Axone, an extreme comfort food, rarely has an in-between. You either love it or hate it. It seems the film Axone by Nicholas Kharkongor, has gone the same direction as well. Much criticism has been poured on it in terms of accuracy and how it has dealt with many important issues, especially to North-easterners, on racism and discrimination. With everything else going on in the world, perhaps the film seems weak to many in its stance on these issues in light of present social and political conflicts. Thus, it has been chewed down, digested and excreted with all the stench to put off anyone going near it.
I enjoyed Axone thoroughly. Both the food and the film.
I agree with a lot of what the critics say in terms of the struggles and discrimination faced by North-easterners outside of the northeast. Horror stories abound in the physical and mental anguish faced especially by my tribal brothers and sisters. Also, in terms of accuracy, the filmmaker has missed the marks on a few spots. However, the interpretation of the film in light of these issues is where I differ. Firstly, accuracy. There have been complaints about the choice of casting, use of language, dubbed dialects et al. Some have pointed out that all the different tribes from the northeast do not necessarily all hang out together like in the film once again misrepresenting the entire region as one ethnic entity. We are a region starved of representation in all forms, even much less in this medium. The few recognised heroes we have such as Mary Kom get played by Priyanka Chopra and I don’t remember a single sentence uttered in the vernacular in the “biopic”. Axone puts out a predominantly northeastern cast in the main roles and though there are a few snags, we are still far from achieving acceptable authenticity in films. To his credit, the filmmaker has tried to be as inclusive as possible to the different states of the northeast and even if we are rightly critical of details in the representation, for once, there is representation to be critical about. Its shortcomings are an important indicator on how much we have been excluded from these spaces thus far. There is also the issue of accuracy in terms of representation. Every representation is a point of view. We must be open to the idea that “mis-representation” is a term that must be dealt with in degrees and not in broad sweeping generalisations, since there is no one true, correct representation of anything.
Now, the majority of the criticism is aimed at how it has dealt with the issues of racism and discrimination, how it is diluted in ‘confronting’ these evils. The film’s plot revolves around a group of young friends who are trying host a wedding party for another friend and cooking her favourite dish. It is about normal people trying to do something that is natural to them but face obstacles due to the unsympathetic and racist nature of those around them. They try different stratagems to get around these obstacles but blunder at every turn. For me, the issue of racism becomes exposed not in glaring confrontational terms, but in how even the simple act of cooking a meal becomes an epic adventure of pain and tragedy. People from the northeast do deal with blatant racism on a daily basis, but the film has been clever in exposing racism at its insidious best, through derision at the eating habits of others. The characters are not heroes but ordinary folk who try to stand up to for themselves but are overwhelmed. This leads them into a sad submission as seen towards the end of the film. The seemingly happy ending is anything but. The wedding party does happen where there is laughter and joy and axone and making the best of what is. The setting is not one of choice. A symbolic basement where they can be as unnoticed as possible. For Bendang, music is a coping mechanism for his PTSD. Bendang’s singing of the Hindi song, a source of much ire amongst critics, can be read as an attempt at cajoling rampant racist anxieties, but perhaps it can also be read as a symbolic bridge that must be built at some point. But though he finally manages to sing the Hindi song, he is far from being alright. He is returning home with Chanbi, who also has to give up a lucrative job she’s been vying for. Her appeal to Bendang to try to integrate better is desperate and poignant. She is a fighter as seen in a previous scene but having her face slapped in public and seeing her boyfriend’s meltdown has taken the fight out of even her. Upasana’s and Zorem’s engagement is more of a hope in fixing each other’s loneliness and solitude in that place rather than love. Hyper continues to be as ignorant about his racism as ever but his continued presence in the film are an indication of attitudes that continue to prevail and how even non-racist allies, may often be ignorant of the lived experiences of North-easterners living elsewhere. and the rest go back to being invisible. And also there were concerns how things may seem to the mainland audience. I’m way past caring for any validation from others in telling ‘our’ stories.
There are no easy answers or fixes or even how to articulate the racisms we face. Some are obvious and physical like slapping and beating and name calling. Others are more sneaky and subtle. At a festival, I was once asked by someone as to why I write in English since I have my own beautiful language and should write in that. It seemed a well meaning enough advice. Except that he too wrote in English and recited with the stiffest of stiff upper lips. It is a difficult task to tackle something this complex and nuanced. Obviously this one film will not be able to get it right. But, this is the first time that Upasana is making Axone. She has managed to find most of the ingredients. The quantity may be off, the time, the heat may not be right and the eventual taste may not be quite the Axone you wanted. When more will be made, it will get better.