Axone Movie Review: Biting social commentary done tastefully
Brilliant performances and affecting storytelling neatly packaged into an earnest film about normalisation of racism, violence, and misogyny
Watching Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone brought back one very distinctive memory. One centred around the shaming of eating habits. Though we had our own home in an apartment, there was an unwritten rule that “karuvaadu” (dried fish) shouldn’t be cooked there. The question of why one community’s food is frowned upon by others continues to be pertinent. Look around, words like beef and pork are uttered in hushed whispers in particular areas. Why? Isn’t it a person’s fundamental right to eat what they want? This is one of the many questions posed by this film, which is essentially about a group of Northeasterners trying to make their ethnic food in the bylanes of India's capital city.
Cast: Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram, Tenzin Dalha, Rohan Joshi, Lanuakum Ao
Director: Nicholas Kharkongor
Streaming on: Netflix
It is interesting how Nicholas uses one of the characters of his film to answer this particular point. When a sprightly Upasana (Sayani Gupta) asks this question, Martha, a North East woman married into a Punjabi household, says, “We have the right to cook our food. They also have the right to not have to bear the smell of our food. Whose right is more right?” Now, this is an important question. This “right” changes with location. If Upasana and Chanbi (Lin Laishram) made the dish, Axone (pork cooked with fermented soya bean that they want to make for their friend Minam's wedding), anywhere in the North East, it would probably not have been a problem. Their marriage rituals might seem normal back home. But in Delhi, their right is superseded by those of people who prefer Butter Chicken, big baaraats and bands for their weddings.
Although Axone deals with the violence and racism that Northeasterners are subject to within their own country, the writing has a strong undercurrent of humour. And somehow, this treatment makes our reactions all the more layered. Yes, we smile at Upasana and Chanbi’s “hyper” neighbour Shiv (Rohan Joshi) asking for a Northeastern girlfriend in return for helping them. But soon, we understand why he asks that. We smile at how Upasana, a Nepali, is trying her best to learn her boyfriend Zorem’s (Tenzin Dalha) mother tongue, but we come to understand how some Northeasterners are pushed to a place where they don’t let any outsiders into their world. Even as an audience, we are kept at a certain distance from the narrative. What brings us closer is the music of Tajdar Junaid, while the cramped cinematography of Parasher Baruah gives us a feeling of claustrophobia amidst the sprawl of Delhi buildings.
The protagonists of Axone don’t have time to sit and give us solutions. They have a dish to cook before Minam returns from her IAS interview. And everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Friendships are tested. Ugly memories are rekindled. Past relationships catch on. New equations are forged. They can’t strut around spouting expository dialogues about racism, stereotyping, and harassment. Their lives go on amidst all this cacophony and ill-treatment.
How does a Chanbi, who faces lewd comments, stands up for herself, and gets slapped by her abuser for doing so, rub it off after some time to start cooking with Axone? Or take Upasana, who is reminded time and again she isn’t a Northeasterner because she doesn’t look like one. This is said by people who are themselves oppressed for their features. It lays bare the dichotomy of systemic oppression in our society. There is always someone that can be oppressed by someone else.
At one critical point in the latter half of the movie, Chanbi meets her harasser again. This time, he is with his family. Chanbi calls him out in front of everyone. As her harasser threatens her with violence again, his father asks him to shut up. Meanwhile, his mother berates Chanbi and questions her character. The father slaps his wife, tells both her and his son to shut up, and asks the latter where he learnt such behaviour. This seems like a solid theatre moment where everyone would erupt in raptures over the father’s reaction. Isn’t he the ideal man? The one who questions wrong and saves the day. However, Chanbi, without batting an eyelid, says, “Aap hi se seekha hoga (He might have learnt to slap a woman from you).”
You see, Axone is not just about the smelly pork or the violence meted out to people who “look different” or even simply about the life of a section of people not often represented in mainstream cinema. It is a gentle slap across all our faces for the way we have normalised violence and racism. This slap will sink in more with better representation and voices from the Northeast telling their own stories.
We need that slap, and to be honest… we deserve it too.