Axone Is a Story of Racism Told From the Eyes of the Privileged

Much was expected of this movie, as insights from an 'insider' directly affected by racism against Northeasterners in Indian cities. But it falls short.

Axone, the film, has received critical acclaim for depicting racial discrimination faced by the people from the Northeast in Indian metros. This racism has assumed special significance due to a spike in racist attacks and discrimination against people form the region in different cities as the panic around COVID-19 grows. Nicholas Kharkongor, the director of Axone, made this connection too in an interview to Outlook, saying the movie has come at the right time, as “the idea was to be able to tell the story of Northeast people’s experience of living in a big city”.

The fact that the film has brought the discourse on racism in India, existing in an atmosphere of denial, to the ‘mainstream’ of popular culture and made some space for artists from the region to tell their ‘own stories’ is a significant development. But this perceived ‘authenticity’ of the film also makes its role doubly crucial – because its narrative will be taken as ‘sanctioned’ and enriched with insiders’ lived experiences.

Therefore, this discussion is not on the cinematography, performances and other technical aspects of the movie. Instead I try to show how despite being seen as a pioneering movie creating awareness on the issue of racial discrimination, Axone might have just weakened the fight against racism.

Named after the most famous Naga fermented food product  ‘Axone’ (Akhuni) that has come to be an identity marker for the ‘Northeastern community’ (a community in exile, separated by many things, united by a sense of ‘otherness’), the movie had two things immediately set. An aroma which is considered ‘alien’ and unwelcome, and a face that is a ‘misfit’.

Axone disappointed because it failed to bring out – and even took fallacious positions on – the two themes central to the nature of racial discriminations faced by people from Northeast India in Indian metros: the politics around food and the politics around face type.

Killed in real, sermonised in reel: The sad case of ‘Bendang Longkumer

For me a most tragic character in the narrative is that of Bendang Longkumer, the Ao Naga protagonist. His character is a thinly veiled reference to Nido Taniam, the young man from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered by a racist mob in a South Delhi market in 2014 just because they didn’t approve of his hairdo. The consequent outrage was a rallying point for Northeastern migrants in various Indian metros to ask for justice and a dignified existence.

Unlike Taniam , however, Bendang in the movie gets to live after being trashed by a racist mob, only to be chided later by Chanbi, his girlfriend, for ‘not even trying to mingle with anyone outside the region’. In the final scene of the movie, Bendang manages to successfully strum a Hindi song at a party, a song which he is seen practising many times before and failing.

Who would not like to share this vision of a ‘happy ending’, where people are not ‘parochial’ and believe in co-existence? Perhaps it is the director’s way of wishing for what could have been? That this vision is divorced from reality is not the problem, the problem is the audacious reference to Taniam and putting the guilt, in a way, on ‘people like him’ for not mingling enough, for not trying enough to fit it. A classic case of victim blaming, made more insidious because it is perpetuated from within. Bendang decides to stay back in Delhi despite the trauma of being beaten up, fighting a depression (singing ‘my soul is well’) just for Chanbi. And Chanbi finally tells him, “All these years you haven’t made a single friend from here! How sad is that, dude!”

Sad indeed, that this lack of empathy and understanding is passed off as critical insight by the director.

“Get me a girlfriend from the Northeast!”

A character liked by many in the movie is that of Shiv, the landlord’s son. A fun guy, an ally in fact, who is often seen helping the Northeastern bunch, rescuing them out of tight situations. But he has a condition, a near fetish – he wants a Northeastern girlfriend.

Now the fact is that having a girlfriend from the region is seen as a status of uber ‘coolness’ by many youngsters of these metros, especially those who are a bit charmed by things ‘Western’. Shiv can be an apt representation of this. The instances of him being very uncomfortable when his other ‘babe’ (a ‘local’ girl) finds him with one or the other Northeastern girl shows the dilemma of youngsters like Shiv.

However, if it is claiming to be a movie about discrimination, Axone was expected to act more responsibly. After all, fetishisation of Northeastern women has been a fundamental source of harassment in these cities. In a way one appreciates the realistic portrayal of characters like Shiv, but he needed to be schooled a little. Instead, he too ends up as an innocent victim of Bendang’s outburst.

