Axone: A film that brings the discourse on racism in India

By Kaustubh Deka
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Axone, the film is being critically received and widely acclaimed for depicting the racial discriminations faced by the people from the Northeast in Indian metros, an aspect that has assumed a special significance due to a spike of racist attacks and discrimination against people form the region in different cities of India as the panic around COVID19 grows. Nicholas Kharkongor, the director of the movie, made this connection too in an interview to Outlook calling the movie has come in the right time, as “the idea was to be able to tell the story of Northeast people’s experience of living in a big city.”

The fact that the film has “brought the discourse on racism in India, existing in an atmosphere of denial, to the ‘mainstream’ of popular culture and that it has made some space for the artists of the region to tell their ‘own stories’ is a significant development. But this perceived ‘authenticity’ of the film also makes its role doubly crucial because its narrative will be taken as one ‘sanctioned’ and enriched with the insiders lived experiences. Therefore, this discussion is not on the cinematography, performances and other technical aspects of the movie. Instead I try to show how despite being seen as a pioneering movie creating awareness on the issue of racial discrimination of Northeastern migrants in Indian cities, the film with its contradictory stances and problematic positions might have just weakened the fight against racism.

Named after the most famous Naga fermented food product ‘Axone’ (Akhuni) that has come to be an identity anchor of the ‘Northeastern community’ (a community in exile, separated by many things, united by a sense of ‘otherness’), the movie had two things immediately set. An aroma which is considered ‘alien’ and unwelcome and a face that is a ‘misfit’. Axone disappointed because it failed to bring out and even took fallacious positions on the two themes central to the nature of racial discriminations faced by the people from Northeast India in Indian metros: the politics around food and the politics around face type.

Killed in real, sermonised in reel : the sad case of ‘Bendang Longkumer’

For me a most tragic character in the narrative is that of Bendang Longkumer, the Ao Naga protagonist. His character is a thinly veiled reference to the real life figure of Nido Taniam, the youth from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered by a racist mob in a South Delhi market in 2014 just because they didn’t approve his hairdo. The consequent outrage was a rallying point for the Northeastern migrants in various Indian metros to ask for justice and a place for dignified existence.

Unlike Taniam, however, Bendang in the movie gets to live after being trashed by a racist mob, only to be chided later by Chanbi, his girlfriend in the movie, for ‘not even trying to mingle with anyone outside the region’. In the final scene of the movie, Bendang manages to successfully strum a Hindi song in a party, a song which he is seen practising many times before and failing. Who would not like to share this vision of a ‘happy ending’, where people are not ‘parochial’ and believe in co-existence? Perhaps it is the director’s way of wishing what could have been? That this vision is divorced from reality is not the problem, the problem is the audacious reference to Taniam and putting the ‘guilt’ in a way on ‘people like him’ for not mingling enough, for not trying enough to fit it. A classic case of victim blaming, made more insidious, because it is perpetuated from within. Bendang decides to stay back in Delhi despite the trauma of being beaten up, fighting a depression (singing ‘my soul is well’) just for Chanbi. And Chanbi finally tells him, “All these years you haven’t made a single friend from here ! How sad is that, dude!”

Sad indeed that this lack of empathy and understanding is passed off as a most critical insight by the director.

“Get me a girlfriend from Northeast!” (Although I will introduce her as my tenant in front of my ‘Delhi girl’)

A character liked by many in the movie is that of Shiv, the landlord’s son. A fun guy, an ally in fact, who is often seen helping the Northeastern bunch, rescuing them out of tight situations. But he has condition, a near fetish: he wants a Northeastern girlfriend. Now the fact is that having a girlfriend from the region is seen as a status of uber ‘coolness’ by many youngsters of these metros, especially those who are a bit charmed by things ‘Western’.

Shiv can be an apt representation of this. The instances of him being very uncomfortable when his other ‘babe’ (a ‘local’ girl) finds him with one or the other Northeastern girl, shows the dilemma of youngsters like Shiv. However, claiming to be a movie talking about discrimination, this is where the movie was expected to act more responsibly. After all, fetishisation of the women from the Northeast based on the many presumptions has been a fundamental source of harassment of them in these cities.

