Axone Review: A Film On Racism And Identity That Doesn’t Lecture
Axone is that kind of a quiet film that comes and goes and no one tells you to watch, until one lazy afternoon while browsing Netflix your cursor wanders over it. You go in with indifference and without expectation, and come out feeling all light and fluttery at having learnt something more about the world. Movies like Axone have an unassuming, understated charm. They only seek to feed the soul. With Axone: A Recipe for Disaster, director Nicholas Kharkongor does just that, and quite literally too.
The story tracks a day in the life of two young women, Chanbi and Upasana, and their race against time and other trials to arrange a wedding party for their friend, Minam. The central figure in all this is axone pork, a delicacy from the northeast that the girls want to serve at the wedding. Axone, pronounced “akhuni” (“axo”-smell, “ne”-strong), is a fermented ingredient native to Nagaland and other northeast-Indian states. As the meaning suggests, it has a strong smell, apparently so pungent that landlady nani (Dolly Ahluwalia) announces she is going to die of it. In spy-thriller fashion, the girls then sneak around Delhi with their pot of pork looking for a place to cook it. That is all there really is to the plot.
The Two Women of Axone
Though the film is studded with names that are synonymous with character acting in the industry (read: Vinay Pathak and Adil Hussain), Lin Laishram outshines them all. She plays Chanbi, a subdued, stoic woman from Manipur who is caught in the crosshairs of mothering her friends and placating her boyfriend. Laishram has previously appeared in big projects like Om Shanti Om and Mary Kom. But it is only in this movie that she marks her presence loudest. Chanbi isn’t given to unreasonable outbursts of emotion, despite falling victim to racism. As a northeast-Indian girl living in a noisy colony in Delhi that is openly averse to her culture, she can’t afford to raise trouble with the neighbours.
The central figure in all this is axone pork, a delicacy from the northeast that the girls want to serve at the wedding.
Upasana, played by Sayani Gupta, unfortunately, falls flat as a character. Much of it has to do with Gupta’s put-on Nepali accent, which, try as you may, is hard to find believable or ignore. But one interesting dimension Upasana’s character brings to the story is that of power hierarchy within the northeastern community. Upasana, with Gupta’s features, doesn’t “look” like a “true northeastern”. Her own friends whisper it behind her back and the Punjabi nani living downstairs mocks her to her face. She is technically from Nepal, but identifies with the ways and words of north-east Indians and tries to club herself with them. She faces a racial discrimination exclusive only to her in the movie – an “outsider” to all Indian communities.
As a northeast-Indian girl living in a noisy colony in Delhi that is openly averse to her culture, she can’t afford to raise trouble with the neighbours.
Dealing with Sexual Harassment
In one scene in Axone, two good-for-nothings on the street direct vulgarities at Chanbi. What they say comprises a horrible mix of racist and sexist slurs. Chanbi overhears this and instantly walks over to admonish them. But everyone around – the men, vegetable vendor, neighbourhood aunties, and even Chanbi’s boyfriend – dismisses her by saying she imagined it. One of the men lands a slap on Chanbi’s face, and the gathering disbands.
This scene points to the experience most common in the life of a woman in India, that of harassment. We are catcalled, groped, stalked, harassed practically every day. Our mothers and sisters teach us to ignore it, for fear of being attacked even harder upon confrontation. Even if we do manage to find the courage to turn around and raise a storm, the crowd that gathers only comes to watch the circus, not help us.
Later, Chanbi and her harasser meet again, but this time his whole family is present. Chanbi raises her voice again only to be slut-shamed by his (harasser’s) mother. Just as the woman utters the obscenity, her husband slaps her. Instead of flaunting a face that says “well-deserved”, Chanbi turns on the husband, saying that it is from him that his son has learnt his attitude towards women.
This scene points to the experience most common in the life of a woman in India, that of harassment. We are catcalled, groped, stalked, harassed practically every day.
Primarily, Axone is a commentary on the racism that northeast-Indians are subjected to. Kharkongor has covered a whole range – from the unrealised racism in neighbourhood kid Shiv’s friendly colloquial “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” to Bendang’s own post-traumatic stress upon being assaulted in public for “looking different.” While watching, we realise that we have been witness to or have participated in this discrimination at some point in our lives.
The scene that pricks hardest is when Shiv and Bendang collide. Bendang, who has become a recluse after his assault, is suspicious of every touch, but most of all a north Indian’s. So when hyperactive Shiv attempts to be pally with him, Bendang pushes him and retorts aggressively. Shiv is shaken to the core, and innocently asks, “Tumlog Indian nahi samajhte ho apne aap ko?” (“You don’t consider yourself Indians?”). We are shown, as is Shiv, that the effects of racism can be so far-reaching, that it may cause someone’s entire pillar of identity and belongingness to break down.
Kharkongor has covered a whole range – from the unrealised racism in neighbourhood kid Shiv’s friendly colloquial “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” to Bendang’s own post-traumatic stress upon being assaulted in public for “looking different.”
Chanbi, despite the panic attack (“heart attack” for Shiv) she had when nani and her gang rained racism on her, tells Bendang that not all of Delhi is bad. She tells him that it’s a two-way street, that he needs to assert himself as an equal Indian and find friendship in this place that is as much his as it is anyone else’s.
Axone is a Culture Fest
Through Bendang himself, the assimilation of the two cultures happen ultimately. Towards the end of the film, he perfectly strums and sings to the tunes of Uthe Sabke Qadam from Basu Chatterjee’s 1979 film Baton Baton Mein, something he had been trying to do since the beginning of the movie.
Axone presents a continuous carnival of north-eastern culture, at the centre of which is the axone-flavoured pork, the enduring symbol of the northeast. Scenes are scored with traditional music and rich lyrics that aren’t subtitled on Netflix, but sound as sweet without translation. The entire movie culminates in a marriage sequence bursting with culture. Minam gets married according to Manipuri culture over video call, a revival of long-distance marriage set to modern context. The big surprise is then revealed to her – the axone pork. She is overjoyed – the mere aroma of it is her home away from home. Then they all dig in.
Axone manages to remain blithe all through its 90-minute run, despite being undercut with a running social commentary on racism and identity. It is snappy, humorous, and never lectures, only hints. When it ends, the audience is left with a bittersweet taste, and a mirror in hand that they can choose to look into if they want to.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Image Credit: The Hindu