Zorem had a fine chance of making Shiv understand (“Don’t you people consider yourselves Indian”?) as to where Bendang’s frustration comes from, when he shouts “You f****ing Indians”, a chance to talk about his past, his recurring trauma, his burden. Instead a guilty Zorem just looks down and after a while hands over his phone to Shiv, where cricket is showing live. Zorem’s silent actions speak volumes here.

The ‘Northeastern face’ as a site of discrimination and the projected ‘beauty of art’

Sayani Gupta’s casting as Upasana, the Nepali protagonist, needs to be understood. Faces can unpack a lot when it is about the Northeast, cities and racism. It is a fact that Northeast India indeed is a highly diverse region racially/ethnically and the so called ‘Northeastern face’ is in fact significantly differentiated internally.

Contrary to the stereotypes, not all faces are of ‘Mongoloid’ features. Gupta is a Bengali actress and there is a scene in the movie where she confronts an African flatmate, insisting that she too is from Northeast when the African refuses to buy it. So was the intended message of casting Gupta to showcase this ‘diversity’? That would not make much sense, if the idea of the film was to highlight racism as a ‘lived experience’ of Northeastern migrants in Indian metros.

Also read: ‘Axone’ Review: A Bit of North East in a Delhi Neighbourhood Where Racism Is a Regular Experience

It is a bitter fact that the lived realties of the two types of faces from the region are tellingly different. I can recount hundred examples here but it is sufficient to remember the time when the Chinese premier visited Delhi some years ago and Delhi police went on a detention drive of to contain Tibetan protestors. In the process, they en masse detained ‘Northeastern faces’ too. Who was detained and who wasn’t was based entirely on facial features.

Stranger still, was the casting a message as to how the ‘non Northeastern looking Northeastern’ struggle to be ‘accepted’ by their own? But in metros that would amount at best to some people (non-tribals from the region, to put it loosely) within the Northeast feeling a bit unwelcome or left out on some occasions. But in reality these ‘boundaries’ and ‘divisions’ exist along clan/community networks that remain active in the metros too, and of which the tribal population of the region by and large remain conscious. So it would be silly to equate the alienation of some with racial attacks many are subjected to daily based on racial features. Understanding that fine distinction is expected from a filmmaker from the region handling a subject such as this.

Finally, was Upasana projected as a comparative example of how the two faces are treated in big cities? She, with her ‘mainstream’ face, is treated fairly, others with their ‘Mongoloid’ faces with contempt, lust and malice? That can at best be a highly optimistic, almost wishful, reading. The character needed to take a more definite stance on this. Else, the overall thrust seems to be towards establishing how despite the (subtle, non-serious) differences, she is but same as all the other people from the region.

In an interview to EastMojo, Kharkongor made it clear that he wishes to “break barriers” of type-casting Northeastern actors as just playing the role of a Northeasterner or a South-East Asian character in movies, calling it the ‘beauty of art’. Fair enough. The problem is that face-based discrimination is real and the issues around which he is weaving his plot of comedy is also real, sometimes tragically so. In such cases, one cannot draw ‘inspiration’ (self-admittedly) from incidents like the Nido Taniam case, and then end up dismissing the very conditions that produce such incidents.

When #AxoneMatters becomes #AllFoodMatters

The plot, which is supposed to be humorous, a comedy of errors almost, is laced with some serious takes on issues like rights, racism and space. The references turns out to be lopsided, exposing a bias of the plot. Of course there are spirited scenes where characters puts up feisty fights and speaks up boldly against ‘objectification’, ‘racial slurs’ etc. But then, it seems to go mute at critical points.

“They have a right not to suffer the smell of our food. Now whose right is more right, tell me!” retorts an (ostensibly) Northeastern women married to a Sikh household in one revealing scene of the movie, when Chanbi demands the ‘right to cook our own food’. Chanbi didn’t respond in the movie. She was not given a space where she could have pointed out the politics of food at play here, as how many from Northeast India routinely go though a form of culinary assault when they begin living in these cities; their sense of smell, taste and digestion being invaded with ‘forced’ change of dietary habits due to new, many times insensitive and hostile circumstances.

