Released on Netflix last month, Naga filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone (2019) is the first mainstream Hindi movie to address the racism that northeastern migrants face in the Indian capital of New Delhi. Despite its meticulous attention to varying shades of discrimination, the movie betrays itself through a dangerous attitude of “kuch nahin hota” , or “it doesn’t matter,” that promotes superficial harmony over real dialogue.
This slice-of-life drama follows northeastern migrants Upasna and Chanbi as they attempt to cook the traditional northeastern dish axone, a fermented soy bean of Nagaland, for their best friend Minam’s wedding. However, they are hard-pressed to find a place that will accommodate its strong smell: “You wanna cook that food? That food that smells like shit?” The viewers follow the girls through an urban race against time, until they finally cobble together a happy ending.
The movie skillfully dismantles the monolithic “northeastern” label to reveal a rich multiplicity of language, culture and tribal belonging erased by the outsider’s gaze. The monochrome identity of the Other does not liberate northeasterners from internal prejudice, such as the one Upasna faces for being Nepali. However, it does force them to forge bonds of solidarity for survival. Upasna’s boyfriend Zorem may dislike Minam, but he still helps steer her wedding preparations over the potholes of cultural oppression: “All of us, we are like a family, no?”
As the group navigates the city, they face a spectrum of racism that ranges from subtle microaggression to the overtly brutal. The former includes being mocked for “narrow eyes” and “identical faces.” The latter covers the haunting physical assault of a Bendang, Chanbi’s boyfriend, and an immediate threat to purge the neighborhood of northeastern presence. We also see nuanced interactions between minority groups themselves. In the space between northeasterners and Black Africans, misidentification works both ways: Upasna keeps mispronouncing a neighbor’s name, while the neighbor’s flatmate is convinced that Upasna doesn’t resemble a “real northeasterner.” Although discrimination is normalized to a heartbreaking degree, the toll it takes on the characters is both heavy and insidious, spilling over into Chanbi’s panic attacks and Balomon’s alcoholism.
The movie pays special attention to the intersectional experience of northeastern women, who are constantly fetishized by strangers and presumed friends alike. Prey to vulgar comments on the street, Chanbi’s fiery attempt to stand up for herself leads to a literal slap in the face. When she later faces her assaulter’s family, she asks his wife, “He must hit you too. Don’t you say anything?” And when the offender’s father slaps his own wife and takes her side, she refuses to be grateful. The hyper-sexualization of northeastern women is paralleled by an emasculation of northeastern men as “bharva,” translated to “pimp” in the subtitles. The prejudice infiltrates the community: When a traumatized Bendang is unable to defend Chanbi, she complains, “What kind of a man is he? He can’t even protect me!”
In one of the movie’s most tense scenes, Bendang pushes away Shiv, the landlord’s son, calling him a “fucking Indian.” Shiv is stunned: “You guys don’t consider yourselves Indian?” The question is met with silence; it is perhaps best responded to by Shiv’s own assertion earlier on in the movie: “Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai.” Meant to convey his allyship and commitment to help, the statement instead perpetuates the “us-versus-them” framework that the movie never challenges. In the discussion with the northeastern Martha now married to a Punjabi, Chanbi asserts “We have the right to cook our food.” Martha responds, “And they have a right to not smell your food. Tell me, whose right is more right?” The conversation ends there, but later finds an uncomfortable resolution, as the final cooking scene is pushed to the marginal space of the rooftop, where the girls tell a prying neighbor that they are making butter chicken.
Despite its nuanced depictions of racism, Axone put forward a dangerous attitude of “Yaar kuch nahin hota,” the phrase that Shiv uses to reconcile with Bendang. In many ways, the line encapsulates the movie’s general take. It voids the possibility of constructive dialogue in favor of one-sided compromise, and nullifies the notion of individual responsibility to identify racism and fight back. By dismissing experiences of injustice, rather than calling them out, the line – just like the movie – ultimately suggest that northeastern migrants face harsh conditions in Delhi, but it is up to them to prevail. The onus falls squarely on the victims: In order to escape violence, Bendang and Chanbi must leave Delhi to go “home,” after having spent a decade contributing to its economy. Being “Indian” is easily reduced to singing the same Hindi song together – a song that over 40% of the country cannot understand, according to the 2011 census. Shiv never realizes his insensitivity, and the northeastern characters never point it out.
The happy song-and-dance ending belies a fragile harmony. And it is precisely in its problematic attribution of responsibility to the victims themselves – and in betraying the responsibility it takes upon itself – that Axone falls short.