Director: Nicholas Kharkongor
Cast: Lin Laishram, Sayani Gupta, Lanuakum Ao, Tenzin Dalha, Rohan Joshi, Dolly Ahluwalia, Vinay Pathak
Streaming on: Netflix
In a year that has made migrants feel more isolated than ever before, and at a time when the collective resentment against China has resulted in racist attacks on Northeast Indians across the country, it’s both unnerving and endearing to watch Axone – Nicholas Kharkongor’s film about a group of Northeastern migrants in Delhi’s Humayunpur struggling to organize a last-minute wedding party for a flatmate. Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Upasna (Sayani Gupta) want to surprise Minam, an IAS aspirant slated to get married in the evening. They can’t send her home, but instead choose to bring home to her. As a result, the two girls spend the day scrambling about the neighbourhood in search of a spot to cook Axone (pronounced Akhoo-nee), a fermented soya-bean paste used to flavour meat stews. The strong aroma of the dish turns their mission into a logistical adventure of errors. From stuffy kitchens to basements to terraces, no space is spared in the race to modify a special occasion without inviting the hypocrisies of North Indian hostility.
The nasal assault on the locals assumes the language of casual and serious bigotry, further cementing the geographical bond that unites the panicked gang of tenants. Chanbi is Manipuri, Upasna is Nepali, a friend is from Mizoram, another is from Nagaland – and yet these different and distant cultures, by being prejudiced against in the same way (“you all look the same,” “your food stinks”) by the same majority, exist as one in the film’s playful microcosm of the us-against-the-world syndrome. Given that it opens with a scene straight out of a heist thriller – a shady butcher sells them smuggled pork – Axone gently recognizes the irony of its own existence. But the light-heartedness of Axone is incidental. Given its insider gaze (the director is half-Naga, half-Khasi), the ignorance towards them looks funny rather than offensive; you can almost sense them rolling their eyes at the sheer narrow-mindedness of the locality. But today, they cannot afford to be non-confrontational. One of them is even perpetually drunk; she gives it back with interest, because her identity is at stake.
That’s not to say the harshness of bigotry is swept under the rug in pursuit of accessibility. The intense moments – a scuffle with lecherous men, a viral video of a Naga man being lynched in a crowded market, an unrequited romance – feel all the more heightened when interspersed with a mad dash of caper tropes. Tajdar Junaid’s score, a mix of the authentic and the familiar, helps achieve this balance, as does the casting. Despite the presence of Hindi film veterans like Dolly Ahluwalia and Vinay Pathak (Adil Hussain’s editing-table-chopped role is pointless), northeastern actors form a majority of the ensemble: Lin Laishram, as Chanbi, wears not just the backstory of her character but of an entire culture on her face. She masters the pensive gait of a person who has internalized a sense of alienation for years; she is combative, defensive and empathetic all at once. Chanbi’s relationship with her long-time boyfriend, another broken migrant whose territoriality is a consequence of trauma, depicts a lot by saying very little. They are torn between home and homelessness, between longing and belonging. Together, they may all be running in circles for a charming film, but they never betray the stamina of a silent march.
Indian cinema has quite visibly been slow-cooking its diversity through marinated meat in the last few years. The more potent examples feature Bhaskar Hazarika’s Assamese film Aamis, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam-language Angamaly Diaries and Jalikattu. But the girls’ culinary ambitions in Axone are more pragmatically framed. Food, at its best, is the tangible manifestation of memories. But food, at its core, is history supplemented with the power of all five senses – taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. By being a largely dignified and modest narrative rather than a bitter examination of victimhood, Axone, too, invites the participation of all five senses. Taste and smell is defined by the elaborate preparation of the titular dish; the comically crude but well-intentioned son (Rohan Joshi) of the landlord also gets a taste of his own medicine when he is called an “Indian” by one of them. Sound is defined by the Punjabi landlady’s cacophony aimed at her tenants; Sayani Gupta’s uncanny Nepali twang, too, informs her outsider-within-insider status. Sight acquires a duality: It’s hard to tell if curious onlookers at the film’s live locations are staring at the camera or at the northeasterners. To them, both are equally exotic. Touch, too, acquires a duality: The Nepali character going out of her way to cook a dish unspecific to her own culture (she gags at the stench of dry pork) is touching on a human level, while Chanbi being slapped in public by a vulgar Jatt man represents the inhuman kind of touch.
As tempting as it is to draw parallels with the current climate, Axone also stands alone as a cultural renovation of the fragile bridge connecting displacement and desire. So many of us leave home in search of a broader future. Most of us become “them” in other countries: The Punjabis railing against Chanbi and Upasna might have been forbidden to cook their own ‘strong-smelling’ food in a European city. But Axone examines the unfortunate few who are forced to confront the indignation of becoming “them” even within their own country. The inherent curse of standing out demolishes the dream of blending in. A dish for a wedding party, then, reveals the duality of heritage: Food might be the art of remembrance, but marriage is an act of survival. After all, there was always a “one” in Axone.