Can We Keep Talking Axone Please?

With or without the political intention of its makers, history itself has placed a mountain of representational and creative responsibility on Axone. Immediately after its release on Netflix on June 12th, 2020, a plethora of responses emerged, creating a fundamental debate on the representation of people from the North-East and the “North-East experience” in Indian cities. Naga anthropologist Dolly Kikon says the film was supposed to be “our Selma.” The weight of expectation that Axone carries is further reflected in the viral circulation of its trailer and posters even before the film’s national release, particularly on Instagram and WhatsApp. Kaustubh Deka reasons this noise around the film by citing the director’s own background; Nicholas Kharkongor is half Naga and Khasi. Deka pointed out that the film was “made by an ‘insider’, someone from the region, who himself is an ‘migrant,’ and most importantly self-identifies with the stories of racial discrimination.” To add to this, Axone also has a strong North-east cast, stepping away from previous tendencies in mainstream Indian films to have a tokenistic North-Eastern character, if at all.  Many were excited about seeing themselves represented onscreen for the first time. In an interview with The Telegraph, Kharkongor himself clearly establishes that he wanted to

…tell a tale of people from the North-east”, particularly to Indians in big cities “who, consciously or unconsciously, have practised racism.
He further says that he wanted to reveal
how it feels like to be on the other side… to be a Northeasterner.
Does Axone succeed in its aims? Probably, and probably not.

What’s food got to do with it?

In many ways, Axone is a product of the myriad fermented feelings of people from the region living in Indian cities. Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore are destinations saturated with ideas of hope, success and independence. However, they are also spaces which have historically manufactured trauma, alienation, discrimination and even danger for young people from the region. The film has successfully showcased the many forms in which these experiences surface in the everyday negotiations of North-Eastern migrants in cities, from the precarious relationship with landlords to the racist slurs ushered regularly on the streets. Most notable though, is Axone’s rooting of the discrimination debate to the discourse of North-Eastern food in Indian cities. Explaining the place of food in the film, Kharkongor says,

For a North-easterner living in Delhi or Bangalore, it’s a rite of passage to cook your food.
The significance of the director’s statement is not its hinting of the value of cooking itself, but of cooking your own food in a foreign place. It is as if the embodied experiences of cooking and consuming one’s own food in such a space is at once an initiation into adulthood and a reconsolidation of one’s ethnic identity.

Axone takes its title from the Naga term for fermented soya beans, a regionwide popular delicacy, known amongst other communities by different names. To regular eaters, axone/akhune is an extremely mouth-watering ingredient, but its pungent smell often causes revulsion in people alien to it. In an essay titled “Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on the Nation’s Table in India,” Dolly Kikon incisively argues that while the “shit” smell of axone is disgusting to many, to akhune consumers from the North-East, it “invokes feelings of comfort or remembrance of home… especially in unfamiliar surrounds…” This affective relationship with akhune is intensified when these “unfamiliar surrounds” are aggressively dismissive, not only of the food item but people who eat it too. It is widely known that food has been one of the primary grounds for evicting or denying rented houses to North-Eastern migrants in cities. The furore around akhune-cooking is nicely dramatized in the film; the entire plot revolves around the trials and tribulations of cooking the akhune dish for a wedding in a way that does not provoke ire from the neighbours. In Axone we see that cooking is an assertion of the characters’ regional and ethnic identities. However, in order to survive, that very assertion has to happen surreptitiously, and away from the hostile oversight of Delhi landlords/landladies and neighbours.

To put this in context, let me bring into the discussion an episode that Kikon mentions in her essay. In 2007, Delhi Police released a pamphlet titled ‘Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi’ in which certain North-East food items were cited. It argued that the cooking of akhune and bamboo shoot must be done

without creating ruckus in neighbourhood.
The fact that culinary practices had entered into a discourse on security, that too, through the language of discipline, reveals much about the institutionally racist strategies of the Delhi Police here. Instead of ensuring that minorities get the right to exercise their dietary rights, the police adopted a patronising move by cautioning against the consumption of what they saw as conflict-triggering food. Further, subtly subsumed in the Delhi Police message is the idea that if North-East migrants don’t listen to the advice given, then they hardly have the right to access protection from the state in the first place. Reminder: that pamphlet was circulated thirteen years ago, and yet we’re still here writing, talking and making films about our “smelly food” because unfortunately, it continues to be the axis of discrimination and exclusion for us.

This is what racism looks like

The bulk of the criticism of the film focuses on its representation and apparent diagnosis of violent and aggressive racist encounters. Through the character Bendang, Axone does a retrospective re-telling of a real-life fatal incident of racial violence that happened to Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, in Delhi 2014. The film deviates from the incident in that Bendang survives the attack, but continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kharkongor  says that this storyline is a huge part of Axone and underscores its importance to a person like him who was in Delhi at the time. He admits that “All of us were very affected by it,” and that the incident revealed to him how racism could be both “casual” and “extreme.” However, in weaving this story in, Kharkongor surprisingly takes a didactic turn and treats the issue of violent racism as fodder for a moral lesson. As many have pointed out, although there are powerful visceral scenes which capture Bendang’s trauma, he is ultimately put through a corrective and chastising conversation with his partner Chanbi who accuses him of not blending in enough. Kaustubh Deka says that the film ends up “putting the ‘guilt’…on people like Bendang, which he identifies as “a classic case of victim blaming.”  Richard Kamei similarly argues that,

The crux of the movie is about seeking validations to be accepted and assimilated into a place far from home.
This narrative of assimilation propagated by the film is eerily reminiscent of that in WhatsApp messages regularly sent by the Delhi Police North-East Cell, urging North-East migrants to attend pujas and wear Indian clothes so as to avoid antagonising the locals. These attempts of putting the blame on North-Easterners speak of the continued expectation from minorities to bear the historical labour of learning to speak, act, eat and live like mainland Indians. It is almost as if it is our sole responsibility to put our dignity and desires aside, for the sake of social harmony. Further, as Kikon rightly argues, “The cycle of abuse is normalised” in the film.  Axone fails to validify the trauma that all of us feel and that some of us have learned to manage and suppress in order to survive. Like Bendang, our anxieties and frustrations can only exist when tamed and behind closed doors. If they do somehow surface, we should be shunned, and eventually go back home.

All of this makes the stance of the film vis-à-vis racism and indeed, racism’s impact on mental health, somewhat diluted and confusing. This is particularly evident in Kharkongor’s Telegraph interview in which he further states that he didn’t want to make “a very biased film where we only see Northeast being the victims” and that he wanted to “show prejudices within the Northeast community” as well. Indeed, it is important to recognise that minority communities are not sacrosanct groups without internalised prejudiced views. However, to equate their prejudices with the general systemic racism against them is careless. For one, racism amongst these minorities towards majority ethnic groups located in Delhi, is not institutionally reinforced and consolidated. Secondly, unlike what Rachit Raj from India Independent Films.com claims, it is not simply a case of “’us’ versus ‘them’”; it is a relationship of power historically manufactured and perpetuated by the state and other agencies, discursively and militarily. Thirdly, if the point of the director in the interview is to acknowledge the tribal and non-tribal tensions across North-East India, then perhaps he could explore the issue in another series of films. Racial conflicts in the region are diverse and are borne out of specific local historical situations; they are not instances of random or vacuous “othering”. Ultimately, if Kharkongor himself stated in the beginning that the point of Axone is to capture the lives of North-East migrants in Delhi, then why qualify the trajectory of the film by bringing in false equivalences?  Admittedly, it is a herculean task to provide a crisp representation of historical racism and its traumatic repercussions in a comedic realist film. But the problem with Axone is not so much the genre as is the ultimate message the film concludes with, one which many under-informed viewers would take at face-value.

A performance within a performance: the Laayap

The other arena which sparked annoyance, and even anger in people was the film’s depiction of the Galo marriage ritual, laayap. As the plot unfolds, we learn that the entire palaver of finding a safe place to cook akhune is in celebration of Minam’s marriage to her partner Chimar, who himself is back home in Arunachal Pradesh. As portrayed in the film, the actual ceremony happens in-absentia of the bride, amidst family, elders and a Galo priest. Minam in Delhi sits fully clad in the Gale, the traditional Galo costume and watches via videocall her sister physically taking her place. The sister is seen performing the bridal rituals on behalf of Minam, particularly the laayap, which involves the sacrifice of a hen. Speaking from the other side of the screen, Minam’s niece Dagi explains that this kind of a ceremony is no longer practiced and that it dates back to “ancient times” when men would be at war. We also learn that this rare ritual is reignited because Chimar’s sick grandmother wishes to see them married before she dies. This scene is one of the most spectacular in the film, capturing on the one hand the colourful and variegated traditional wear of the characters in Delhi, and on the other, the various paraphernalia of the tribal ceremony in Arunachal Pradesh. From the sounds and sights of a Delhi neighbourhood, we are taken to a hut in Arunachal Pradesh where, embellished with headgears, the groom and proxy bride sit together whilst the chanting priest presides over their marriage. It is through this marriage scene that a film about North-Easterners is able to travel back to the region and capture a semblance of what the Axone director imagines to be an indigenous marriage ceremony.

Interestingly, some critics of the film reveal that this ceremonial adjustment, passed off as an accepted and practiced Galo ritual, is not Galo at all. In a letter dated 28th of June, 2020, representatives of the Galo Welfare Society (GWS) issued a legal notice to the director and crew members of Axone for their alleged “unethical and slandering depiction of a fundamental marriage ritual practice.” They argue that the laayap(slitting of the hen’s throat) has to be done by the bride and hence, the bride’s presence is “mandatory” in any Galo wedding ceremony. The letter also called for the director, producer and Netflix to make a public apology in national newspapers for their “mistake.” Further, Marli Kamki, a Galo student activist and Secretary of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), confesses in a blog post that he was “dumbstruck” and that the marriage scene left him questioning himself and his own tribe’s cultural history. The obvious question to ask here is: did Nicholas Kharkongor invent this dimension of the ritual, and if so, why?

