Like a delicacy – which leaves a bittersweet aftertaste – Axone (pronounced ‘akhuni’) lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.
Axone (2019), which released on Netflix a few days ago is, a reminder of the biases that have seeped into our lives, conversations, and perception of those ‘who are not us.’ The film questions thoughts and our belief system: Are we, Indians, casually racist?
To a certain extent, every person who has left home in pursuit of career and a better life will attest to this – the outsider phenomenon. When you are not native to a particular state or a region, it is highly likely that you have been treated as an outsider.
In fact, you may have been treated even as an intruder, encroaching upon the jobs, college seats etc. that (apparently) belong to the people who were born in the region.
It sounds ridiculous, right? But it does exist and honestly, it is still digestible. It only gets intolerable when these biases take the shape of racist stereotypes: when you are no longer just chastised for taking up their jobs but also abused and looked down upon, based on where you come from.
Ask any northeasterner, chances are they have faced this at least once while living outside of the North East.
The question arises, are we blind to our biases?
The flurry of disturbing news that have taken over our feeds – and usually it reads like this: the brutal murder of 20-year-old Nido Taniam, the recent spurt in cases of racially-charged violence against Naga migrants in Mysuru, the viral video of a Manipuri woman being spat on and called “Corona” – is a testament to this.
Netflix’s latest release, Axone captures these very prejudices, but with a crafty, comical touch.
Director Nicholas Kharkongor, who was a part of the Theatre Action Group which boasts Shah Rukh Khan and Mira Nair as its alumni – restricts his story to Delhi’s Humayunpur. (A wickedly clever choice, since Humayunpur is the North East outpost of the city, brimming with migrant workers from the eight north eastern states.)
And while his treatment of the subject is subtle and satirical, it is the object he uses to draw attention that immediately sparks a wave of curiosity. What is Axone? Is it pronounced AX-1? Is it something tech-related? Even as the plot, which follows a day in the life of a bunch of youngsters from the North East in Delhi, unfolds before us, the barrage of questions takes precedence.
You ponder, pause, and quickly google up: what is Axone? Turns out it has nothing to do with the realm of sci-fi. A combination of two words – axo (which means aroma) and ne (strong) – Axone is a fermented soybean paste, commonly used in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast, to lend a distinctive flavour to food.
It is just an ingredient, another secret from India’s rich history with food and cuisine. And another reminder of how little we actually know of the North East.
Inside the humiliation and hostility
The lead characters of Axone includes Chanbi (played by Lin Laishram), Upasana (Sayani Gupta), Zorem (Tenzing Dalha), and Bendang (Lanuakum Ao).
It is one of the friend’s wedding – and an unconventional one at that, almost remindful of the new reality in a post-pandemic world – and the youngsters, living away from home, like a family away from family, plan to cook a special meal to ring in the festivities. The only problem? A score of nosy neighbours who would go to any extent to forbid the girls from cooking their delicacy (because of the strong odour). This sets off a chain of unfortunate events, as the bunch goes from pillar to post to make the day a success.
Amid comical interludes and heart-breaking confrontations is where the story lays bare its heart. The food is just a catalyst, the real catch here is the stigma woven into the very fabric of the society, and that comes to the surface only in rare introspective moment.
For instance, when Bendang’s self-seclusion is shown as the result of an outrageous incident (a commentary on the current wave of news of atrocities against people from the north east). Or when Upasana, despite being a Nepali, struggles to fit in with the rest of her group, showing how prejudices exist everywhere, even among those who are fighting it.
And that one scene where we see Chanbi at the receiving end of lewd remarks made by a roadside thug - a bitter experience that women in India are all too familiar with. But in this case, what adds to the sting of the comments is the racially-charged humiliation, showcasing how women, particularly from the north east, are subjected to unsolicited exoticism and harassment. Right from the length of the skirt to the colour of the hair, every characteristic is put under the scanner and viewed with a sexual and racial lens.
In these moments, Kharkongor holds up a mirror to the society – particularly, to the North Indian pockets. It is difficult to not look and recognise the blatant discrimination, based on casteism, classicism or racism, that exists in our own backyard.
Perhaps, we are not that woke after all. And maybe it is time to question our own history with racism.
(Edited by Javed Gaihlot and Athira Nair)