And thus a severe discrimination is normalised and thus invisibilised. There is no element of choice there. Attempts by the Northeastern people (even the careful and surreptitious ones as shown in the movie) to cook their ‘own food’ is seen as a violation of spaces and a false equivalence is thus created (à la #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter). In this way, the movie takes a position, ironically opposite to what it intends to show, that such metro cities can never be a ‘home’ for these Northeastern migrants.

The yardsticks of ‘good smell’/‘bad smell’, like that of ‘good behaviour/’bad behaviour’, will always be fixed and given. The onus is placed on the Northeastern folks to ‘blend in’, to adjust and be accepted. This is absolutely the wrong message, when it is more and more evident that equality and solidarity can come only when racism is acknowledged as a real and structural phenomenon, not by pretending that a few kind gestures can plug the gap.

The ‘integrationist’ imaginations of the elites

Racism is so insidious that until it’s a ‘lived experience’, it is not easy for ‘others’ to understand the devious ways it operates. That is why the expectation was high from Axone, because it was made by an ‘insider’, someone from the region, who himself is a ‘migrant’ and most importantly self-identifies with stories of racial discrimination.

However, as the plot unfolds, soon it becomes apparent that it is a story about discrimination but told from the eyes of the privileged. It is ‘racism’ as felt and understood by a special section of the Northeastern migrants, a small but culturally influential elite. To decipher the cultural politics of Axone, one will have to realise that the often assumed homogenous category of Northeastern migrants are a multi-class lot in reality, and the lived experiences of this lot, their ways of interacting with the city, their aspirations as well as struggles, sharply vary as per their class realities.

Within this lot the privileged – the elites of the region, a minuscule section welding disproportionately large cultural influence – has been invested in a particular ideology of ‘integration’. One that seeks to ‘adjust’ one’s Northeastern identity within the framework of ‘pan-Indianism’, the latter almost subsuming the former. More importantly, this project is considered almost effortless. As Chanbi in the movie tells Bendang, “Some of them might have problem with us, but most of them are nice to us you know! That is the reason, we, you and I, are living here!”

In one broad stroke, the movie paints the whole migration story into one of ‘aspiration of some’ accommodated by the ‘good will of many’. What remains hidden is the complex story of migration, how the outmigration from the region is driven by a set of reasons that includes, besides the aspirational quotient, forced displacement due to conflict and environmental degradation, resource extraction resulting in chronic poverty and so on.

The emergence of migrant pockets in urban metros like Humayupur is part of this complex package, part of an eco-system fuelled by a migrant economy. When urban living spaces are organised along these lines, the rationale for ‘cultural exposure’ and ‘sensitisation’ is not a priority and paradoxically, cultural boundaries becomes more defined. Thus ‘most of them are nice to us’ is not a reality a large section of working-class migrants can relate to, who are relieved most of the time just to find some space that will leave them in relative peace, undisturbed and unharmed, beyond the ‘accepted’ level of daily taunts and surveillance.

The positives of the movie remain the beautiful background score made up of folk and folk fusion, and the occasional use of a variety of indigenous languages , which gives one a glimpse into the amazing linguistic and cultural diversity that makes up the region. Unfortunately, in the final narrative of the movie, this diversity could not become a rallying point for ‘recognition’; at best it became a medium of a caricatured ‘acceptance’.

Axone is a plot about many things, but not a sensitive and nuanced representation of the lived experiences of those from Northeast India living at the receiving end of daily racism in big cities. Recognising the differences is what racism is fought with, not with a flattening of it into submission and ‘integration’. Axone denied this fundamental point, If it is positively received as a portrayal of the Northeast people’s tryst with racism, it will now perhaps perpetuate this denial further. A flavour diluted, indeed.

Kaustubh Deka is assistant professor of political science at Dibrugarh University, Assam.

This article was originally published in Raiot.