To say movies representing the Northeast of India in Bollywood are less would be an understatement; they are almost non-existent. This is where Axone come off as a nouveau approach in modern Indian cinema. The movie, directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, depicts the everyday ordeal of Northeast people in Indian metros. The movie, its storyline, its approach, is something which has not been done before in the Indian movie scene. But to say, its depiction of the Northeast people’s problem is faultless would be wrong, and the movie definitely lacks nuance.
‘Axone’ (pronounced Akhuni) is a fermented soya product from Nagaland, with a smell that is “atrocious” for the mainland noses. Axone stands as a metaphor of how fractured and ‘smelly’ the relationship of Northeast is with the rest of the country. The movie, in a way, also throws light on how politics of food has taken a central seat in the political scene of contemporary India.
The movie tries an intersectional flick by adding the Nepali community in the narrative of mainstream Northeast issues but falls short of proper representation. Not only does a non-Nepali (Sayani Gupta) play the character of Upasana Rai, the presentation of the character as a whole is erroneous, disregarding the complex identity and culture of the Nepali community in Northeast India. The Nepalis are shown as “outsiders” and not “proper Northeast”.
The movie alludes to Nido Tania through the character of Bendang Longumer, an Ao Naga man. Nido Tania was a young man from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered by a mob back in 2014 due to a disapproval of his hair-dye. The representation of Bendang vis-à-vis mental health and racism is surely demoralising. Bendang is rebuked by his girlfriend for failing to “mingle with people outside of their region.” This is not a genuine depiction of co-existence, but rather a reiteration of the racist threat of blend in or be killed. And surely, Bendang, who couldn’t sing a Hindi song as the movie started, is able to sing ‘Uthe Sab Ke Kadam‘ as the movie concludes. This leaves no scope for the true expression of the Northeast people and further alienates the region. The the only way to forget the historical trauma of being subjugated and suppressed is via forgetting your roots and your identity.
Chanbi, played by Lin Laishram, asserts that they have a right to cook their food but is met by a response by Martha, a woman from Northeast married into a Sikh family, that they [the mainland population] have a right to not tolerate the smell of their food. This is where the movie gives off a demoralising message, which is in itself problematic as the movie fails to take into certain nuances and responsibility it carries. It is as if movie is conditioning the people of Northeast of the harsh “realities” of mainland India, rather than expressing the unheard voices of the Northeast. This not only trivializes the discrimination, but in a way, makes it an accepted norm. The movie has given a limited agency to the characters from the Northeast.
Food is a shared experience of the characters in the film, which rather than being celebrated, is, in fact, almost demonized. The subjective benchmark of what is smelly is dissolved just as the genuine expression of the Northeast. But the movie is not all negatives. The movie manages to portray the several folk traditions of the region, be it the Manipuri folk songs or the Assamese tokari geet. With all its inconsistencies, the movie also manages to give a fair representation of how the racism against Northeast people is unfurled. The movie has given a platform to the many artists from Northeast who would have been otherwise unrecognized.
Thus, Axone paves a way for further many inspections into the representation of the Northeast in Indian cinema as the field is rather dormant and untapped. To see Axone through the lens of Northeast would be to see it as a beginning, no matter the faults, of the wider acceptance of Northeast into the mainstream, with much more yet to come.