the face of such unadulterated rage and has a panic attack.

The rest of the film is these girls’ quest to prepare that one dish and throw their friend Minam, the bride, a wedding replete with as many traditions as possible. But of course, while battling the claustrophobia caused by other more ‘accepted’ traditions constricting their space to breathe freely.

What happens when you’re forced to cook in enclosed spaces?

One of favourite things about Axone is that it has mostly managed to adhere to this golden rule of good advertising: Don’t tell what you can show. The conversations between the characters are simple and insightful, and establish how the hopes, dreams, struggles and joys of this group of people are the same as anybody. Their love for food, their pre-wedding celebrations with the bride’s friend getting drunk, the complications in their relationships, their clothes, the language they use to communicate with each other, which is often Hindi/English, much any other young person, except most of us don’t experience that kind of alienation. 

But what director Kharkongor, cinematographer Parasher Barua and production designer Yasmin Sethi have done is shown, quite literally, how despite these similarities, these people are still confined to a box, and have to hide their culture. From the very first scene in the film, where Upasana, Chanbi and Zorem are buying pork and axone like contraband, to the fact that they have to hide the pungent fragrance of their dish behind the lie of a ‘septic tank odour, it is evident that they have to suppress their true selves to assimilate into the society they live in. When shunned for an already small apartment, they shift base to an even more confined space. It is small, but at least they can be themselves there.

The biggest example of this claustrophobic existence is the cooking trajectory of the axone-infused dish. The dish is never completed when it is being cooked secretly in these confined spaces, or when Chanbi and Upasana have their minds occupied with other issues and are under pressure to make everything perfect. But when they finally let go of their rigidity, and begin cooking without any fear, that’s when it smells and tastes like perfection.

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Did we forget to infuse this unity dish with diversity and sprinkle some tolerance?

Do you know how high a fight over food can escalate? Remember the mob lynchings over beef? The constant trolling of vegetable biryani? The squabbles over the smell of cooking seafood in residential societies? The fact that we can hate another human so much over the food they consume continues to baffle me. Thanks to a heavy dose of ego, our appetite for conflict has been exacerbated. Why have we forgotten to take our tolerance pills?

The characters of Shiv and Bengdang depict two extremes of the spectrum. Despite being raised in a society that constantly feeds him bias, the overly helpful Shiv is not influenced by negative aspects of it. He does a lot of the misappropriation, such as wanting a ‘northeastern gf’ or being aware of their different cultures, but he doesn’t treat anyone differently. In fact, in this setup, it is easy to think Shiv is the outsider who is trying to fit in with this group of people who he thinks are pretty cool.

Bengdang, on the other hand, has seen the worst horror of this ostracization. So much so that he has probably given in to his oppressors’ beliefs that he is not an Indian. He shuns Shiv’s efforts to be friendly, and withdraws into the confinement of his culture, because that’s where he feels safe.

A dish is only as good as its ingredients, right?

Axone gets so many things just right that you could pretty much enter this dish into Masterchef. While the characters, both the leads and the supporting ones, are so well written, I believe that the actors have done a splendid job in making them feel relatable. Sayani Gupta as Upasana warms your heart with her innocence and sneaky wisdom. Lin Laishram’s Chanbi is such a measured performance, and you can see her character really evolve through the movie, her headstrong-ness tempered from being impulsive to being considerate. Tenzing Dalha’s confused act is a perfect side dish, and Merenla Imsong infuses some fun comic moments.

I think Rohan Joshi’s hyper is going to be a favourite. His role could’ve become annoying din in an otherwise serene movie, but instead it’s like that lemon squeeze which is such an underrated flavour added to the dish. Dolly Ahluwalia and Vinay Pathak are doing their thing fabulously as always. As for Adil Hussein, I’ll let you figure who you think he is. A silent spectator to the society’s bigotry or a promoter of the watch all but ‘live and let live’ school of thought!

And let’s not forget, those beats by Tajdar Junaid that bind all of these ingredients together without overpowering the flavour. I love the sequence when the characters walk out on the streets, in all their traditional northeast Indian garb!

Verdict: Axone, the film, much like the meaning of its title, feels like a layered dish, with a strong aroma wafting through

The word ‘Axone’ is made up of two words, which literally mean strong aroma. And the movie, named thus, also gives out a strong message. One that this country really needs because it has acquired a taste for starting bloody fights with anyone who looks or thinks differently than themselves.

Let’s call a spade a spade. North East India has often been meted out a step-sister kind of a treatment. In one scene, Chanbi is seen explaining to Bengdang why they chose to come to Delhi in the first place, hoping that a metro city would be as welcoming to them as it is to all outsiders. Alas, we know the truth to that—a city is as good as its people and we have rarely made northeasterners feel welcome, or worse, made them feel they are our fellow countrymen. No wonder, people choose to confine themselves to linguistic, religious, native groups, because that is where they feel secure and can practice their cultures without fear of judgement of persecution.

Axone conveys this sentiment beautifully, using elements like music, the casual biases and hypocrisy of the society, the confined spaces, and the food. In one of the last moments of the film, when a final strike of racism is about to be inflicted on this motley group of northeasterners (they’re often relegated as a collective as opposed to the different states and cultures they belong to, much like South Indians are all called that, or Madrasis) by society, it is one of the insiders of this very society who helps them out. This further proves that to do away with this problem, it’ll have to be worked on from the inside. But before we do that, we must accept that we have a problem.

Recently, when Amazon Prime’s Paatal Lok released, and showed the demeaned treatment of a character called  ‘Cheeni’, who is a northeasterner and a transgender, there was outrage over it hurting sentiments. However, the outrage is misplaced. The fact of the matter is, this is exactly how we perceive people hailing from the north east, calling them racial slurs and never treating them as Indians. While Paatal Lok takes the rough terrain, Axone took the smoother, scenic route, ultimately to the same destination.

Axone is an important film that I am glad is light and not too ‘indie’ or ‘artsy’. Because the woke folk have probably cleaned their plate of this lesson and are reaching for second helpings. It is the other lot, the ones less receptive to trying new ideas as they are to new food, the mothers and fathers, grandparents, and ‘aggressively Indians’ who wrinkle their nose at the sight of something different, that need to taste this dish, best served piping hot.

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