Axone, streaming now on Netflix, centres around a key ingredient used predominantly in Naga and other Northeast Indian cooking. Known also as ‘akhuni’, it is a strong, pungent-smelling ingredient made up of fermented soybean and is added to flavor dishes like smoked pork or snails. This generally charming little film, directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, is sweet, funny and poignant in its best moments. But above all, it is an astute and eye-opening film that is extremely pertinent to our times.
Relevant as it already is, Axone also takes on a strangely discerning context in Covid-19 times. As it is, Northeast people studying and/or working in various parts of India have had to face harassment, abuse, discrimination and hate crimes just for being ‘different’. With the world turning against China, blaming it for the spread of the coronavirus, there have been various incidents across the country where Northeastern inhabitants of the country have been called Chinese, been abused and spat on, and have been blamed for spreading the virus. Covid-19, if anything, has made things worse for them.
Getting back to Axone, the plot of the film, set in a single day, appears simple enough. Nepali girl, Upasana (Sayani Gupta), and Manipuri lass, Chanbi (Lin Laishram), living in Humayunpur in New Delhi, decide to secretly host a party to celebrate the wedding of their roommate, Minam. As part of the wedding feast, they decide to cook a traditional dish of smoked pork with akhuni. The film looks at the various problems the duo face, along with their other Northeastern friends, in making the dish even as they try to come to terms with their own personal issues as well.
However, Axone is not as simple as it looks. The alien, foul-smelling (to others) akhuni here is not merely a cooking item but a mirror to the alienation the Northeast people face in other parts of the country. To his credit, Kharkongor, from the Northeast himself, keeps the film largely away from melodrama or self-righteous preaching. In fact, he expertly invokes humour from both sides wherever he can. Yet above all, we see the perceptions that people have of those who are ‘different’. Everything about them – the people from the Northeast – is treated as foreign be it their appearance, their culture or their cuisine. They are stereotyped as being easy, chinky, slit-eyed and what not and are, sometimes, the victims of gruesome senseless violence as well. Just how painful it can be is seen when in a key moment of anger, bitterness and frustration, one of the characters, Bendang, fed up of how he has been treated and perceived, calls a Delhi native, Shiv, a fucking Indian. You understand then how possibly for security and solace, people of the Northeast, though coming from different States with their own unique identities, stay together in clusters in localities such as Humayunpur in Delhi. But as Kharkongor manages to point out, they, too, carry their own little hierarchy and sense of belonging among themselves. At one point Upasana is reminded by her boyfriend, Zorem, that Minam is Chanbi’s best friend, not her as she is from Nepal and not one of ‘them’.
While the film, treated as a comedy-of-errors, generally chugs along smartly, there are the occasional times the slapstick like dash doesn’t really gel and at times, the film feels like it might just run of steam anytime. Some moments do fall flat like when Chanbi comes face to face with the man who was making indecent comments about her in the market and who slapped her when she confronted him. Nothing much happens in the scene and a pay off here would have been nice. As it is at present, it is a scene that doesn’t quite work. Zorem’s decision to propose to Upasana is too sudden and a mite unconvincing considering the scene earlier between him and Minam. This seems to be more to lead the film to a tad too convenient sort of happy ending.
Thankfully, however, the enthusiastic performances by the cast often rise above its niggling issues and give the film its sense of infectious fun and its more perceptive moments. Sayani Gupta as the naive, simple and kind-hearted Upasana and Lin Laishram as the feisty but empathic Chanbi own the film with their fine performances. Good support comes from Tenzin Dalha as the object of Upasna’s affection, Zorem, and Lanuakum Ao as Chanbi’s boyfriend, Bendang, who still internally carries the trauma of being horrifically beaten up in public for simply dyeing his hair blond. Their relationship is nicely etched out, their silences often speaking volumes. Rohan Joshi is a hoot as the eager to help hyper Punjabi neighbor, Shiv, while Dolly Ahluwalia as his grandmother is almost undone by the caricature-like stereotyping of her role as the strict and loud Punjabi landlord aunty. Adil Hussain’s cameo doesn’t add anything while Vinay Pathak is adequate.
In terms of technicalities, Parasher Baruah’s cinematography goes with the story without being obtrusive. Tajdar Junaid’s songs are well-composed while Suresh Pai’s editing, thankfully, focusses on the emotional quotient to keep the story going. This keeps the film’s narrative moving along seamlessly. In fact, it is only later that one begins to think that for all the urgency to cook the akhuni pork in a race against time, the screen time taken seems much longer than the time at hand to solve the innumerable problems that keep creeping up. Also, if the akhuni smells so strong that it becomes such a major hassle to cook, how is it that no one objects when Upasna makes it finally on the terrace of the house?
All in all, Axone is a fine enough attempt by Nicholas Kharkongor to highlight the plight of Northeast inhabitants in mainland India. The film reiterates that we need many more such stories to enter the mainstream and/or indie filmmaking within the country. It is heartening that Assamese cinema is already currently on a high, having found its mojo. It would now be heartening to see more films from other parts of the Northeast coming out and telling us stories of their people. After all, their lives matter too, don’t they?!
Hindi, English, Drama, Comedy, Color