Director Nicholas Kharkongor ‘s brilliant film exposes India’s exclusiveness but it also celebrates its larger inclusive society
Rating: 4 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
India stands out for its cultural diversity, but every now and then a violent act against a minority makes you question its pluralism. India’s North East is largely occupied with people with Mongoloid features. Different states, different languages, traditions, but every liberal rightly accepts them as fellow Indians. That is why it hurts when minorities are subjected to hate crimes.
North India is perceived to be hotbed of hate crimes, where people from the North East are often mocked as Chinki – a derogatory term used to mock people with oriental features. Thankfully, it is a crime now to hurl that word, but hate crimes, bigotry continue to plague us.
Meghalaya’s Nicholas Kharkongor takes us into the lives of simple North East migrants in Delhi. Nepalese girl Upasna Rai [Sayani Gupta], and her fellow tenants Chanbi [Lin Laishram], Balamon [Merenla Imsong] have planned a quiet, simple wedding celebration for their good friend Minam [Asenla Jamir] at their PG residence. A Naga/North Eastern wedding is incomplete without the traditional axone [pronounced as akhuni] pork delicacy.
Making pork in a Hindu colony is a challenge. The women and their fellow North East Indians run from pillar to post to try and make it a memorable evening for Minam.
Through the course of this kitchen hunt, Kharkongor subtly exposes the challenges that minorities have to go through in the largely Hindi speaking parts of India. Racial slurs, eve teasing, struggle for accommodation, freedom to cook, Kharkongor’s exposes the intolerant lot among us. While it unmasks India’s exclusiveness, but Axone also celebrates the larger inclusive culture of this multi-racial country. The stench of few sour grapes can’t subdue the aroma of India’s inclusiveness.
Upasna, Chanbi’s landlord nanny [played by Dolly Ahluwalia] has laid down the Dos and don’ts but she is no bigot. If she was one, then why would the family even have North East Indian tenants? Plus they also rented out a flat to an African woman. Also, her grandson Shiv [Rohan Joshi] aids Upasna and co.
The film subtly draws your attention to the few violent attacks against North East Indians in northern India. A bitter incident has left deep mental scars for Bendang [Lanuakum Ao], who now resents Delhi and its people. Chanbi is eve teased by a Delhi bigot but Bendang, who witnessed everything, chooses to remain mum. The eve teaser slaps Chanbi but Bendang doesn’t move an inch. The incident though makes him feel miserable later. In a fit of rage, he calls Shiv a fucking Indian. While Bendang’s outburst is regrettable but so, too, is the casual lecherous attitude of Shiv.
The strong narrative is backed by a easy-paced but powerful screenplay and admirable performances. Bengali girl Sayani Gupta shines as the Nepalese girl Upasna. The writer is no expert on North East Indian dialects, nor its sociolinguistics, but Gupta grasps the accent and idiosyncrasies nicely.
We are exposed to an array of North East artistes – Laishram, Lanuakum, Jamir, Imsong and Tenzin Zalha, who plays Upasna’s boyfriend Zorem. Laishram, Jamir and Zalha are pretty efficient in their Hindi. Their clear tone is a reminder that they are as Indian as anyone of us. It delights us to see horses for course policy being followed in the casting by exposing us to genuine talent from the North East.
Vinay Pathak, Ahluwalia are proven performers, while Assam’s Adil Hussain utters not a single word, but enjoys the best seat in the house.
The background score is minimal and it largely plays fine, folksy tunes from the North East. Most Hindi, Urdu speaking population are oblivious to the cultural diversity, many languages within the North East. Towards the later half, we come across a conversation that opens our eyes to the different languages spoken in the North East.
The film is guilty of the odd poor sub-titling. When a character is saying DVD player, then how can ipod be mentioned in the sub-titling? Also, the portrayal of a Sikh man, having a Sikh father and a North East mother, is partly reminiscent of the old Bollywood stereotype. Here’s a man with all Mongoloid features, he has a turban but no beard, and he mutters profane words like the cliched Sikh. The Sikh community has never been enamored with such portrayal. Legendary comedian Johnny Lever often copped criticism for his cliched Sikh characters. While you understand that Khorkongor wants to support pluralism, but the Sikh boy could have been portrayed better.
Axone had premiered at the London Film Festival in 2019, and later screened (perhaps) at MAMI [Mumbai Academy of Moving Image] Festival. Axone is now available to global Netflix subscribers but it is a shame though such a fine human-interest film couldn’t get a theatrical release. The film now comes in times where China’s transgression in Ladakh and other border areas have led to an outrage in India. Nepal, too, has redrawn its map, claiming rights over border territories. Arch rival Pakistan is always said to be conniving against India trying to exploit India’s caste, ethnic barriers. Post the Coronavirus outbreak in China, we did come across many incidents of racial slurs being hurled at North East Indians. The current political crisis with China, Nepal will invariably give teeth to the few religious bigots in India who will look to target our innocent North East brethren.
As true Indians, we will have to ensure the safety of North East Indians. But as Chanbi explains to Bendang, “Yes, there are a few who trouble us, but most Delhiites have still been nice to them.”
Not every Indian has an appetite for Axone, but let’s savor India’s cultural diversity, preserve its inclusiveness. Let’s raise a toast to Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone.