The year is 2020. As the world was moving at a breakneck speed, a pandemic took over the wheels and made sure that humans put a brake on the obsession of trying to control everything. The coronavirus showed us what fear of mortality looks like and trapped us in our own homes. Carefully worded tweets and lengthy Instagram posts creep into our daily lives, all screaming in unison what all this virus has ‘taught’ us. But the bubble bursts with one piece of news - a Manipuri girl being abused, spat on and referred to as ‘corona’ in the heart of Delhi.
Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone (pronounced Akhoo-nee), that premiered at MAMI last year, releases on Netflix at a befitting time.
The film asks a simple question - why does the right to cook and eat whatever one wants have to bear with it a tag of privilege? Why do certain communities in the country have to beg, cry and run from pillar to post to enjoy a hearty meal made from authentic spices?
Axone, named after the traditional Nagaland condiment made of fermented soybean paste used to flavour non-vegetarian stews, charts the day in the life of a bunch of friends from the North-East, who are currently residing in Delhi’s Humayunpura. Except, this day is special as one of the girls, Miram, is getting married. Circumstances have compelled Miram to take the decision in a hurry, so venue and caterers are out of the question.
Her flatmates as well as buddies Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Upasna (Sayani Gupta) step in to try and ensure that the would-be bride celebrates her D-day with some pomp and show. They want to surprise her by whipping up Miram’s favourite Axone, but the very mention of the dish sends their already hyper landlady (Dolly Ahluwalia) into a frenzy. Upasana’s boyfriend Zorem (Tenzin Dalha) takes the landlady’s helpful but extremely nosy grandchild Shiv into confidence and thereby ensues the near-impossible mission to put Axone to a boil without the neighbours even getting a whiff of it.
Unfortunately, Upasana & Chanbi’s initial attempt to cook in the house is thwarted when the landlady chances upon their plan. The wrath of the entire apartment descends on the doorstep of the girls, with a resident threatening to throw them out if they don’t ‘stop’. As Chanbi repeatedly pleads and apologises for cooking in her own house as Upasana runs around the apartment looking for a place to hide the Axone, the North Indian hostility couldn’t have been more apparent.
Throughout the film we see these young men and woman scrambling for a place to cook the stew. In their mad quest, they are met with apathy and disgust. The sheer ignorance of Delhi-ites towards distinct cultures also comes to the fore.
Chanbi hails from Manipur, Upasna is a Nepali, two others from Mizoram and Nagaland, yet in a particular sequence, a middle-aged man proclaims “You all look the same!” despite asserting that he has seen different guys enter and exit Chanbi’s boyfriend Bendang’s place. In another scene, a woman ‘politely’ enquires, “You have such tiny eyes. Can you see the entire wall of the living room?” Such instances of casual racism abound in the movie.
“You have made your own Northeast here”, Chanbi tells Bendang, and that’s when Axone becomes more than a dish - it becomes a symbol of being “othered” in your own country. Kharkongor makes sure that we are reminded of the daily assaults that these “foreigners” face - a scuffle with a lecherous man and a video of a Nagaland boy being lynched in a pub are instances that should be etched in the memory. Axone also shows us the faces of rebellion - even a perpetually drunk girl makes it a point to give it back as this isn’t the time to avoid confrontations.
This quietly powerful story becomes all the more hard-hitting because of impeccable performances and Tajdar Junaid’s soundtrack that merges the natives tunes of the Northeast with the mundane.
Lin Laishram as Chanbi is the strongest of the lot. She has a temper, is defensive but does not shy away from showing empathy. Chanbi’s shoulders are weighed down by her backstory, and Delhi makes sure to strike blow after blow. Axone beautifully depicts the complicated relationship between Chanbi and Bending, whose very existence has resulted in a trauma so deep that he has almost surrendered to the whims and fancies of the bullies. Chanbi tries to cling to the straws of her homeland while striving to eke out a better future in a metropolis that has nothing but hate to offer. Dolly Ahluwalia as the cranky and narrow-minded landlady and Vinay Pathak as her mildly non-judgemental son-in-law add to the humour while also portraying a grim reality. Sayani Gupta as Upasna is a bit of a disappointment. Her awkward gait and desperate attempt to fit in seems a little too forced.
Films are known to use food as a central theme to dish out interesting narratives. While the delectable spreads in The Lunchbox gave rise to a story of warmth and desire, meat in Aamis looked at an unusual love story.
In the span of over two hours, Axone lays bare the wide gulf that exists within our country. The urge to give wings to our dreams makes us leave our homelands and we try and blend with cultures and traditions alien to us. While for most this journey becomes one of excitement and adventure, for some unfortunate few it results in days full of horror. “I can’t breathe” - these three words are only reserved for those whose only “crime” is expecting to be embraced and treated with dignity and respect and not othered in their own country. The “stench” is never in a dish prepared with love, it’s hidden in every nook and corner of a society that has perched itself on the tower of judgement.