Axone by Nicholas Kharkongor, is a film about a group of North-East Indian residents living in New Delhi. It maps a day in the lives of this group, on a mission to cook a traditional North-Eastern dish, axone, for their friend Minam on her wedding day – with Upasana (Sayani Gupta) and Chanbi (Lin Laishram) at the helm of this mission.
Axone or akhuni, a dish made of fermented soya bean and smoked pork, is distinctive to tribal communities in North-East India. It gives out an extremely pungent smell when being cooked, making it hard for the group of friends to cook it without inciting the anger of their Delhi neighbours. They persevere, however, in their efforts to bring a piece of home to Minam on her special day, in a city that has still not accepted them.
In chronicling their struggles to find a space to express their cultural identity, the film explores the blatant racism, harassment, and discrimination that people from the North-East – especially women – continue to face in India.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
People From The North-East Are Perpetually Subjected To Racism In India
Last week, Vice India published an article by Ngurang Reena, a tribal woman from the North-East living in Delhi, who wrote about the systemic and constant racism she has faced in India all her life.
“Standing up for anti-racism movements around the world is great, but I wish my fellow citizens confronted discrimination out here too,” she writes.
Exploring and confronting these bigoted perspectives and discriminatory actions is especially important right now, when the fight against racism has finally come to the fore, but people from the North-East are still being spat on and evicted from their homes for looking “Chinese” after the COVID-19 outbreak. “Corona” is now another insulting name thrown at North-Eastern Indians on top of “Chinki”, and other derogatory slurs.
In Axone, when Upasana and her friends go to a house to ask whether they can cook the dish there, the owner laughingly brings her son forward and says, “Yeh aapse kuch poochna chahta hai. Aaapki jo aankhein itni choti choti hai – isse aapko yeh puri deewar dikhai deti bhi hai ki nahi?” (He wants to ask you something. Your eyes are so tiny – can you even see this entire wall with them?) She laughs, not because her son’s ignorance is funny, but because the child’s curiosity has hit upon something that the adults already make fun of.
As the group makes its way to the wedding party in their traditional attires, people in the neighbourhood laugh at the “fancy dress parade”, and ask “Jackie Chan ka birthday hai kya?”
India may be viewed as a place of cultural diversity, but any culture unfamiliar to that of the “mainland’s” is viewed as alien and inferior.
North-Eastern Women Are A Double Minority In India
Ngurang Reena in her article talks of how she’s always been robbed of credit in her career, and had to work twice as hard to prove her merit, because of her ethnicity. When she got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Delhi, her father’s first reaction was uncertain silence, and questioning whether she was sure it was not a joke or a case of mistaken identity.
The systematic and institutionalised racism in India means a lack of educational and career opportunities. In the film, Chanbi speaks clear and fluent English, but when she gets a call for a job she’s been waiting to hear back from, she immediately switches to a stereotyped North-Eastern accent. We aren’t made aware what the job is, but it’s clear that it’s a job meant specifically for a caricature of a North-Eastern woman.
To find opportunities they must either entirely forego their cultural identities, or lean in heavily to a stereotyped version of themselves that others are comfortable with. Even then, they aren’t equal opportunities.
Access to opportunities and fair treatment is hard for the North-Eastern community, but even harder for North-Eastern women because of the chronic and overt sexualisation that they are subjected to.
The film unflinchingly showcases this sexualisation, and the sexual harassment they face on a daily basis. When Chanbi comes face to face with the wife, mother, and father of a man who had sexualised and spoken in a vulgar manner to her at the market just that morning, she angrily confronts and exposes him.
However, his mother spits out, “I know girls like you very well. All of you have pimps for husbands. They send you here in skimpy clothes to ensnare our boys.”
Ngurang Reena writes, “I am asked for my price, in hotel lobbies, on the train, even in the middle of the streets. I have been denied accommodations because I am assumed to be a prostitute. Men from the North-East are ridiculed and mocked too, often called pussies and assaulted. In my 12 years of Delhi life, I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls I’ve made to the NE helpline number 1093.”
The number of crimes against people from the North-East became so high that a special helpline had to be created in Delhi, along with a separate special unit SPUNER (Special Police Unit for North Eastern Region).
Real Representation In Stories And Relentless Opposition In Reality Is The Way Going Forward
The social injustices and racism they face have been normalised, joked about, and continued unchecked for generations.
Just as American history and politics is replete with slavery and widespread crimes against Black people, India’s colonial, casteist, and classist history have ensured a socio-political system that discriminates against Schedules Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Dalits, and other marginalised minorities.
Through the generations, these regressive thought-patterns have been propagated not only through language and actions, but through representation in stories and popular culture.
Ngurang objects against the “continuing prejudiced cultural representations of minorities in films and popular culture like Bollywood.”
“People from the region are often shown as criminals, servants, prostitutes, and other insignificant characters. To add to the ignorance and insensitivity, North-East history and culture is often missing from school textbooks altogether,” says Ngurang.
Axone is a rare film that explores the North-Eastern experience and the community’s lived realities in India, through a lens that is as sensitive and empathetic, as it is unafraid to explore the truth. Just as their richly flavoured food with its “filthy” smell, has no place in the city, the North-Eastern people, along with their rich cultural heritage, are made to feel like they don’t belong in their own country.
We need films like Axone for an accurate representation of their struggles, to bring these issues to light, and bring them to mainstream audience. As Ngurang ends her article – “Everybody has the right to live with freedom and dignity. Everybody.” Until that right doesn’t exist in the hands of those who have continually been denied it, we must fight.
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