New Delhi: Northeastern filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor’s Hindi film Axone, a bittersweet satire on cultural stereotypes, is the first mainstream commercial Hindi film based on the life of Northeasterners.
The movie, which will stream on Netflix on 12 June, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and made its India debut at the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) last year, where it received a standing ovation. It stars Dolly Ahluwalia, Sayani Gupta, Tenzin Dalha and Vinay Pathak as well as actors from the region, including Asenla Jamir, Lin Laishram and Lanuakum Ao.
The movie follows a day in the life of a group of Northeasterners in South Delhi’s Humanyunpur, and revolves around a wedding, some axone (pronounced aa-khoo-nee) and a clash between landlord and tenant.
Minam (played by Jamir) has to juggle her wedding day and IAS interview, but the real disruption happens when her friends make her her favourite dish — pork cooked with axone, a Naga delicacy made with fermented soybean and whose distinctive aroma can be challenging for those unfamiliar with it.
The dish leads to a series of comic misadventures and run ins with the landlord (played by Pathak).
“We have the right to cook our food. They also have the right to not have to bear the smell of our food. Whose right is more right?” remarks a friend to another in the film.
Comedy for a cause
Speaking to ThePrint, director Kharkongor said, “I wanted to tell people about a Northeasterner’s experiences of living outside the region.”
Delhi has reported several instances of northeasterners being discriminated against, even as recently during the ongoing Covid-19 lockdown. However, these instances aren’t limited to just the national capital.
Explaining why he chose comedy to explore such a serious topic, Kharkongor said, “Comedy lends itself to greater access. It helps deliver how racism is played out so casually in our everyday lives.”
Parasher Baruah, the film’s director of photography, told ThePrint, “After I first read the script, it took me a while to come to terms with it, to get why Nic (Kharkongor) was handling a sensitive issue like racism in a light-hearted vein. But I understood that not everything has to be shown in black and white. The film exposes the complex realities of prejudice and discrimination without ruffling feathers.”
Kharkongor had written Axone in 2017 and shot it over a period of 25 days in June 2018. It was produced by music label Saregama’s film division, Yoodlee Film.
Filmed in the sweltering heat of Delhi, the film’s production was challenging and yet refreshing for the small crew. “We shot it on location for the entire duration. Humayunpur, with a swelling northeastern population living among Jat landlords, provided the perfect contrast of cultures.
“While on one hand, you could hear the North Indian landlords calling it Bangkok street, on the other hand, the lanes strikingly resembled those in Dimapur. My challenge was to transform this juxtaposition on screen,” said Baruah.
Breaking mainstream patterns
Kharkongor made his directorial debut with Mantra (2016), which starred Rajat Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin and Adil Hussain. The crowd funded movie won Best Film at the 2016 South Asian International Film Festival, presented by HBO, in New York.
However, Kharkongor said he found making Axone tough.
“It was the first Hindi film about the lives of Northeasterners with a crew that is mostly from the region. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” he said.
At one instance, Baruah said, the crew had to be cramped into a small set in Humayunpur’s cramped lanes to shoot the final wedding scene. “We were in the basement of a small building with no ventilation, and the small air conditioner barely worked. There were about 30 odd people in that cramped space.”
There were also times when some of the crew members were so dehydrated that they had to be hospitalised, he added.
Axone joins a small but steadily growing list of movies that have used food and culinary habits to navigate trickier subjects. Assamese director Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis is one such movie, revolving around meat and a love affair between a married woman and a younger man. Among the more mainstream films, there’s The Lunchbox (2013), which sees Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur strike up an unusual romance without ever meeting each other.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.