The Netflix movie Axone: A Recipe For Disaster, is a comedy-drama directed by Nicholas Kharkongor that tells a story of a group of friends who hail from the North-eastern states of India and are staying in Delhi. As the group plans to surprise their friend on her wedding day by inconspicuously preparing a special regional dish, hell breaks loose as the odour of a core ingredient, axone (pronouned ‘akhoni’), spreads out, inviting trouble from neighbours and the landlord. The movie represents all those who have migrated from the North-eastern states of India to the metro cities in search of better education and work opportunities but every day, experience discrimination and “cultural policing” by the “mainlanders” through stereotyping, cultural alienation, and racism.
The portrayal of food in pop culture to explore the notions of private space and personal rights is not new in the discourses of identity politics. Podcasts like “Racist Sandwich” or movies such as East Side Sushi narrate stories that discuss xenophobia and misogyny through a universally understood medium – food. Stories of “Lunchbox Moment” also discuss the discrimination and ridicule faced by first-generation Asian-American children while opening their lunchboxes.
In Axone, smell awakens a unique set of emotions; it is ubiquitous, layered and disturbing for the protagonists, for us, and everyone else. The stench is sinister as it betrays Chanbi (one of the protagonists) by foiling the plan, threatening their social status, and exposing their struggle to us, the viewers; the effort to “blend in”, “compromise”, and seek acceptance by the dominant culture. Nobody in the movie utters the word “racism”, yet it is the odour that draws the physiognomic and cultural boundaries between the “north-easterners” and “mainlanders”.
The repugnance of neighbours is immediately apparent as the odour of axone proliferates within the residential complex. Although the sequence is intended to be comic, there is plenty to unravel; the closed windows personify our hearts, reminding us about the shunning of numerous Chanbis and Upasnas living in the country’s metros.
A tenant even threatens the girls in public. The rebuke is the consequence of violating an “oath”: How dare you exercise your freedom to practice your culture? The sentiment is hard to miss. In this scene, the tenant not only represents the multicultural society of the apartment complex, but at a degree of abstraction, also represents us (humans) and reminds us how our everyday interactions harm another person’s mind for not having enough “sameness”. The director masterfully targets the reality of racial inequality and the process of “otherisation” to show the trauma they bear by this effect of “olfaction”.
The role of smell in Indian identity politics is not only restricted to ethnicity and race. Omprakash Valmiki, one of the most prominent literary figures who belonged to the ‘Untouchable’ community of India, tells a story of an untouchable man who would bathe and scrub profusely to escape bullying for the smell of carcasses which became his pahchān (identity). The Untouchable communities work with animal carcasses, and can be recognised and identified by a faint whiff of animal flesh. Discrimination based on the mere scent from an individual is a lived experience of countless untouchables, in both rural and urban India.
Significance of smell in the group identity is not an Indian archetype, rather a global and timeless phenomenon. Smell influences social order and acts as a symbolic cue to social bonding. The burning of incense, “havans” in temples, burning incense in churches, and mosques can be a typical example where group identification occurs through smell. The symbolism of smell extends much beyond the religious space. In his famous piece “The Road to Wigan Pier“, George Orwell explains that smell is a powerful device of class segregation; how the lower class always smell unpleasant!
Smell as a distinguishing factor of the class of a character has been depicted beautifully in the Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite too. Michelle Ferranti in one of her insightful article “An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising,” writes, “For many recently emancipated African Americans, a clean and odour-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation.” The impetus to police even the odour of the vaginal discharge of an African-American woman speaks volumes about the malicious stereotyping. As Classen has written in “Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures” that the “Otherness” is always categorised as foul, stinky or sterile, whereas “sameness” is perceived to be fragrant or deodorised.
It is needless to say that smell, be it stinky or fragrant, plays a subtle role in our personal and social behaviours influencing our group identity. In the words of Marcello Aspria “The diametrical opposition between sameness and otherness, integrated and marginalised, desirable and undesirable can thus be rendered by the olfactory contrast between foul and fragrant“. This perception of smell varies culturally and is learned as pleasant or disturbing, depending on the social setting or environment.
Olfactory discrimination is universal, subtle, and powerful. There are class, caste, racial and gender stratifications to the society, wherein smell adds a unique dimension to each stratum; each needs to be understood. It is only when we recognise the illness, we can create a better diagnosis, and thus a better treatment.