Director – Nicholas Kharkongor
Cast – Sayani Gupta, Lin Liashram, Vinay Pathak, Dolly Ahluwalia, Tenzin Dalha
Axone, pronounced ‘Akhuni’, is a particularly pungent ingredient used in Naga cuisine. In the opening scene of Axone, the film, our protagonists procure some of it to use in a special pork dish that they’re going to prepare for their best friend, who’s getting married.
The film spans a single stressful day in the lives of a group of 20-somethings, who’re made to leap over one obstacle after another in their mission to cook the dish. Through the day, they’re forced to deal with bigoted neighbours, an uncooperative gas cylinder and interpersonal drama.
Watch the Axone trailer here
When their loud Punjabi landlord aunty forbids Chanbi (a Manipuri girl played by Lin Laishram) and her Nepali best friend Upasna (played by Sayani Gupta) from cooking at home, the girls are forced to commandeer cramped kitchens and deserted community halls, consistently at the mercy of others. Old wounds are reopened and new ones are inflicted as Chanbi and Upasna, joined by a well-meaning neighbourhood kid Shiv, go on a race against time to get the job done, pin-balling from one house to the other, and bumping into colourful characters played by actors such as Vinay Pathak and Dolly Ahluwalia.
Axone is a small film with big ideas, deftly directed and delicately performed. By identifying themselves as ‘North Eastern’ — a collective term that is used to confine millions of people — the characters form a sort of an alliance that feels more of a survival mechanism than a deliberate choice. It is a title that has been given to them; one that they have come to accept. And that’s tragic.
Having graduated from a relatively multi-cultural school, I was in for a bit of a shock when I enrolled at Delhi University. Thirteen years of not knowing one ‘caste’ from the other, and being unaware of the deep-rooted differences among our people had left me unprepared for the wild ride that would be life in DU.
At any given moment, you could spot clusters of kids, invariably from the same cultural background, huddled together. The Tamilians would chill with other Tamilians; the Bengalis would hold intense discussions with each other under the same tree; and the North Easterns would always eat with other North Easterns. This was an alien world for a kid whose first ever group of friends included a Malayali, a half-Bengali, and, like director Nicholas Kharkongor, a Khasi.
The same North Eastern kids who’d huddle up in college, utterly uninterested in mingling with others, would move into areas of the Capital reserved especially for their people. Take, for instance, the Humayunpur village, located bang in the middle of one of South Delhi’s most affluent neighbourhoods. It’s often been described as the Capital’s very own ‘North East outpost’, brimming with ‘Chinese’ and ‘Tibetan’ restaurants, and teeming with youngsters — some of them fresh-faced, others more weary — who’ve arrived in the big city dreaming of a better life. It’s where Axone is set.
Sayani Gupta and Tenzin Dalha in a still from Axone.
But over time, Delhi can beat the dreams out of anybody. Especially if you’re an outsider. There are many colonies like Humayunpur scattered all across the city — Laxmi Nagar is known as ‘mini Bihar’, Chittaranjan Park is where thousands of Bengalis live, and Punjabi Bagh, as the name suggests, is home to the Punjabis. Don’t get me started on the religious segregation.
The truth of the matter is this — regardless of how vehemently we pretend to believe in our country’s cultural diversity, we’re a nation in which it is possible for people to take pride in the streets that they were born in, and hold grudges towards those who weren’t.
And Axone, the film, treats us more gently than we deserve. Despite being on the receiving end of casual racism on virtually an hourly basis — the film begins with a rather harrowing public confrontation — barely any of its characters seem to hold a grudge against their tormentors; they’ve almost become immune to it. At one point, one character, having survived the unthinkable, cries into his girlfriend’s arms and says, “I hate this city.” And you understand why.
The film doesn’t feel the need to overdramatise its social commentary, simply witnessing the tremendous difficulty that these characters are forced to endure, just to be able to celebrate a happy occasion, is enough to get the point across. They’re constantly made to feel like they don’t belong, to the extent that it is almost ingrained in them that they’re second-class citizens — imagine being forced to ask for permission for something as basic as being able to cook in your own home.
Kharkhongor’s command over perspective is particularly impressive, given the ensemble nature of the film. There’s an effortless fluidity with which he moves from one character to another, sometimes in the span of a couple of seconds, having conveyed just the right amount of information about them. Axone is almost like a Richard Linklater movie in this regard — minimalist, grounded, and lived-in. And barring a couple of tonally off scenes, the performances of its young cast are splendid. These people feel like real people; they don’t have unbelievable ambitions, nor do they find themselves embroiled in an overly dramatic plot.
All Upasna wants to do is settle down, and all Chanbi wants is a little bit of respect — respect, that she ultimately discovers, will be difficult to find in Delhi. But kindness, as hard as it may be to come across, is certainly not impossible to discover.