In a way one appreciates the realistic portrayal of characters like Shiv (although in most real cases the ‘landlords sons’ are a bunch of hormone driven, peeping toms or molesters), but he needed to be schooled a little. Instead, he too ends up like an innocent victim of Bendang’s outburst. Zorem had a fine chance of making Shiv understand (“Don’t you people consider yourselves Indian”?) as to where Bendang’s frustration comes from, when he shouts You f****ing Indians”, a chance to talk about his past, his recurring trauma, his burden. Instead, a guilty Zorem just looks down and after a while hands over his phone to Shiv, where Cricket is coming live. Zorem’s silent actions speak volumes here.

The ‘Northeastern face’ as a site of discrimination and the projected ‘beauty of art’

Sayani Gupta’s casting as ‘Upasana’, the Nepali protagonist needs to be understood. Faces can unpack a lot, when it is about Northeast, cities and racism. Now, it is a fact that Northeast India indeed is a highly diverse region racially/ethnically and the so called ‘Northeastern face’ is in fact significantly differentiated internally. Contrary to the stereotypes, not all faces are of the ‘Mongoloid’ features. Gupta, by the way, is a Bengali actress and there is a scene in the movie where she confronts an African flatmate insisting that she too is from Northeast when the African refuses to buy it. So was the intended message to cast Gupta this, to showcase this ‘diversity’? But that would not make much sense, if the idea of the film was to highlight racism as a ‘lived experience’ of Northeastern migrants in Indian metros. For it is a bitter fact that the lived realties of the ‘two type of faces’ from the region in the Indian cities are tellingly different.

I can recount hundred examples here but sufficient is to remember that time when the Chinese Premier had visited Delhi some years back and Delhi police had gone on a detention drive of to contain the Tibetan protestors and in the process en masse detaining ‘Northeastern faces’ too. Northeastern tribals/‘Mongoloid’ (including the Assamese ones) getting detained and most of us, non tribals/non-‘Mongoloid’, having business as usual. Sometime a lot of it is indeed about how your face looks like.

Stranger still, was the casting a message as to how the ‘non Northeastern looking Northeastern’ struggle to be ‘accepted’ by their own? But in metros that would amount at best to for some people (non-tribals from the region to put it loosely) within the Northeast feeling a bit unwelcome or left out in some occasions. But, in reality, these ‘boundaries’ and ‘divisions’ exist along clan/community networks that remain active in the metros too and of which the tribal population of the region by and large remain conscious. So, it would be silly, to place the ‘alienation’ of some with that of racial attacks many are subjected to daily based on racial features.

Understanding that fine distinction is expected from a filmmaker from the region and handling a subject such as this. Finally, was ‘Upasana’ projected as a comparative example of how the ‘two faces’ are treated in big cities? She with her ‘mainstream’ face fairly, others with their ‘Mongoloid’ faces with contempt, lust and malice? That can at best be a highly optimistic, almost wishful reading. The character needed to take more definite stance towards this. Else, the overall thrust seems to be towards establishing how despite the (subtle, non-serious) differences she is but same as all the other people from the region.

In an interview to EastMojo, Kharkongor made it clear that he wishes to “break barriers” of type-casting Northeastern actors at just playing the role of a Northeastern or a South-East Asian character in movies”, calling it the ‘beauty of art’. Fair enough. Problem is that face-based discrimination is real and the issues around which he is weaving his plot of comedy is also real, sometimes tragically so. In such cases, one cannot draw ‘inspiration’ (self admittedly) from the likes of Nido Tania episode and then end up dismissing the very conditions that produces such incidents.

When #AxoneMatters becomes #AllFoodMatters

The plot, which is supposed to be humorous, a comedy of errors almost, is laced with some serious takes on issues like ‘rights’, ‘racism’ and ‘space’. The references turn out to be lopsided, exposing a bias of the plot. Of course, there are spirited scenes where characters put up feisty fights and speaks up boldly against ‘objectification’, ‘racial slurs’ etc. But then, it seems to go muted at critical points. “They have a right not to suffer the smell of our food. Now whose right is more right, tell me! ” retorts an (ostensibly) Northeastern women married to a Sikh household in one revealing scene of the movie, when ‘Chanbi’ demands the ‘right to cook our own food’.

