29/07/2020 3:15 PM IST | Updated 29/07/2020 3:45 PM IST

‘Axone’, Or Would You Like Some Gaslighting With Your Representation?

As our long-awaited “representation”, ‘Axone’ isn’t just deeply disappointing, it is also dangerous. Here’s why.

Netflix
'Axone' on Netflix

In my first year at LSR, the political science department posted a question on the notice board, asking for ideas about places to visit on a department trip. Someone wrote Northeast. Another student wrote, “OMG, no... there are terrorists there.” This provoked snark about how well-informed the political science department, of all places, was; and by the end of the day the board was filled with angry comments about the ignorance behind that post.

Predictably enough, Polsci announced that the year’s department fest would be on India’s northeastern states. On the day of the fest, all the northeastern women in the department dressed up in their traditional attire, and waited patiently at desks with posters and placards with information about their states, some Naga shawls, spears, and hats decorating the walls. Years later, the memory of a crumbly narikol laru and some momos seems to have stuck in my mind too; along with a sense of “we tried”.

In 2014, when Mary Kom cast Priyanka Chopra in the lead, it spurred debates about racist erasure. Years later, when Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone (2019), produced by Saregama Yoodlee films, released on Netflix, it got top billing and was splashed across the banner of the streaming platform. This film, about a group of northeastern migrants in Delhi’s Humayunpur and their trials around cooking Akhuni, was pitched as the representation we’d all been waiting for, especially since most of the cast and the director are from the region.

One of the few (unintentionally?) hilarious things about this movie, which was marketed as a ‘comedy’, is the fact that neither Assamese actor speaks in it. Adil Hussain, playing a constantly snoopy, hookah-smoking Jat uncle, and Aakash Bhardwaj playing one of the friends who co-own a shop, don’t have a single word of dialogue in the film — an apt inversion of the Assamese tendency to hegemonise most of the discourse around “The Seven Sisters.” I wasn’t going to write this review either — “no Akhuni in my culture, no opinion” is what I’d told myself. But watching Axone was mostly as bemusing an experience as attending that Polsci department fest years ago — moments of recognition of some experiences, interspersed with moments of wondering what on earth was going on here — and by the time the ending came around, I was left angry and appalled. 

While many major publications came out with glowing reviews by mainlanders, critiques were confined to smaller online journals, such as Eastmojo, Fspj and Raiot.

For those who still haven’t watched the film (or more likely, haven’t come across these critiques), towards the end of Axone, Chanbi (Lin Laishram) tells her boyfriend Bendang (Lanuakum Ao) that it is his fault that he hasn’t done enough to integrate himself into the mainstream, and that he ought to have made more mainlander friends. She says this because Bendang has yelled, “You fucking Indian” at Shiv (Rohan Joshi), their landlady’s grandson, who spent most of the film fetishising “northeast ki ladkiyan” while trying to help them cook akhuni. So Bendang — who has in the past survived a racist attack reminiscent of the murder of Nido Tania in 2013 — listens to Chanbi’s sermon about fitting in and rejoins the party to sing an old Bollywood number that he’s been struggling with all day. The film ends on a happy note, with the wedding of a character named Minam, and the prospect of another wedding soon.

 I lived in Delhi for the most part of 14 years. My friends were a mixed lot, mostly mainlanders. I speak Hindi like a native. I have a name that most mainlanders recognise as “Indian”. I’m Ahom and my appearance is identifiably of Mongoloid origin, but I spent most of my student years in Delhi in my LSR jholawali uniform of floaty skirts and loose kurtas. Many times, people have countered my objections to comments about “those C**nks” with a rider, “But you are Assamese, you are not one of them”.

But I am very much one of them.

I’m pretty much as integrated as Chanbi wants Bendang to be. And over the past month, while most of the hot takes on Axone have been going cold, I’ve been struggling with memories — some vivid, some long-buried — of the racism that this film has triggered with its victim-blaming rhetoric. As it turns out, shrinking yourself to fit into the tinier and tinier boxes demarcated by an oppressor doesn’t necessarily insulate you from racism. 

