As the western world is being shaken with people standing up for a more egalitarian society and against racism, there has never been a more opportune time to discuss racism within our own society and against our own people – the North Easterners.
On a mere superficial level, Axone (pronounced akhuni), directed by Nicholas Kharkongor is about a bunch of friends gathering together to celebrate a friends wedding and trying to make a special traditional north eastern pork dish. But, this comedy of errors is so much more than that. This simple act of friendship, affection and celebrating their own cultural heritage is met by so many obstacles.
The film opens with three of the protagonists, Upasana (Sayani Gupta), Chanbi (Lin Laishram), and Zorem (Tenzin Dalha) meandering the dark bylanes of a butcher’s shop trying to buy smoked pork and Axone, which is fermented soy paste which a strong pungent smell. As they navigate through the streets to get back to their house inhabited by people of many different races, you might be fooled into thinking that the landlady(Dolly Ahluwalia) is an inclusive person. Far from the truth, the lady is an irritable old woman constantly lamenting her own fate and shouting admittedly creative insults at anyone within her earshot. The events of the film span only one day, and they are intense but at the same time very grounded and at times even hilarious.
The true grip of the films is in its constant jibing at the various levels of racism that the north eastern Indians face. The satire is profound, and somehow spans across so many different issues it essentially holds up a mirror to the society about how casually the general populace thinks of racism and habitual ostracization. It is at times painful to watch because of how real these issues are, and they even extend beyond the scope of north easterners. Chanbi, simply trying to buy vegetables, encounters a bunch of catcallers who made extremely vulgar and racist remarks at her but when she takes a stand for herself, she is slapped. This is amidst the crowd making their own opinions known; from an aunty telling her to ignore them to the people making racist remarks. It really makes you wonder about the intersectionality of discrimination, because Chanbi is a woman on top of being a North Easterner. Chanbi and the others are the target of such crowds several times throughout the film.
The strong smelling Axone serves as a metaphor to the way many Indians regard the north easterners, recoiling each time they see them and making their prejudice known. Throughout the events of the films, Khargonkor even managed to highlight the mental health issues faced by them. As the smell wafts through the building, a crowd gathers and Chanbi is yelled at to the point of inducing a panic attack which is again depicted correctly. The most astonishing thing is, she gets help. The amount of social commentary in the film is quite profound, but at the same time it does not feel cramped or preachy; it feels down to earth. Khargonkar even managed to point out the segregation within their own people, which only underlines how robust the narrative is.
The cinematography of the film is a special highlight of Axone that makes it a true joy to watch. The shots of the streets of Humayunpur, the mouth watering shots of the food, exploration of the culture – it only adds to the strong plot of the film. Further complimenting them is the stellar performance of the cast, comprising mostly North-Easterner. It really makes you wonder why they are not so grossly underrepresented in mainstream media. Merenla Imsong as Balamon was also a joy to watch with her clever retorts. Lai Laishram as Chanbi was really good and her performance really deserves to be applauded.
Despite its dark premise and strong social element, Axone still manages to be a colorful film. It is quite endearing at times, while exploring friendships, relationships, cultural differences, diversity, and adversity. The story is cohesive and culturally dense, with the sound track composed of traditional songs that sit plush with the story. For a north easterner, this film would be very close to them, evoking experiences that many of them have lived through in their own country. For the others, it is a story which might act as a way to recognize their own privilege, as it did for me.