The Netflix movies tries to tackle the sensitive subject of racism against the people of North-East with a touch of comedy, but the apologetic tone of the script makes it lose the objective along the way The opening scene of Axone (pronounced as Akhuni) is both intriguing and confusing. It begins with Upasana (played by Sayani Gupta) and Chanbi (played by Lin Laishram) walking up to a quiet Delhi neighbourhood, eyes fixed on the road, only to knock on a door that opens rather reluctantly to them. The secrecy with which the duo walks into this room pushes the viewer to the edge of the seat and the audience prepares themselves to witness whatever is on the other side of that door.

Well, turns out, the two friends walked into the place to buy smoked pork and Axone ( a paste made of fermented soya beans) to prepare a special Naga delicacy for their friend Minam. What forced these two women to walk into a dim-lit, secretly-run meat shop? That is precisely what the film is all about – the story of a group of people from several North-Eastern states trying to prepare a special dish. One that smells like home to them, but its pungent smell evokes anger from their neighbours.

Ties that bind
Axone is about friendship and belonging, told through the medium of a traditional dish. The events of the film span across one day, in which Upasana and Chanbi try to prepare a special dish with Axone to celebrate their friend Minam’s wedding later that evening. But they are forced to shroud themselves in secrecy not just while buying the paste, but even while cooking the dish, lest it’s smell elicits rebuke from their neighbours.

Axone is a long due film for the Indian audience, one that lays bare the discrimination and prejudices people from North-Eastern states face on a daily basis. The film has several of these instances: the casual, often termed ‘harmless’, prejudices (“Can you see clearly with these half-closed eyes?”) to more violent forms such as threats of eviction from their rented house for cooking their food; From a group of people who thrash Bendang (played by Lanuakum Ao) for having a certain hairstyle to one of his neighbours who casually comments that he does not know who Bendang is, “because every other month, a new person from the North-East rents out the house and you all look the same”.

Having said this, Axone raises more questions than it actually answers. A lot of things goes unsaid and unexplained in the film, including the very core of the film – the racism that people from the North-East face in India. It lacks a historical perspective of North-East’s relationship with the rest of the country, while for some reason, the film cares to discuss the discrimination among people from the North East themselves.

The film has also received negative reviews from people of North-East, who point out that the film falls short of calling out the racism they face every day. While the discrimination they face is apparent and ought to be seen from a perspective of people’s rights, the film does not explicitly discuss this in that manner.

Halfway into the film, Chanbi questions the neighbours’ reaction and says that it is their right to be able to cook their food. Another friend Martha however, reasons that the neighbours too have the right to not suffer the smell of their cooking. “Whose right is right?” Martha asks. In the rest of the film, we do not see the issue being dealt with from a rights point of view, but rather, we see their persistence in making the dish.

Comic relief?
Axone deals with a serious and a very real issue, but coats it in a dose of comedy, in an attempt to make the sensitive subject acceptable to the Indian palate. The scene where Shiv’s (played by Rohan Joshi) overenthusiasm provokes Bendang is one such. When Shiv — the son of the landlord who goes out of his way to help Upasana, Chanbi and others cook the dish — provokes Bendang into saying, “You fucking Indian,” an innocent-looking Shiv asks Zorem (Tenzing Dalha), “Don’t you guys consider yourself Indians?”

This scene is followed by another where Bendang sings a popular Hindi song to which Shiv’s ‘friendly’ response is to say, “Brother, this song is also Indian!”

Why Shiv, who seems obsessed with the idea of getting a ‘North-Eastern girlfriend’ gets more screen time than some of the cast, is beyond comprehension. Not only does his recurring dialogues around it reinforce the prejudices women from North Eastern states are subjected to, but it also diminishes the women’s experiences of harassment.

The scene in which Chanbi criticises Bendang for having surrounded himself with only people from the North-East and not having tried enough to have a friend from outside their community is tasteless and offensive, and only reflects a poor understanding of mental illness the film claims to discuss. It is unfair to put the onus on a person who is battling the trauma from a public lynching. It comes across as an attempt to make an “unoffending” film, and therefore does not point any fingers.

Axone is a passionate story about a group of people from the North-East fighting all odds so that they can celebrate the way they want to. Where the film falls short and turns counterproductive to its own narrative is when the tone of the film becomes apologetic. And that’s problematic, to say the least.

— Megha Varier is a freelance writer

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