There is a lot that is familiar in Axone. Like the scene when a giggling woman and child approach a half-Punjabi, half-Northeastern (his precise identity isn’t made clear) young man to ask him if he can see fully with eyes that small. In LSR, a South Delhi girl approached my friend Namgay to ask, “I know the rest of them will shout at me if I ask this, but I was curious, do you guys see half of what we see?” Namgay’s response was an indignant, “I don’t know, do you see twice of what we see?!”, but she remained furious for quite some time. However the film’s Jassi,who was born and raised in Delhi, does not react half as politely as Namgay did, snapping a terse “Behnchoda” and stomping out. It is an interesting moment—because Jassi clearly identifies with his Delhi sardar heritage and does not expect to be dehumanised on the basis of his Mongoloid features, while for the woman making the racist remark, it is unfathomable that someone who looks like Jassi could react with rage to her “joke”.

I thought of the incident in college when I watched the film, and some of us discussed it on Twitter. While Namgay and another friend spoke about how the person who made the comment was stuck in our memories as “Racist Joke Girl”, I said that I’d probably scale her as a benign ignoramus, rather than malevolently racist. There is a mental grid that each of us learns to quickly form to assess racist micro-aggressions and the risk/reward in reacting to them, especially if you want to live and have friends in a city that is never quite yours.

Live in a city that will never quite be your own and you learn (often unconsciously) many ways in which to shrink yourselves to fit in — even when you are the assertive, argumentative sort; even when you have privileges that allow you to pass with much less hostility than many others. The first time could be when you eventually snap at a friend after a week of her needling you about your hometown, your mother tongue, your “bland food” and more, and it turns into an argument about your bitterness and inability to take a joke. It could be in arguments about reservations with your roommate who doesn’t hesitate to hide her contempt (“Do chaar disco bana do wahaan pe, un sabko toh bas party karna hai”), when the only reason she will listen to you is that you didn’t use reservations yourself.

It could be in your postgraduate hostel, when your mainlander seniors are loudly complaining about the “stinky food” that your Manipuri and Naga seniors have cooked/brought to the dining hall. The hostel has no rules against cooking any kind of food; but you also know that the interview panel at the University Hostel for Women next door had said things like, “Why are you applying here, go to your Northeastern Hostel which has been built for the likes of you. You can have all the freedom you like there.” So you say nothing, and continue eating grimly.

Suffice it to say that racism doesn’t just stop in the competitive environment of college and university. It seeps into all parts of life in a city that sees you taking up space while looking visibly different — be it while house-hunting, or in the workplace, or even the queue outside a Marks and Spencers dressing room. It could be from someone as young as the neighbour’s five-year-old child, or as old as your father or grandmother.

And so there is a risk calculus that anyone living in a hostile city becomes familiar with: it can never fully protect you from racism—but it is your way of minimising risk as far as possible.

Watching Chanbi and the difference in her response to racialised sexual harassment by strangers, and the relentless drip drip dripping of fetishisation by Shiv made me think of what her personal risk calculus must be. While Chanbi reacts angrily to the crass comments of the sexual harassers (and gets slapped for her troubles), her response to Shiv never rises beyond mild annoyance. 

In Chanbi’s mental grid of racism versus the risk/reward of calling it out, the landlady’s mostly helpful grandson probably ranks low on the reaction scale for more reasons than one, and the resolution of the other arc of violent street sexual harassment almost seems like wish-fulfilment fantasy to make amends. The harasser and his whole family have an accidental encounter with all of them, the harasser denies ever having met Chanbi and his wife and mother shame her. But his father slaps his mother into silence and drags the harasser home while Chanbi shames the father for teaching his son to hit women. Try and imagine a north Indian patriarch a) not taking his raja beta’s side in a public argument and b) not reacting to a woman criticising him in public.That is what I mean by a wish-fulfilment fantasy. 

What makes it more complicated, though, is the lecture she reads Bendang for reacting angrily to Shiv, who was physically tugging at him while yapping about a Northeastern girlfriend and ignoring Bendang’s repeated requests to stop. Bendang has himself been the victim of a racist attack, and he has clearly been triggered by those memories in the course of this film after Chanbi’s sexual assault. Chanbi insists that Shiv’s fetishisation and violation of boundaries is harmless, and that Bendang himself is to blame for his trauma because he has never tried to “integrate” and make mainlander friends.

