Crafted for mainstream cinema watchers, Kharkongor’s film has these stories narrated by actors largely from the Northeast, a refreshing approach.
In a familiar setting in Delhi, a backdrop where grandmothers keep a hawkish watch on the comings and goings of everyone in the building, Axone centres around last-minute wedding festivities being organised by a group of friends, all from the Northeast.
Pronounced akhuni, the film’s name refers to a Naga favourite, fermented soybean used to flavour meat-based dishes. The fermented ingredient’s flavour and odour is what many would call an acquired taste. Less politely, one of the actors in the film refers to it as “food that smells like shit”.
Made by Nicholas Kharkongor, Axone shines a light on the experiences of young people from India’s Northeastern states. Crafted for mainstream cinema watchers, Kharkongor’s film has these stories narrated by actors largely from the Northeast, a refreshing approach.
This is Kharkongor’s second project as a feature film director. His first was a crowd-funded film in 2017, called Axone is now streaming on Netflix.
Mumbai-based Kharkongor, who is of Khasi and Naga descent, makes it clear at the outset that just being from the Northeast
doesn’t qualify one as an expert in the ways and customs of the region’s different communities. The protagonists decide to make axone as a surprise for a friend who is getting married, but they have no idea how to go about it.
The wedding can happen without axone too, but the protagonists know how much the traditional dish means to the bride-to-be, Minam (Asenla Jamir). Perhaps the dish may not even have mattered at all if Minam was home with her family, but so far away from home, the dish becomes a metaphor for so much more.
The film’s strength lies in its ability to acknowledge stories without flogging obvious narratives
Minam’s friends, primarily Chanbi and Upasna (played by Lin Laishram and Sayani Gupta, respectively), set out to source the ingredients for the dish. While buying from questionable sources and negotiating domestic challenges, such as running out of gas, the women brace for fallouts from a neighbourhood unaccustomed to culinary odours that go beyond local halwai Guptaji’s samosa and jalebis. In one scene, their Punjabi landlady’s grandson Shiv (Rohan Joshi) tries to convince the tenants of the building that the smell wafting into their homes was from a septic tank.
Besides Joshi and the leading ladies, there are lovely performances from his onscreen-father Vinay Pathak and Tenzin Dalha. The latter plays Zorem, Upasna’s partner and the only one in the group of friends who can cook axone, but is engaged otherwise.
By showcasing just one eventful day in the lives of his protagonists, Kharkongor manages to seamlessly tie in themes of friendship, home, landlord-tenant relationships and living with “otherness”. While the film recognises the solidarity shown by the community as a whole, it also points to the differences between Northeastern communities, as well as the conflicts that could rise from these. To the rest of India, the Northeast
might seem homogenous, but there’s enough bigotry to go around even within its disparate communities.
The film’s strength lies in its ability to acknowledge stories without flogging obvious narratives. A complex, multi-layered film told deliciously, Axone is light-hearted despite the darker stories that lurk in the background, such as the 2014 racial murder of Nido Tania, a 20-year-old from Arunachal Pradesh.
Among the many subjects the film broaches is the issue of the authenticity of one’s Northeastern-ness, when one of the actors is told she “doesn’t look Northeastern” enough. Then there’s the case of having allies who have the right intentions but continue in their half-baked understanding.
When almost all of the cooking is done and the odours have mostly been dispersed by the evening air, a neighbour asks Upasna what she’s cooking. “Butter chicken,” she says. All’s well after that. Unlike the dish, which is an acquired taste and smell, the film is for everyone.