Chanbi didn’t respond in the movie. She was not given a space where she could have pointed out the ‘politics of food’ at play here, as how many from the Northeast India routinely go through a sort of culinary assault when they begin living in these cities, their sense of smell, taste and digestion being invaded with ‘forced’ change of dietary habits due to new, many times insensitive and hostile circumstances. And thus, a severe discrimination (disadvantage) is ‘normalised’ and thus ‘invisibilised’.

There is no element of choice there then. Attempts by the Northeast people (even the careful and surreptitious ones as shown in the movie) to cook their ‘own food’ is seen as violation of spaces and a false equivalence is thus created (à la #AllLivesMatter in response to #blacklivesmatter). In this way, the movie takes a position, ironically opposite to what it intends to show, that such ‘metro cities of India’ can never be a ‘home’ for these Northeastern migrants. The yardsticks of ‘good smell’/ ‘bad smell’ like that of ‘good behaviour/’bad behaviour’ will always be fixed and given. The onus is placed on the Northeastern folks to ‘blend in’, to adjust and be accepted. Just the wrong message when it is more and more evident that equality and solidarity can come only when racism is acknowledged as a real and structural phenomenon, not by pretending that few kind gestures can plug the gap.

The ‘integrationist’ imaginations of the elites

Racism as a practice is so insidious that until it’s a ‘lived experience’ it is not easy for ‘others’ to understand the devious ways it operates. That is why the expectation was high from ‘Axone’ because it was made by an ‘insider’, someone from the region, who himself is an ‘migrant’ and most importantly self-identifies with the stories of racial discrimination.

However as the plot unfolds, soon it becomes apparent that it is a story about discrimination but told from the eyes of the privileged. It is ‘racism’ as felt and understood by a special section of the Northeastern migrants, a small but culturally influential elite. To decipher the cultural politics of Axone, one will have to realise that the often assumed homogenous category of Northeastern migrants are a multi-class lot in reality and the lived experiences of this lot, their ways of interacting with the city, their aspirations as well as struggles, sharply vary as per their class (social locational) realities. Within this lot the privileged sections – ‘the elites’ of the region-a minuscule section welding disproportionately large cultural influence-has been invested in a particular ideology of ‘integration’. One that seeks to ‘adjust’ one’s ‘Northeastern identity’ within the framework of ‘pan-Indianism’, the later almost subsuming the former. More importantly this project is considered almost effortless, as Chanbi in the movie tells Bendang, “some of them might have problem with us, but most of them are nice to us you know! That is the reason, we, you and I are living here!”

In one broad stroke, the movie paints the whole migration story into one of ‘aspiration of some’ accommodated by the ‘good will of many’. What remains hidden is the complex story of migration, how the outmigration from the region is driven by a set of reasons that includes, besides the aspirational quotient, forced displacement due to conflict and enviroemtonal degradations, resource extraction resulting in chronic poverty and so on. Emergence of migrant pockets in Urban metros like ‘Humayupur’ is part of this complex package, part of an eco-system fuelled by a migrant economy. When the urban living spaces gets organised along these lines, the rationale for ‘cultural exposure’ and ‘sensitisation’ becomes least of a priority and paradoxically the cultural boundaries becomes more defined. Thus ‘most of them are nice to us’ is not a reality a large section of working class migrants can relate to, who are relieved most of the time just to find some space that will leave them in relative peace, undisturbed and unharmed, beyond the ‘accepted’ level of daily taunts and surveillance.

The positives of the movie remains the beautiful background score made up of folk and folk fusion, the occasional use of a variety of indigenous languages, which gives one a glimpse into the amazing linguistic and cultural diversity that makes up the region. Unfortunately, in the final narrative of the movie this diversity could not become a rallying point for ‘recognition’, at best it became a medium of a caricatured ‘acceptance’.

Axone is a plot about many things but not a sensitive and nuanced representation of the lived experiences of those from Northeast India living at the receiving end of daily racism in big cities of India. Recognition of the differences is what racism is fought with, not with a flattening of it into submission and ‘integration’. Axone denied this fundamental point and being positively received as a portrayal of the Northeast people’s tryst with racism, it will now perhaps perpetuate this denial further. A flavour diluted indeed.

(The Raiot)

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