Axone (pronounced Akhuni), a 2019 release by playwright and director Nicholas Kharkongor will premiere on Netflix on June 12, 2020.
A simple enough story of friendship, food, a party and a recipe for disaster. The ‘different’ part here is that this is a film by a north-eastern director, about people from the northeast with a few actors from the region too.
Visualise a scene like this. Your neighbour is cooking something delicious and the aroma wafts up to your house. You feel your taste buds tingling and a longing for that dish emanates. Your tongue is fickle. It will go wherever that smell takes you, if it’s really overpowering, almost like the seduction of a lover.
But then again, all food does not arouse such heavenly feelings. There are some smells or food products that arouse disgust and revulsion in a lot of people unaccustomed to such food. Say, it’s an acquired taste that only some people are used to. So if your neighbour is cooking something akin to a witch’s magic potion, it may induce violent and disgusting feelings in you.
But, in a civilised society, we keep those feelings under wraps, celebrate the fact that we are different and leave it at that. However, that’s wishful thinking. Food habits can cause riots, discord and bring to the forefront, the ugly face of racism.
That’s what the pivot of this film is. It’s not the food, really. It’s about the act of preparing a particular food that raises everyone’s heckles in this film. So, the film Axone: A Recipe For Disaster (the word is written Axone but pronounced Akhuni), is about the north-eastern experience of living in the big city where many things they do are frowned upon, simply because they look different and eat different food from the mainstream.
Made in the year 2019, streaming giant Netflix has handpicked Axone, produced by Yoodlee Films, the film division of Saregama Limited, to showcase this to viewers all over the country, this month.
The plot goes thus; we, the viewers see what a typical day in the life of a group of north-eastern students, living in Delhi’s Humayunpur, is like when they simply spend their time studying, hanging out with friends and encountering racial slurs. It’s a usual day!
Minam is getting married on the day that she’s giving her IAS exams, and her friends want to give her a surprise party. All well and good. Until we are told that they are also planning to cook her favourite dish, a speciality from Nagaland, called Axone, that is made by fermenting soya beans for days, sometimes weeks and can be added to any meat, like pork, for the distinctive flavour and aroma it imparts.
Axone has a strong odour and people unused to it, find it unbearable, even calling it the ‘toilet smell.’ How her friends get it done and what they encounter in one day, is enough to tell us about the plight of northeasterners in the capital region, or any other city in the country.
A bittersweet comedy that has quite a lot of light moments along with the racism angle being interweaved in it; this is the second film of playwright and director Kharkongor, who lived in Delhi for close to 20 years, as a theatre person.He says, “It’s easier to send a message with humour than boring sermons and a lot of this film is very personal, such as what I or any other person from the northeast has encountered in terms of racial abuse. Of course, there is a lot of acceptance and love as well, but racism is a reality.”
Along with a few good regional artistes like Lin Laishram, Lanuakum Ao, Tenzin Dalha and Asenla Jamir, the film boasts of talented mainstream actors like Sayani Gupta, Vinay Pathak and Dolly Ahluwalia too.
For a northeasterner to see this film it is bound to bring back their experiences living in the capital city; for the rest, it is holding a mirror to society and informing them about people from the northeast region of India that has eight states. And this film is about not one state in particular; it’s about the entire region.
If it wasn’t so funny to see Sayani Gupta who essays the role of a Upasna, a Nepali girl, to perfection, getting the accent and body language right too, along with Chanbi played by Lin Laishram, running all over the place, with the degchi of Axone Pork as they get shunted out of every place, simply because they want to cook a regional dish, this film would not have got its message across.
Like a character in the film says: it is our right to cook our food, they have the right to not smell it. Whose right is more right?” Funny, indeed and yet painful because of this searing truth that people from the NE are ridiculed because of their differences.
There are many other incidents in the film where you see the bunch of friends being insulted, shouted at, and made fun of. And there is no other option, but to take it! The story is good, the actors are good too; especially Dolly Ahluwalia as the dour landlady who indulges in a screaming match with everybody, from her tenants to her son in law, played aptly by Vinay Pathak, who comes as a whiff of calm in this hyperactive film.
Brought back memories indeed since I am from the northeast state of Assam myself and had packed my bags in 1998 for Delhi, to come and study here. And though I’m not a fan of the food Axone (it is very definitely an accquired taste), the film is a sweet, humorous slice of life. Could have been funnier and more tightly and slickly made. But worth a watch. Tune in!
Qs and As with director Nicholas Kharkongor
Why Axone? How did the idea of making a film on this come to you?
For somebody from the northeast, it was an obvious choice. Most people from the region have faced problems because of cooking Axone. It’s a big deal. I knew I wanted to write a comedy. Not only does it get the message across faster, but it’s also better to find funding for comedic films.
How hard was it to pitch for a film like this?
It was a big worry. Finding a producer for an Indie film is tough. Along with comedic elements, it has serious drama too. In fact, the Bendang character was modelled on the infamous Nido Taniam incident where a murder took place because of racial slurs.
Looking for funding is an awful process, especially from the government so I didn’t succeed in that. Until my friend Siddharth Anand Kumar from Yoodlee Saregama Films stepped in. It was easy after that.
You are primarily a playwright. What has the reaction been to your films, the first Mantra and now Axone, so far? Both in your region and the rest of the country?
I love being a playwright and a director too. More people in the northeast know me now because of this film, though since I am a reclusive person, I don’t enjoy all that too much. Not too many people know about Mantra, that starred Rajat Kapur and Kalki Koechlin, as it was a small film but it was an enjoyable learning process. My love for theatre that I performed for almost 20 years n the capital, remains. Theatre is very intimate, very personal and less stress compared to making a film, which can be at times, unmanageable.
Tell me a bit about your background...
I was born in Mokochung in Nagaland to a Naga father and a Khasi mother. I lived there for 15 years, and then moved to Shillong for further studies and finally Delhi. Then I moved to Mumbai when I made my first film Mantra and later again moved back to Delhi. Now, however, I’m again in Mumbai, for work. At heart, I’m nomadic and keep going back to the northeast with every chance I get.
What does a film like yours attempt to do? What message are you giving?
Shine a light on what happens to people like me and stuff that happens in society. I’m hoping people are interested in seeing that.
Did you yourself encounter such situations when you first came from the northeast to Delhi? Any Axone experiences?
Everyone from the NE is at the receiving end of racism. Mild. Extreme. Whatever. Some cases can, however, scar you for life.You have seen the film now, so I can tell you about that incident where a northeast girl is thought to be easy and north Indian men talk dirty about her. Such an incident, like countless others, have happened in front of my eyes.
How did Netflix pick up such a film? What are your future plans?
I presume it’s a good film!
My future plans include making more films in the northeast. Let’s see!