Chanbi saying “most of them are nice to us, and that is the reason you and I, we’re living here,” sounds doubly ironic as it is directed at someone who barely survived a racist attack, just minutes after she and her friends were discussing the near impossibility of finding jobs back home. She ignores the reasons why there are no jobs back home, the large-scale migration to Delhi, and the systemic nature of racism in Delhi, and gaslights Bendang (and herself?) into focusing on the crumbs of kindness.

Both Thokchom Veewon in his essay on Axone, as well as Usham Rojio on The Other Banana podcast, discuss the systemic racism at large in the country and the institutionalised violence of AFSPA that forces young people to leave their homes in search of an education, jobs and a “safer” life. By focusing entirely on Humayunpur as a “mini Northeast” or a migrant ghetto, Axone ignores the material context that forces young migrants to cluster in areas like Humayunpur or Malviya Nagar or Indra Vihar — the fact that many people won’t rent to them, the fact that rents are too steep in other parts for people who are just starting out, the fact that community is important to survive in a new place. 

Further, it also obfuscates racism in the rest of the city — as though hostility and bad behaviour are the preserve of a few bad apples that know no better, as though class and education and privilege can completely insulate you from racism. One of the things the film also does not acknowledge is the fact that in as much as the locals of Humayunpur are hostile to Akhuni, for a particular subcategory of Delhiites, their willingness to be experimental with food is also a marker of their cultural liberalism. Perhaps I’m being sarcastic after one too many mainlander friend prided themselves on their beef eating or Akhuni eating or that one time they tried eating ants, but the twin poles of disgust and fetishisation feel almost equally alienating — however, while one is easy to identify and react to, the other is more insidious.

It is one thing to have to shrink oneself to survive in a hostile city, another entirely to have someone who looks like you, someone who is your partner, blame you for not shrinking yourself enough to fit in. There seems to be a self-contradictory impulse to the narrative wherein it shows us one thing and parses it in an entirely different way, and this ends in confusion between individual issues and systemic problems. If Chanbi misinterprets systemic racism as the actions of a few rotten individuals, Upasna’s arc is an inversion of the same. 

Upasna, the “Nepali girl from the Northeast” played by Sayani Gupta, violates that risk calculus when she insists on cooking Akhuni for Minam’s wedding, even as everyone else tells her it isn’t necessary; even if she has to grimace her way through it because Nepalis don’t cook Akhuni. Apart from that bit of inaccurate information, (not the only one in the film), her more mainstream passing appearance and apparently liminal status as a Nepali seem to make Upasna more oblivious to the risk involved in cooking Akhuni when it has been expressly forbidden by the landlady.

It’s funny that Humayunpur has been chosen as the site of this performance, because unlike 10 years ago, when you’d be hard-pressed to find Northeastern food in the city, Humayunpur is now home to multiple restaurants that serve everything from Korean to Naga to Manipuri to Assamese food. If the characters in Axone had just wanted to eat Akhuni at Minam’s wedding, they could have ordered in, but it is important for Upasna that she cook Akhuni for Minam — as a gesture of care towards her best friend at her wedding. As is the case with people-pleasers, once Upasna decides to inflict the kindness of cooking Akhuni on her best friend, no other consideration can get in her way. “I agree with her. Even if it kills us, we should make this Akhuni today”, says Merenla Imsong’s Balamon — but one can’t quite tell if she’s being sarcastic or just drunk. 

Zorem, Upasna’s partner—who dated Minam in the past—tells her that she is trying too hard to please someone who doesn’t even like her all that much because she isn’t “Northeastern enough”. This is supposed to be the moment when Axone holds a mirror up to Northeasterners about their own exclusionary tendencies. Later, though, we see Zorem acting hung up on his ex, hugging her until she’s slightly uncomfortable; whispering “I just wanted to tell you that... I’m happy for you” as she leaves; staring wistfully at her during the ceremony, and asking Upasna to marry him immediately afterwards. Interestingly, when Chanbi asks Upasna why she’s in awe of Minam — ambitious Minam who has her UPSC interview that day, unlike Upasna who runs a shop with Zorem and Hiranya and is more keen on domesticity — Chanbi’s throwaway comment is, “Even though she is Zorem’s ex? Or because she is Zorem’s ex?” While the narrative tells us that Upasna feeling like an outsider is a systemic issue because of her cultural differences, it is entirely plausible that it is actually just the internal dynamics of a close-knit, borderline incestuous group of friends at play here. 

