It is always a good time to watch a movie like Axone, but never a better time than now. As the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the globe, closer home, Axone, directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, shows how insidiously prejudices weave themselves into our everyday lives and conversations. The film presents humiliations – big and small – that people from the Northeast confront daily. “Can you see the whole wall with those small eyes?” asks a character in the movie and is then offended when the other, not surprisingly, reacts with an expletive.
“If you ask any Northeasterner about what it’s like to live in Delhi, they will tell you one about the times they tried to cook with an ingredient like axone,” says Kharkongor, 46. Axone (pronounced ‘akhuni’) is fermented soybean paste, commonly used in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast to give a distinctive umami flavour to food. Like a lot of fermented foods, it has a sharp, strong aroma that, as Kharkongor says, “smells like heaven” to those who’ve grown up eating it. Those who are not used to it, however, are repulsed by it.
Axone, which is currently playing on Netflix, takes us through one day in the lives of a group of youngsters in Delhi’s Humayunpur, as they go about trying to make their friend’s favourite dish, smoked pork with axone, for her wedding. The food, especially its strong aroma, becomes the flashpoint for a clash of identities. “If you look at the comments below the YouTube trailer of the film, you’ll see all sorts of stories there about people cooking with axone and having their neighbours or landlords tell them to stop, or having cops called on them because something ‘smells like a dead body’ in their flat,” says the director, who was raised in Shillong.
Food is only the beginning. Throughout the movie, the protagonists, played by Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram, Lanuakum Ao and Tenzin Dalha encounter people, such as the landlady played by Dolly Ahluwalia and her son-in-law played by Vinay Pathak, who make offensive statements about the clothes they wear, their bodies and faces, their “strange” customs. It’s a series of humiliations that would be hard to watch if not for Khakongor’s light, comedic touch.
At the same time, it was important for the Mumbai-based Kharkongor, who is of Naga and Khasi origin, to highlight the biases harboured by victims of prejudice themselves. And so it is that one of the friends is dismissed by the others as a “Nepali” who is “not one of us”. “I wanted to make a film about racism, but prejudice exists everywhere,” says Kharkongor, “It’s not just about what happened with George Floyd. Even in India, we see these things everywhere. It struck me when Darren Sammy talked about being called ‘kaalu’ by his Indian teammates in IPL. Prejudice exists in every community, whether as casteism, classism, racism. It was important to bring that to the fore and it was crucial that I didn’t point a finger at Delhiites or Bengalureans, saying that they discriminate against people from the Northeast. It’s true, they do, but even in the Northeast there is discrimination against Nepalis, Bengalis and others.”
It was also important for him to make a movie with a cast largely made of actors from the Northeast. Kharkongor, who cut his teeth in Delhi’s theatre scene in the ’90s before moving to Mumbai in early 2000s to work in films, says that it’s always troubled him that there aren’t enough actors from the Northeast working in mainstream.
The politics of casting are subtle, though. “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,” says Kharkongor.
On the other hand, there was the problem that no actor from the Northeast has found acceptance in a mainstream Hindi film. “There was Danny Denzongpa, who came a long time ago at a time when the idea of the Northeast was even more far removed from the rest of India than it is today. He made steady inroads and after a while, became a big enough name that he would play a villain from Bundelkhand or the hero or heroine’s brother and was acceptable. The idea of what someone looks like matters only in the beginning. Once we start seeing more of them in film and television, the question of whether or not they’re from the Northeast won’t matter. It would promote an idea of India that has different kinds of faces.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines