Digesting Axone, but does it pull punches against racism?

By Dolly Kikon

What do films do? Are they able to deliver justice? And in what ways do they capture the everyday lives of people? What lessons should we take away from theatrical moments and scenes in films? These are perhaps some of the questions that did not across my mind as I watched Axone. Inundated by emails and text messages from friends and students across continents to watch Axone, the excitement was real. When was the last time I felt a surge of such cinematic exhilaration? Was it with the last series of The Matrix, the final episode of X-Men, or standing in line to get tickets for the third part of the Star Wars trilogy? When?

Perhaps this is not solely a film review but a reflection about the reaction, including my own, towards the film. As much as the film requires a review, the audience’s take on this film also deserves some introspection. To begin with, this was the one of the most awaited films for scores of people from the Northeast India. I would look at the trailer online and smile too. This was a film I was definitely going to watch it. And watch it did we. Passionately and intensely feeding on the scenes and plots of the film, many of us saw ourselves in the characters, associated with the ingredients, and felt the violence and humiliation of city life in India. We examined it frame by frame, dialogue by dialogue, gesture by gesture. The familiarity was uncanny. But that is where things unraveled.

As a film, Axone will go down in history as one of the pioneering cinemas to have an impressive lineup of artists from Northeast India. Bringing together stand up comedians, models, and established actors, the film is a ground-breaking achievement to showcase the lives of Northeast migrants in heart of India’s capital.

But what do we do about the meanings of our lives as portrayed on the screen, and what kinds of knowledge do we expect cinemas to offer? From the fantasy movies all the way to the slapsticks, cinematic genres and innovation continues to be astounding. Sure, films are an expression of art and the director has the freedom to tell the story as he/she/they wishes, yet, this is not how we saw Axone. For many audience from Northeast India, Axone was supposed to be our Selma, our Spotlight, our Rocky V, our Chariot of Fire, our Gladiator. And we came away feeling betrayed and let down.

For me what stood out, among other things, was the sensory elements of the film. From the visual, to the auditory, and the olfactory, the affective elements of everyday citizenship are central in this film. Given that Axone chooses to tell the story of migrants from Northeast India through the lens of a fermented ingredient—fermented soya beans/Axone/Akhuni—the politics of food and disgust is also visible. However, the director chooses deeply contested tropes such as fermented food, meat, Northeast faces, racial violence, and the film bites off more than it can chew and chokes.

The battle throughout the film is about cooking Axone/Akhuni and the characters take us through the alleys, kitchens, and basements of Humayanpur, our Northeast Harlem in New Delhi. It is a delight to see an array of ingredients; fish mint roots, tender yam stems, fermented bamboo shoot, chives, dried basil flowers, Szechwan pepper, and the regional beloved Naga chili. These are beautiful ingredients that nourishes the bodies and souls of migrants from Northeast India. Yet, the treatment of food in the film is depressing. The character who covers her nose at the smell of Akhuni is also the person who decides to cook the dish. Her ignorance of the recipe or the ingredients frames the essence of Axone.

The ambivalence and displacement of the food (literally and otherwise) alienates the audience from establishing any relationship with Axone. The metaphor of this fermented delicacy swings between a septic tank and shit. This is surely not a film for food lovers or anyone who takes food seriously. The racial politics of food and the unsuccessful attempts to cook the Axone and pork takes us into conversations about realising that “others” (non Akhuni eaters) have the right not to tolerate the “smell of our food”. These kinds of accusatory dialogues laced across the film ranges from calling out Northeast migrants for not “making a single friend” all the way to creating our own “Northeast here” (referring to Delhi but alluding to a parochial way of place-making). Across continents including my current home Melbourne, immigrants create their own “India” “China” “Italy” “Greece” and so on. That we have created our own “Northeast here” in Delhi and elsewhere across the country should be a moment of triumph that showcases the cultural diversity and resilience of Northeast migrants. Instead, this moment depicts the community as lacking conviviality. A pity.