As one of the four leads in the film, much of what we see is through Upasna’s perspective, and Sayani plays Upasna as eager to fit into a friend circle where she is a cultural outsider. There is a kind of deliberate drawing of attention to Upasna’s insider-outsiderness in her performance, whether it is her obvious grimace at the smell of smoked pork in the opening scene or while cooking Akhuni, or even covering her face during a bloody part of the wedding ceremony. Sayani and I were in the same batch in college; we shared a philosophy subsidiary class in our first year. It was deeply jarring to see the poised dancer I once knew play a Nepali girl with not just a sing-song accent but a twitchy gait, when everyone else around her manages to walk normally and speak almost unaccented Hindi and English.

If the dubious casting and the racist overtones of her performance were still excusable, there is little enough excuse for some of the things that have been said in her interviews — from the casual dropping of the C-word while trying to explain how she’s always been an ally, to defending her casting in the film (she says she had auditioned for the part and was chosen over people from Nepal) while also positioning Axone and her own casting in contrast to the inauthenticity of the Mary Kom biopic. 

Both Lin and Sayani talk about the exigencies of filmmaking as an industry that might have influenced some of the decision making for the Mary Kom biopic, leaving one to wonder which exigencies influenced the decision making in Axone. Are casting decisions like making indie darling Sayani play a Nepali girl entirely the product of her acting ability, or are they as much influenced by how her presence makes this film more marketable to a mainland audience? When a mainland production house like Saregama Yoodlee Films decides to back a film like this, does it affect the story that gets told in order to make it more palatable to their audience?

In her essay in The Indian Express, Dolly Kikon talks about how “Axone was supposed to be our Selma, our Spotlight, our Rocky V’, and the crushing disappointment of realising that it wasn’t made for us, migrants from the Northeast. Axone could have been a film about the dynamics of a group of friends brought together by geographical proximity in a hostile city, with racism as one of the aspects of their lives in Delhi. However, the director makes narrative choices to foreground the racism — whether it is with the urgency of Minam’s wedding and Upasna’s insistence on cooking Akhuni, or with Bendang and Chanbi’s arcs. Unfortunately in doing so, he also feels the need to add a few “both sides” type arguments and humanise the racists, and throw in a yellow-washed performance to boot. Watching the film raises serious questions about who its intended audience really is, and who this representation is meant for.

Perhaps Axone would not have been half as triggering had it been released at another time. In the last seven months, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now Act), which began with grassroots movements mobilising in NER since 2016, have been co-opted by the mainland to fit a Hindu-Muslim binary that they are familiar with; while anyone talking about indigenous rights automatically becomes an ethnofascist xenophobic detention camp supporter. Assam and Nagaland are still under AFSPA as “disturbed areas”, while mainland “intellectuals” continue to call us Chinese and threaten us with a repeat of the horrors of Operations Bajrang and Rhino. The pandemic was another useful reminder of how we are Indians only when it suits mainlander convenience, with multiple instances of racist harassment and people being called “coronavirus”, spat on, beaten up or asked to go back to China. Deaths like Jayanta Bora’s or Lamdan Lukham’s continue to be a feature, not a bug, of life in AFSPA states and so they barely draw any attention; but a racist campaign against dog meat in Nagaland draws self-righteous ire against “those savages” across the political spectrum in the mainland. 

As our long-awaited “representation”, Axone isn’t just deeply disappointing — it is also dangerous. In its enthusiasm to paint racism as the actions of a misguided few, and as something that can be fixed by learning to “integrate” with the mainland, it obfuscates the very real power asymmetries at play between the mainland and those from the frontiers who don’t look anything like the mainland’s idea of Indian.