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Axone review: Layered Northeastern recipe that unravels the true colours of India's differences

Release Date: 12 Jun 2020 / 01hr 37min

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Shriram Iyengar

Nicholas Kharkongor's film explores the threat of racism, discrimination, friendship, family and Indianness through the journey of a group of friends from the Northeast living in Delhi.

It does not matter whether you are in Delhi, Coimbatore, Kolkata or Guwahati, good food is critical to any Indian wedding. Except when it comes to Minam's wedding in Nicholas Kharkongor's Axone, it might be a disaster. Named after the famous dish, Axone (pronounced aakhuni) is a colourful and entertaining film that holds a mirror to the Indian habit of discrimination and racism while providing a reason to be hopeful for change. 

The events begin with Chanbi and Upasna (Lin Laishram and Sayani Gupta, respectively) setting out to prepare axone to celebrate roommate Minam's upcoming wedding. A preparation of fermented soyabean added to a pork stew, axone lets off a terrible smell, one that is an acquired taste for many, including Upasna. To prepare such a dish in the heart of Delhi, in Humayunpur, requires all the stealth of a marine force invasion and the logistics as well.

So Chanbi and Upasna set out on the mission, with a little help from their friends. From the quiet Zorem (Tenzin Dalha) to the hyper Shiv (Rohan Joshi), everyone pitches in, in some way. That they should have to go through so much to simply cook a dish they want is a question the Indian populace should be held accountable for. 

From people questioning their habits to men passing lewd comments on the women and the universal 'all of you look the same' taunt, the group endures the insensitive, unaware Indians to persevere for the sake of their friend. 

Kharkongor does not allow the story to get stymied within these confines. The additional layers of each character's personal struggle — Upasna's blossoming love with Zorem, Zorem's past with Minam, Chanbi's struggle to get her independence with boyfriend Bendang, and Bendang's fear of people (caused by his experiences) — are excellent touches. These, in spite of the group having its own biases. From Bendang's suspicion and Upasna's struggle to get the names of her African neighbours right to Zorem revealing the sly taunt of 'Nepali' aimed at Upasna, Kharkongor shows that reality is the same across people from all states. Even when they themselves are facing discimination.

Yet, it takes some small steps of good faith to build friendships. Like a dish of axone. 

The film is driven by some seriously good performances. Lin Laishram is excellent as the strong Chanbi. She is the determined leader driving the group. Laishram anchors the film with her presence and stoicism. Sayani Gupta is lovely as Upasna. The actress manages to bring a naiveté and charm that her character needs, although the accent is a tad heavy. Zorem is played wonderfully by Tenzin Dalha, who is the perfect foil to Gupta's exuberance. He deserves continued presence on the screen. 

Dolly Ahluwalia is terrific as the cantankerous but kind-hearted landlady. Her expressions and tiffs with the young women makes for a wonderful watch. So is Vinay Pathak as Ahluwalia's son-in-law. The actor offers some comic relief through his presence. There is also the skilful Adil Hussain, in a completely wordless role, as the suspicious 'tau' sitting on the corner smoking his hookah and watching events unfold.

But the cake is stolen by Rohan Joshi. The young actor plays Shiv 'Hyper' to the tee. His character's indiscretion, oblivious nature and default racism make for a fun watch. He is the representation of the mainland interacting with this colourful group.

The soundtrack by Tajdar Junaid, which samples sounds and songs from across the entire Northeast, is magical. It brings an authenticity to the proceedings.

The Northeast is a wonderful region filled with almost 200 languages, no less. Kharkongor explores these differences well by building them seamlessly into the dialogues. Each character brings a different accent, language, culture, behaviour, all of it starkly different from anything on the mainland. From their foods to their relationships to their world views, tenants and landlords, shopkeepers and neighbours add to the story. 'Indians', however, tend to view these differences as 'foreign', leading to a sense of alienation among many people. Unfair, but true. 

Axone lets this angst simmer under the layer of subtle comedy and situations, but it finally rises out through the differences. The film introduces the audience to a whole new subculture, ever present but ignored in the heart of the mainland. In the end, like the axone, the film comes through as a celebration of the differences and the common ties that bind us all as humans.

Axone was screened at the 21st MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 19 October 2019.

Related topics

MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

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