“Racism and inequality are institutionalised forms of violence but the film is unable to grasp with these themes other than allude to friendships and attributes of niceness as remedies for addressing racism”

The anger and frustration of Northeast migrants are framed as unjustified where they are unable to see how “most of them (Indians) are nice”. This dialogue coming from a female character who is physically assaulted and has a panic attack in the film can only be read as a behaviour of a victim trapped in an abusive relationship. The cycle of abuse is normalised, and all agency and self-respect are stripped away leaving the victim to hang on to traits of any “goodness” she/he/they sees in the abuser.

Racism and inequality are institutionalised forms of violence but the film is unable to grasp with these themes other than allude to friendships and attributes of niceness as remedies for addressing racism. In addition, the diversity of Northeast India is founded on the fetishisation of women from Northeast India. The search for a “Northeast girlfriend” throughout the movie is portrayed as innocent and cute.

Many reviewers from Northeast India felt that Axone misplaced the experiences of racism and migrants from Northeast India. It felt apologetic and ended up preaching to the migrants to straighten up their acts and learn to mingle. On the one hand, there are voices that are supportive and seems to call out for artistic freedom. Surely, this was not a documentary. On the other hand, there are angry voices that have called out the film for being confused about what constitutes racism the director’s poor understanding of the politics and violence on the ground. The critical reviews from Northeast audience are sophisticated and sharp commentaries on racism. I am grateful to Axone and the crew for provoking our senses and politics and bringing us together to talk about ourselves and our lives.

Yet, that was not what Axone meant to do. The film was not for “us”—the migrants from Northeast India. The reason that the film left a sizable number of viewers upset is because there is a real sense of betrayal. The bodies of protagonists who play the part of Northeast migrants seem to be possessed by an ignorance that cannot connect to the region’s food or its people’s anxieties of being migrants. A body switch takes place in the film where Northeast faces displays the incomprehension of a migrants life. The saving grace of this film is Bendang, the character who throws away the lyrics of a Hindi song and is exhausted with Delhi, a city he hates; a city that has broken him down. As he strums the guitar and breaks down, as he refuses to play hero, as he weeps on his girlfriend’s shoulder, as he listens to his girlfriend preaching about integration, Bendang speaks to us. There is a brief scene in the film where Bendang swallows a pill to calm his nerves, and I feel him.

With his unresolved anxieties as a citizen traumatised and broken by everyday racism and violence in India, towards the end of the film he decides to head back home with his girlfriend Chanbi. A Naga-Meitei love story in full bloom returning home and I can only imagine their meals. Every day it will be a delicious combination of heavenly Meitie fish curries and Naga spices. Ayah! And perhaps he is also thinking like me and therefore decides to sing at the end of the movie.

For me Axone was my Star Wars moment. Oh yes, I am disappointed because this movie failed to live up to my spicy tribal expectations. But I am not giving up. I expect nothing less than a trilogy where Bendang and Chanbi return home and realise that Axone and fermented Bambooshoot cannot be cooked together. Food is not a metaphor, they realise, as they encounter Ngari (fermented dry fish), Anishe (fermented and smoked yam cakes), Kahudi (fermented mustard paste) and many more ingredients. One day they read that the river that flows through their town is going to be dammed upstream. There will be no fishes or crabs in their meal. The seasonal aquatic edible snails and herbs will disappear too. Bendang joins an environmental movement and marches in a rally with his guitar. Chanbi organises a food sovereignty meeting with the Bengdang-Chanbi Club, a forum for return migrants that addresses issues of rehabilitation and dignity. Alright, Nicholas Kharkongar, you know where to find me when you make the sequel to Axone.

Dolly Kikon is an anthropologist at the University of Melbourne (Australia). Her current work is on fermented food and the politics of food in the Eastern Himalayas. Follow Dolly on Twitter

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