It’s their friend’s wedding, and a bunch of Northeasterners — in their little flat in South Delhi’s Humayunpur — are trying to cook in anticipation of the happy, celebratory evening that lies ahead.
But things aren’t going according to plan. The neighbours complain, the landlord gets miffed, and all hell breaks loose. The culprit? Axone — a fermented soyabean condiment that finds pride of place on the menu for the evening.
While in Nagaland, the distinctive aroma of Axone is welcome, in this Delhi neighbourhood — known for Jat landlords letting out their flats to migrant Northeasterners — Axone can potentially be, as one can see in the plotline of Nicholas Kharkongor’s new film, a recipe for disaster.
Fittingly titled Axone, and named for the Naga delicacy, the story spans a day in the life of a group of friends cooking a dish with Axone, that causes a subsequent run-in with their landlord (played by Vinay Pathak). While it’s a work of fiction, the incident will probably resonate with the young Northeastern community in metros across India.
“The episode tells the story of a group of Northeastern friends living in Delhi, yes, but it also tells the story of every Northeasterner who has lived in a big city,” says Kharkongor, who himself hails from Mokukchung, a small town in Nagaland, about 150 km from the state capital Kohima.
When he first moved to Delhi in the mid-nineties, there weren’t many people from the Northeast around. “It was a very few of us and back then the differences weren’t necessarily antagonistic.” It is only when a big community emerges, points out Kharkongor, that problems crop up.
Over the years, young Northeastern boys and girls have been moving to big cities seeking opportunities, both professional and academic. In South Delhi’s Humayunpur, where Kharkongor film is set, a vibrant Northeastern subculture has emerged over the years. “It has changed the complexion of the area. There are Assamese, Nagas, Mizos, Khasis…” says Kharkongor, who once upon a time rented a barsaati in Humayunpur himself. The 45-year-old filmmaker, who now shuttles between Mumbai and “somewhere in the Northeast”, describes his ilk as a “big minority”. “Like in my film, it is common for Northeasterners to cook dried fish or axone. This tends to smell — and often runs into trouble with the North Indians.”
This “clash”, although told in light-hearted vein through a single dish in Axone, is also about the quintessential Northeastern experience in the big city. “To a certain extent, the film is about racism. Everyone who has moved from the Northeast to Delhi has experienced this in some form or the other. Sometimes it’s extreme. Sometimes it’s mild,” says Kharkongor.
While for Kharkongor’s earlier film — Mantra in 2017 (a Rajat Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin starrer set around the context of post-liberalisation India) — he had to pass the hat around several times (it was entirely crowdfunded on Wishberry), Axone is produced by music label Saregama’s film division, Yoodlee Films and was shot over 24 days in a blistering Delhi June. “It’s been massively easier this time,” he admits. The film, from ideation to completion, took about a year and a half, and is now in its final stages, being pitched at international festivals for a world premiere before its release in India.
While the one-hour-forty-minute-long film stars names like Pathak, Sayoni Gupta, Dolly Ahluwalia and Assam’s Adil Husain, the cast comprises several actors who hail from the Northeast, most of them “newbies” who live in Humayunpur, the locality whose story the filmmaker is trying to tell.
“So the whole story is set up in Humayunpur, we never step out of the place. The juxtaposition is especially interesting — young, stylish Northeasterners walking in the backdrop of these Delhi gullies,” says Kharkongor, who finds it difficult to categorise his films. “Very art house, very non-commercial — maybe even uninteresting for some people,” he says, with a laugh.
While the film is essentially an attempt to “tell the Northeast story in a mainstream way”, the director says it’s a mix of two narratives (Northeast Indian and the North Indian) that he’s telling. That is why the film is in Hindi, English, and as and when the situation requires it, the characters slip into their Northeastern mother tongues.
Axone, apart from touching upon the otherization of a community, is also simply about how people live together and create a sense of home, in lands far away from their real ones.
And while dealing with such topics means also dealing with the criticism of exoticisation, Kharkongor is not one to be discouraged. “The Northeast is different. And yes, Northeastern food is different. If someone says I am picking on something which is exotic — I am okay with it,” says the director, adding that he’s always had a strong desire to tell the story of his people. “Otherwise who will?” he asks. Axone is Kharkongor’s first ‘Northeast’ film, but he’s certain that it is not his last.