By Sukla Singha
Scene A: A young man is seen practicing guitar chords of a popular Hindi film song “Uthhe Sab Ke Kadam”. Perhaps unable to match the Hindi pronunciation with the music, the man throws away the piece of paper in a fit of rage.
Scene B: The singer-guitarist finally is able to memorise the lines of a song that speaks of joy and togetherness. He sings it out loud, and is hugged by his ‘Indian’ counterpart as a gesture of brotherhood.
These two scenes may be called the ‘summing up’ of Nicholas Kharkongkor’s latest film Axone that was recently released on Netflix. The film is produced by Yoodlee Films.
In one of his interviews, Kharkongkor had clearly said that he didn’t want to make a ‘biased’ film showing only the people of the North East at the receiving end of racism, and that his attempt was to create a balance between the mainstream-margin divide. It is at this juncture of attempting to create a ‘balance’ that the main agenda of the film, supposedly the incidents of racism faced by people from North-East India in urban cities like Delhi, becomes somewhat diluted, and the project becomes yet another act of appeasement of the so-called ‘mainland’ of the country.
Axone (a side dish in North Eastern India pronounced a-khu-ni) is a it-happened-one-day story. All the events happen on one ‘particular’ day when three friends plan to cook a ‘taboo’ food in Delhi’s Humayunpur, with the camera angle cleverly telling us that the locale is a ‘North-East Sector’. With that visual hint in the opening scene, the taboo associated with the food is all the more pronounced when the act of buying the Axone from a local supplier is shown like an illegal drug peddling scene (because drugs and the Northeast… you know it right?). Three young people from the Northeast meet and stealthily sneak into the narrow lanes of Delhi since nobody should come to know of their mission of cooking or eating the ‘forbidden’ food that could cause their eviction from the garden of Eden (Delhi)!
Upasana (Sayani Gupta) and Chanbi (Lin Laishram) with the help of a local grocer and friend Zorem (Tenzi Dalha) plan a surprise party for their friend Minam who is all set to get married the same evening. But the food they want to cook and surprise her with comes with a lot of baggage and conditions. The taboo of cooking the Axone, i.e. fermented soybean, hits hard when these girls have to take permission from their neighbour who thinks the food smells like ‘shit’. Minam’s friends have to make sure their North Indian landlady or other peeping Tom neighbours do not get to know of the cooking expedition. But they run out of gas and their cooking plan fails miserably. Within no time, the uncontrollable smell of the Axone irks the neighbours to such an extent that the girls are slut-shamed and warned of the consequences of the ‘Munirka’ episode of cooking similar weird things by North-eastern people.
Meanwhile, all of these young people living in the national capital have lost their individual identities and are reduced to an implied regional name-calling: “tum sab ekjaiselagteho” (You all look alike), yells a neighbour, insinuating the age old stereotyping of the peoples of the region as ‘Ch****e’ (refer to the recent pandemic incidents). Added to it are other racial remarks like “ye jo aapki aankhe itni chhoti chhoti hain, issey aapko puri deewar dikhai deti hai ya nahi?” This racial comment pertaining to the eyes comes from a north Indian lady to a young half-Punjabi, half-Naga boy Jassi. In fact, Chanbi’s boyfriend Bendang, who is seen practicing his guitar, is also a victim of extreme racial discrimination. A news report shows how he was severely beaten up by the locals because of his different looking ‘blonde’ hair and because he had resisted the torture. This incident haunts him and he is unable to take a stand for Chanbi when she is verbally and physically assaulted by a Delhi man. Bendang’s character immediately reminds us of how Nido Tania, Richard Loitam and many more from the region had succumbed to such racist episodes in the metros of the country. The mainland-margin divide is further pronounced when another North Indian lady shouts about how girls from the Northeast wear skimpy clothes to provoke the Delhi men. Also, Kharkongkor cleverly inserts a nameless North Indian character in Dhoti and Turban (Adil Hasan) who sits in front of Zorem’s store acting like a sentinel-cum-stalker of the Northeast presence in Delhi.
But Kharkongkor had spoken about his being unbiased, and he had to introduce it somewhere in the film. Hence, the ‘balance’ is smartly created in the character of Shiv (Rohan Joshi) who is a carefree Delhi boy. Shiv is indeed a foil to the North East Indian characters, or at least we are made to believe that he is. He goes out of his way to help these girls and boys cook the axone, and even takes Chanbi to a doctor when she has a panic attack. But towards the end, Shiv too becomes a ‘victim’ of what sometimes goes by the name of ‘reverse-racism’ or ‘counter-racism’ when Bendang calls his a “f**** Indian”. But Shiv is shown to empathize with Bendang and hugs him when the latter sings that unfinished Hindi song which spoke of love, unity and happiness. The film ends with Minam getting married on the webcam following the ancient rituals of her tribe, Chanbi and Bendang deciding to leave Delhi and return home, and Zorem proposing marriage to Upasana. And yes, the Axone is cooked too, on the rooftop of Chanbi’s flat.
But Axone is not just about the taboo of cooking a ‘weird smelling’ food, but it’s also about the ‘otherness’ of the tongue, about how accent and pronunciation are indicators of where an individual comes from. When Shiv doesn’t remember Zorem’s name, he introduces Zorem as ‘Danny’ to his father. This could be yet another hint at how Danny Denzongpa, with his good Hindi pronunciation skills, is just one of the few actors from the Northeast who made it big in the mainstream Indian film industry. Hence for Shiv, every unpronounceable and forgettable name from the Northeast invariably becomes Danny! The ‘otherness’ of the tongue is subtly shown in scenes such as Upasana attempting to say a sentence in Zorem’s language, and again Zorem trying to speak Nepali. In fact, Sayani Gupta’s character Upasana’s accent leaves you wondering “Do I really speak that way?” (if you are from the Northeast). Again, there is a scene where all friends call up their people and try to find a place where they can cook the Axone. Each character speaks in his/her mother tongue which the other members present in the room do not understand. This hints at how the use of the expression ‘Northeast’ is an attempt to camouflage the diversity and heterogeneity of the region which is a conglomeration of a number of tribes and sub-tribes, each having its own language/dialect, culture, and food habits.
While Axone is a Northeast experiment and experience served with a dash of balancing ‘Indian’ spices, a number of issues remain unresolved. Food is a cultural symbol as well as an assertion of one’s identity. But while the Axone is finally being cooked at the rooftop and there are no neighbours to chide them, Upasana shouts out to one of the neighbours that they were cooking “Butter Chicken”, a quintessential North Indian dish. Is this yet another attempt of trying to fit in? Chanbi’s insult by the Delhi man and later by his family, neighbours calling the girls and boys in their traditional attires as ‘fancy dance competition’, Shiv’s ‘fancying’ a girlfriend from the Northeast et al are issues which are never addressed by the characters. Ultimately, Bendang’s decision to leave Delhi only hints at the vulnerability of the ‘other’ who should either fit in or perish.
Sukla Singha teaches at a school in Tripura. Her areas of interests include Literatures from Northeast India, Translation Studies and Folklore Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.