Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone is part of a small but growing list of films about what culinary habits tell us about Indian society. In 2019 alone, Assamese director Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis has examined the starring role accorded to meat in the affair between a married woman and a much younger man. In Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam-language Jalikattu, the hunt for a buffalo that has cut loose before being served up for a feast bring out the animal in humans. In Sajin Baabu’s Biriyaani, also from Kerala, a meat dish plays a key role in a woman’s search for her missing brother.
Axone uses a staple ingredient of several North Eastern cuisines to explore racism, identity and friendship. The movie is named after the fermented soya bean paste from Nagaland that is used to flavour meat-based dishes and vegetarian fare. In addition to its umami taste, what characterises axone (pronounced a-khoo-nee and also spelt “akhuni”) is its distinctive aroma – which has the potential of challenging the noses of those unfamiliar with it.
Axone is not for the faint-hearted, as events in Kharkongor’s film prove. It’s Minam’s wedding, and her friends want to surprise her by serving axone-flavoured pork. It wouldn’t have mattered back home, but since the characters live in rented rooms in Humayunpur in South Delhi, the culinary project resembles an espionage operation. The meat is purchased furtively, the paste is smuggled in, the gas cylinder has to be practically stolen.
A character in the Yoodlee Films production cuts to the chase: “You wanna cook that food that smells like shit!”
Meanwhile, the bunch of friends, including characters played by Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram and Tenzin Dalha, navigate their differences. Upasna (Gupta) is in love with Zorem (Dalha). Chanbi (Laishram) is smarting both from a racist encounter on the street and the fecklessness of her boyfriend Bendang (Lanuakum Ao). The son of the Punjabi landlord, Shiv (Rohan Joshi), inserts himself into the adventure for the fun of it.
Prejudice stirs the pot. “All of you look the same” and “Can you see the entire wall with such small eyes” are among the milder slurs hurled at the characters, who hail from different states in the North East. For the half-Naga and half-Khasi Kharkongor, Axone was an opportunity to explore the many and frequent ways in which North Eastern migrants battle bigotry.
“The plot is based on my personal life to the extent that I have experienced racism as much as any North Easterner,” the 45-year-old filmmaker told Scroll.in. “Some of the incidents are personal. The bit about not being able to see the entire wall has happened to me.”
The multi-lingual Axone was premiered at the London Film Festival in early October and will be screened at the upcoming Mumbai Film Festival (October 17-24) before targeting a theatrical release.
The culinary ingredient was an “obvious way” to reflect on the experiences of migrant North Easterners, said Kharkongor, who has directed several plays and the feature Mantra (2017). “It’s a rite of passage for North Easterners to cook dishes with axone away from their homes,” he said. “Axone smells lovely to us, but it might be malodorous and unpleasant to some people. This reaction becomes the take-off point for other things, such as the idea of friendship among migrants and unrequited love.” The dishes seen on the screen were prepared by Avibu Seyie K, who runs the pop-up business A Naga Girl’s Kitchen in Delhi.
The film’s tone is both serious and comic, and some moments have a flavour as heightened as the paste itself. Among the real-life incidents that influenced Kharkongor’s screenplay, he singled out the brutal murder of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Tania in Delhi in 2014. Tania was attacked a group of men who made fun of his appearance, especially his hair, in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood. Four men were convicted for the hate crime.
“I was very affected by the Nido Tania case,” Khargonkar recalled. “However, I knew that I had to make my film accessible, and attempt something a bit light-hearted while insinuating its darker themes.”
The prejudice that greets North Easterners who have left their homes in pursuit of education or employment is, however, no laughing matter. “We have heard all kinds of things, and these snide remarks leave scars,” Kharkongor said. “You will be walking on the road and a car will pass by and an ugly statement will be made. It is relentless and leaves us violated and helpless.”
The filmmaker vividly recalls the racist slur he has most frequently encountered: “chinky”. This derogatory word doesn’t feature in Axone. “When I was living in Humayunpur in the 1990s, I used to go for a run in the neighbouring Deer Park, and there would be calls of ‘Jackie Chan’ and ‘Dalai Lama’,” Khargonkar added.
The prejudice towards outsiders also infects the North Eastern characters in Axone. The movie emphasises the diversity of communities and tribes in the region – Chanbi is from Manipur, Upasana from Nepal, Zorem from Mizoram and Bendang from Nagaland. Upasana is shown her place by the people whom she considers her friends. Shiv, the Punjabi landlord’s son, also gets yelled at for representing the hated “mainland”.
“I wanted to bring out this aspect of racism among North Easterners too,” Kharkongor said. “This attitude is everywhere.”
Kharkongor wrote Axone in 2017 and pitched it to Yoodlee Films, whose productions include Ajji (2017) and Hamid (2018). The decision to use a predominantly North Eastern cast was a way to remind moviegoers that there is no such thing as a typical Indian face.
“One major desire to do a North Eastern film was to showcase actors,” Kharkongor said. “However, casting was a problem. There were very few actors. Dilip Shankar was the casting director, and we thought that since we were setting the film in Delhi, which has a big North Eastern population, it would be easy. However, most of the non-professionals we wanted to cast were working.”
While untrained actors form the secondary cast, the principal set of actors has been in films before. Lin Laishram’s credits include Mary Kom (2014), the biopic of the Manipuri pugilist that notoriously cast Priyanka Chopra in the lead role.
The Film and Television of India-trained Sayani Gupta has been in a string of movies, including Margarita With a Straw (2015), Article 15 (2019) and Posham Pa (2019). Gupta is Bengali, and trained hard to appear convincing as a Nepali, including picking up tips for her accent from her Nepali hair-dresser.
“North Eastern actors are barely represented in the movies, which is why they can’t make a living out of acting,” Khargonkor pointed out. “Once in a while, an actor might break out, like Danny Denzongpa, but much more needs to happen.”
The cast includes Naga comedian Merenla Imsong, who also appeared in Ratnabali Bhattacharjee’s play Not Just Akhuni. First staged in 2014 as a 10-minute piece and expanded since, Not Just Akhuni explores a Naga woman’s experiences, and includes a segment in which she cooks a dish with the soya bean paste, provoking a police complaint by her neighbour.
Kharkongor said that the main similarity between the play and the film was the use of the cooking ingredient as a way to explore identity. “Cooking a dish with axone is the easiest way in which you can tell the story of the North Eastern people,” he said.