What do films do? Are they able to deliver justice? And in what ways do they capture the everyday lives of people? What lessons should we take away from theatrical moments and scenes in films? Inundated by emails and text messages from friends and students across continents to watch Axone, the excitement of watching it was real. When was the last time I felt a surge of such cinematic exhilaration? Was it with the last series of the Matrix, the final episode of X Men, or standing in line to get tickets for the third part of the Star Wars trilogy?
This was one of the most awaited films for scores of people from the Northeast of India. And watch it, we did. Passionately and intensely feeding on the scenes and plots of the film, many of us saw ourselves in the characters, and felt the violence and humiliation of city life. We examined it frame by frame, dialogue by dialogue, gesture by gesture. The familiarity was uncanny. But that is also where things unraveled.
Axone will go down as pioneering cinema featuring an impressive lineup of artists from Northeast India. Bringing together stand-up comedians, models, and established actors, the film is a ground-breaking achievement in as much as it showcases the lives of Northeast migrants in the heart of the nation’s capital.
But what do we do about the meanings of our lives as portrayed on the screen, and what kinds of knowledge do we expect cinema to offer? From fantasy all the way to slapstick, cinematic genres and innovations continue to illuminate and provoke. Sure, films are an expression of art and the director has the freedom to tell the story as he/she/they wishes to, yet, this is not how we saw Axone. For many from Northeast India, Axone was supposed to be our Selma, our Spotlight, our Rocky V, our Chariot of Fire, our Gladiator. And we came away feeling betrayed, and let down.
For me, what stood out, among other things, was the sensory element of the film. From the visual, to the auditory, and the olfactory, the affective elements of everyday citizenship are central in this film. The director chooses deeply contested tropes such as fermented food, meat, Northeastern faces, racial violence — but the film bites off more than it can chew, and chokes. The battle throughout the film is about cooking axone/akhuni in Humayunpur, the Northeast Harlem in New Delhi. It is a delight to see an array of ethnic ingredients from the region, yet the treatment of food in the film is depressing. The character who covers her nose at the smell of akhuni is also the person who decides to cook the dish. Her ignorance of the recipe or the ingredients frames the essence of Axone.
The ambivalence about and displacement of the food (literally and otherwise) alienates the audience, prevents it from establishing any relationship with Axone. This is surely not a film for food lovers or anyone who takes food seriously. The racial politics of food and the unsuccessful attempts to cook axone and pork take us into conversations about realising that “others” (non akhuni eaters) have the right not to tolerate the “smell of our food”. These kinds of accusatory dialogues thread through the film, ranging from calling out Northeast migrants for not “making a single friend”, all the way to creating “our own Northeast here” (referring to Delhi but alluding to a parochial way of place-making). Across continents, including my current home, Melbourne, immigrants create their own “India”, “China”, “Italy”, “Greece” and so on. That people who belong to the Northeast have created their own “Northeast here”, in Delhi and elsewhere across the country, should be a moment of triumph that showcases the cultural diversity and resilience of Northeast migrants. Instead, this moment is made to depict the community as lacking conviviality. A pity.
The anger and frustration of Northeast migrants are framed as unjustified, where they are unable to see how “most of them (metropolitan Indians) are nice”. This dialogue coming from a female character who is physically assaulted and has a panic attack in the film can only be read as a behaviour of a victim trapped in an abusive relationship. The cycle of abuse is normalised, and all agency and self-respect stripped away, leaving the victim to hang on to traits of any “goodness” she/he/they sees in the abuser.
Racism and inequality are institutionalised forms of violence, but the film is unable to grasp these themes and alludes to friendships and attributes of “niceness” as remedies for addressing racism. In addition, the diversity of Northeast India is founded on the fetishisation of women from the region. The search for a “Northeast girlfriend” throughout the movie is portrayed as innocent and cute. On the one hand, there must be support for artistic freedom. And surely, this was not a documentary. On the other hand, however, there are angry voices that have called out the film for being confused about racism. The critical reviews from Northeast audiences are sophisticated and sharp commentaries on racism.
Axone, the film, was not for “us”, the migrants from the Northeast. Thus, a sizeable number of viewers feel a real sense of betrayal. The bodies of the protagonists who play the part of Northeast migrants seem possessed by an ignorance that cannot connect to the region’s food or its people’s anxieties of being migrants. The saving grace of this film is Bendang, the character who throws away the lyrics of a Hindi song and is exhausted with Delhi, a city that has beaten him down. As he strums the guitar, he breaks down and refuses to play hero. There is a brief scene in the film where Bendang swallows a pill to calm his nerves. This is the Axone moment that captures the anxieties of citizens traumatised by everyday racism and violence in the city.
The writer is an anthropologist at the University of Melbourne. Her current work is on the politics of food in the Eastern Himalayas