Admittedly, I know nothing about the Galo laayap and its intricacies. However, I cannot help wonder about what actually happens when a particular living ritual is not only misrepresented, but reinvented onscreen for a national and global audience. Further, what does the issuing of a legal notice against the representation of a ritual do to its ontological and social constitution? Anthropology has understood rituals as symbolic and procedural acts (Geertz, 1973; Bloch; 1989) and “social drama” (Turner;1975) that produce, reproduce and sustain social relations within a community. They exist in a specific historical and social situation and are an emergent force that wholly or partially evolve in time. This is especially true in a postcolonial context like North-East India; here, one can never think of rituals as static and unaffected by various historical processes such as colonialism and the region’s integration with the Indian state. However, when the Galo Welfare Society invokes the idea of timelessness, arguing that the laayap, their “age old Galo tradition,” has been distorted in Axone, it has a very different weight and purpose. First, the GWS members are Galo and as insiders, have the right to provide a definition of what laayap is and how it is observed at this historical moment. In other words, since the laayap exists in the Galo cosmological making, it is members of that community who can agree or disagree on the ritual’s material and performative constituents, let alone its ontological place. Second, in establishing the ritual as longstanding, the GWS is using the past as a validation for their definition of laayap, not as a means to hold on to a romanticised idea of an unchanging Galo folk culture. Of course, we could indulge in a poststructuralist daydream and argue that the inauthentic representation of the ritual in Axone is somewhat pardonable because the relationship between meaning and performance is innately unstable; however, as iterated before, Galo people should be the ones deciding on the terms of the inauthentic, especially if such is propagated by a non-Galo person. Moreover, if the marriage scene is the prism through which Galo culture is showcased to the world, shouldn’t Galos have the right and space to present their views? This is important especially since we are talking about an under-represented community from an under-represented part of the country. In some sense, the rendition of laayap in Axone speaks of an epistemological violence so significant that according to Kamki, Galos themselves are shaken, disoriented, and somewhat thrown to a situation of collective doubt and confusion. This experience of hurt and confusion is also embedded in the context of tribal communities’ historical position as subjects of anthropological, colonial and postcolonial knowledge production, without the instruments for their own narrativization. And as many have pointed out, since the Axone director is a person from the region, who would have been conscious of these processes, there is a general expectation of more accountability.

In a raiot.in Axone review, Lalnunsanga Ralte argues that,

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.
To an extent, I agree that a fully acceptable and applaudable effort of representation is unachievable, whether done by an insider or an outsider. There is always going to be a contestation of the matter itself, even before it is put under the camera. I also agree that the film-maker has the artistic license to explore and create other layers to what they are representing. However, all cultural products deserve an interrogation and reflection, and this is even truer for Axone because of its location in the history of representation of North-East people, and the larger discourse of North-East India. Axone is a film but it is not just a film. It is a mainstream production of a non-mainstream subject matter, one which is addressing a historical lacuna in Indian entertainment. It marks the moment in cinema where the North-East is finally brought to the purview of the national public, most of whom are glaringly ignorant about it. Therefore, whether it has an educational intention or not, Axone must acknowledge its discursive and representational responsibilities.

I personally watched Axone in London, in October 2019, where it premiered as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival. Having seen its tantalising trailer, I was eager to revisit some of my cherished as well as fraught encounters in Delhi through the film. I was also excited about seeing something reflective of me and my experiences on a London screen. After the one hour and a half hour watch, I recall leaving the cinema venue feeling a bit puzzled. But perhaps the success of the film resides in its ability to puzzle many of us. Axone has triggered a wide debate amongst people from the North-East about the larger questions of inclusion and politics of representation. Perhaps from here we can continue thinking together and generate more canvases that speak of our complex realities, passions and agonies, for the world and for ourselves too.

References

Bloch, M. (1989). Ritual, history and power. Selected papers in anthropology. London: Athlone.

Deka, K. (2020) “Diluted Smells of Axone.” Raiot.in. Online.

Geertz, C. (1973) The interpretation of cultures. Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Kamei, R. (2020) “”Axone’: Stirring the perception of nostrils on identity & racism.” Eastmojo.com

Kamki, M. (2020) “Axone: A Tale Told Wrong?” marlikamki9.wordpress.com.

Kikon, D. (2015) “Fermenting Modernity: Putting Akhuni on the Nation’s Table in India.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Routledge.

Kikon, D. (2020) “Axone was not for ‘us’, migrants from the Northeast.” The Indian Express. Online.

Raj, R. (2020) “Film review: AXONE.” India Independent Films.

Ralte, L. (2020) “Axone Stinks (and I Like It)” Raiot.in. Online.

Roy, P. (2020) “‘A small film with a big heart’: Director Nicholas Kharkongor on ‘Axone’.” The Telegraph Online.

Turner V. (1975) “Symbolic studies.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 4, pp. 145-161

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Gertrude Lamare Written by:

Gertrude Lamare, scholar, pedagogue and a member of Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR),

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