I could not believe my eyes when my wife Sabrena put on an Indian movie on Netflix and we saw at least two Northeast Indians at once. On screen. Having lines. Being whole people. Doing something. Something that seemed important.
“Axone” (pronounced Akhuni) is a Naga speciality dish made with fermented soya beans. It is said that Nagas, especially those from the Sema tribe, know when axone is ‘done’ simply from smelling it: its smell carries memories of home, which tastes of the umami and salty goodness that any soybean-eating peoples can identify immediately, from smell.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Delhi’s Humayunpur neighborhood is a fan. Despite being frequently described as Delhi’s “Northeast district”, given the abundance of Northeastern and Tibetan people, shops and restaurants, there is a fine line between tolerance and acceptance. Like any other ‘ethnic neighborhood’ in Delhi, you can have lots of people from one area yet still be divided by thousands of invisible segregating lines.
Axone, by Shillong-raised Nicholas Kharkongor, carries the weight of all of the eight Northeast Indian states on its shoulders.
You are from here when it makes sense for you to be; but not from here when it becomes convenient.
The central conceit of the movie, and its title, lies in the idea of a group of mixed Northeast Indian friends who have found community and love among each other, living in the same area. For all intents and purposes they seem to be regular folks with regular lives. Chanbi, performed by Manipuri actress Lin Linshraim, is gregarious and opinionated. When a Delhi boy in the neighborhood mutters the sexual vulgarities they typically reserve for ‘Northeast / Nepali sluts’, she, like any other Northeast woman who has spent too much time in Delhi, confronts him. Her boyfriend, Bendang, recoils and says he did not hear that comment. Maybe it’s a statement about how even a stone’s throw from Delhi’s most affluent southern neighborhoods, the pecking order is clear: Delhi boys will always be backed up by Delhi fruit-sellers (even those from UP), who will always be backed up by random neighborhood uncles on the street who will demand proof from bystanders before he lends his commentary and judgmental weight towards resolving an untoward situation; then the others, like the ‘Chinkys’, and even then the smaller in every way Northeastern man cowering behind his authoritative girlfriend will get more of a say than she does.
He does not pull his weight. It’s clear from the moment he does this that there is some kind of trauma around being a not-very-large Northeastern man in Delhi and street violence. Everything in his eyes says so. Immediately, I thought this might have something to do with Nido Taniam: the Northeastern man from Arunchal Pradesh who was beaten to death by shopkeepers in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. His crime: being a chini who dared break a glass counter in a fit of rage, after they made fun of his blonde, spiky hair. There are many reasons one might want to stand down from a fight that’s percolating on the streets of Delhi. Especially so when you are from the Northeast.
Before we find out anything further about this trauma, or even about Bendang as a person, there’s a lot of ensuing chaos around the cooking of this dish. We’re told it’s special, it’s for a wedding. We can tell that people don’t like it, and the Northeastern crew know that. They go door to door telling those who will maybe grudgingly accept this, like the African neighbor who says that dish smells like shit (but we never find out more about her other than that the ‘Nepali’ person can’t pronounce her name either); but plot to complete this cooking between the time someone’s grandma’s nap and the Bengali auntie’s return. Maybe it makes a point that this part of Delhi is indeed a very large pot of various things, but that melting pot it is not. It’s clear who calls the shots: Dolly.
In nearly every multicultural society, a minority group cooking something that looks, tastes, smells, or simply just is different is an affront. Sukehtu Mehta, who made the journey several times between being ‘from here then not then here again but not really’, talks about having his native food being made fun of in New York City, then supposedly insulting militant vegetarians in his upmarket South Mumbai home, with his meat-eating. In Singapore, where I am originally from, you can be simultaneously refused an apartment for being of an ethnic background that is most likely to ‘stink up the house with the smell of curry’ (link) and defended for cooking curry (only if the people who complain are other foreigners, like… newcomers from China).
There is a lot of yelling in this movie. As an autistic woman who hates yelling, it was hard to watch at times. But it also helped me understand why Delhi was such a difficult place for me to be in. All that yelling. There is also a lot of scurrying.
For a slice-of-life dramedy, Axone hits the mark. Things go wrong, things keep going wrong; protagonists try to fix it, they don’t; they keep trying, they give up. In between, there is a lot of intra-community anxiety to unpack. She doesn’t like you, you’re Nepali, not a real Northeastern person. What happened to this once jovial man, now a shadow of his former self? At every turn it feels like an explanation. This is what a Naga person would face in Delhi. This is how a Tibetan person would experience the nation’s largest, some would say most unkind, city. The big reveal about Bendang’s past was so thoroughly unsurprisingly, yet so insufficiently explained. I wish the film took more time to explore Bendang’s horrific past, than it did to explain how hurt someone felt later when he was called a ‘f—king Indian’.
Things that were great
- The cast: mostly strong actors all around, representing various parts of the NE, Nepal and Tibet
- The anxiety around the cooking of this dish: on top of it being the biggest day of one’s life, there is also extreme racism and terror
- The true-to-life explanation of the panic-inducing daily life folks in the NE community face in Delhi; how many micro-aggressions they face
- All of the cultural moments: anything that zoomed in on the cooking, speaking and rituals of NE traditions. My favorite moments were when all the friends spoke in a different tribal language at once to try to sort out some jugaad
- Overtures to the musical and Christian traditions of parts of the Northeast: I suppose it’s hard to strike a balance between ‘celebrating the musicality of Northeast Indians’ and ‘extending the stereotype that every Northeastern man simply likes to strum a guitar and sing idly’
- Struggles with Hindi: you can never do well enough at it. You either struggle to sing a standard Hindi song, or you yell at people in a market but still get ‘translated over’ because people think you don’t speak Hindi because you are a Chini
- The exasperating role of Shiv, despite being grating, was a perfect example of a wannabe liberal Delhi dude who wants to be an ally but ends up missing the plot anyway
- The actual wedding itself: unexpectedly fun
Things that were not
- Screen time: most of the screen time was devoted to a very good (but also Bengali) actress; and to another Tibetan Indian actor. As others have pointed out, it was odd that the most famous actor of the cast, an actual actor from Assam (Adil Hussain) was relegated to such a minor and somewaht problematic role
- Extra attention on Lin Linshraim and Lanuakum Ao’s characters (Chanbi and Bendang) would have greatly improved the movie
- Too much of the movie was a ‘soft’ commentary on the racism faced by the NE community. ‘You failed to have any Indian friends’, someone scolds a partner, who is clearly still recovering from having his life nearly taken from him over the color of his hair
- Affected Hindi accents by some cast members to try to portray the difficulties of the characters they play, sometimes unrealistically so
“Can you see behind those small eyes??” The half-NE, half-Sikh character was such a joy in the few moments he was on. Yet he was relegated to a cursing Sardar who wanted to beat up someone for racist remarks towards him.
Like any movie that is ‘first’ with representation, there were big shoes to fill that ultimately led to disappointment. Must every minority movie be a masterpiece? Should every minority movie hit every note without going out of tune? Watching this movie as a Chinese-Singaporean person in America who has been disappointed by most Asian-American outings to Hollywood, I felt similarly about Axone. So much potential, so much talent. So little punching above its weight.
Like many Asian-American movies, this one is not quite clear who its audience is. It’s most on shaky ground when it’s trying to be both a statement of NE pride and culture, and a film that is palatable to a movie-goer in Mumbai or Delhi. It’s strongest when it is unabashedly Northeasthern: here is the food, it makes a Sema Naga person happy on the happiest day of her life, and here is the awkward group of other Northeastern friends who will go to these lengths to make her happy. Even if Dolly thinks it’s a bloody costume parade, or that all of it smells like shit.
More of this, please. But also with an extra helping of all of the smelliest things that others may not like.
(Axone is streaming on Netflix.)