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An Axone of India’s Assimilated Discontents

A balancing act hollows out the very purpose of “social” cinema and risks being called hypocritical.

India’s Constitution envisions accommodation based on equality and fraternity. It seeks to safeguard racial, ethnic and religious minorities on principle. Yet the lived experience of minorities in India tells a different story, one of many discontents. Transgressions against the dignity of minorities, both as individuals and groups, range from blatant physical violence in the public and private spheres to casual chauvinism and stereotyping in popular culture and everyday life.

This discrimination often translates into pervasive housing discrimination, cultural zealotry, intolerance towards divergent ways of living, and denial of access to education and healthcare. Intolerance extends to racist onslaughts against citizens from the northeastern states (and against foreign students from African nations). The prejudice against northeasterners was laid bare when the Novel Coronavirus was beginning to take flight in India. In dismal disregard to their rights, many were made to vacate their houses by landlords, denied access to groceries and treatment in hospitals over fear of Covid-19, even forced to stay in quarantine centres despite negative test results.

Highlighting these struggles is the film, Axone, set in a middle-class locality in Delhi, where a group of women from northeastern states live in a rented accommodation. The film shows the women battle conservative restrictions and onerous conditions imposed by prejudiced and prudish co-tenants and house owners.

Weighing in on food politics, Axone pricks the majoritarian conscience for its inhumane insensitivity towards differences. Axone (pronounced Akhuni) is a condiment made from fermented soybean with a sharply bitter flavour, associated with the Sema tribe of Nagaland. It is usually used to make pickles or served with meat, preferably pork. The tenants in the film face opposition and restrictions when they try to cook this traditional dish, Axone, to celebrate the wedding of their friend.

The film peels the many layers of subordination that racial minorities face in an intolerant society in which certain types of meat are branded “impure” and their consumers subjected to contempt and hatred. Most of the film’s star cast is from the north-east, hence the actors have lived the realities that they are depicting. While sensitively exposing iniquity, the director has also projected internal cleavages and fault-lines within minority communities. Upasana (a Nepali character played by Sayani Gupta) is “othered” as she does not have Mongoloid features. There is an attempt to manifest the patriarchal mindset, which dictates that women who are “too fashionable” or influenced by “western” norms deserve punishment and suppression. In one sequence, an elderly woman is seen slut-shaming Chanbi (played by Lin Laishram) for exposing the former’s son as an assaulter. But in the successive scene, that very woman is slapped by her husband for creating a “scene”. The message is that patriarchy leads to women’s physical, verbal and sexual assault. The film also highlights the social apathy and ignorance about mental health through a scene where Chanbi's co-tenants and house owner continue to loudly berate her about the smell even after she gets a panic attack. It also makes a comment about this ignorance by showing how the most people cannot make out the difference between panic attack and heart attack.

The film also shows how pervasive patriarchy is through Chanbi’s laments about her male partner (Bendang, played by Lanuakum Ao) being unable to fulfil his masculinist obligation to protect her. The audience is left wondering about the chain of oppression that operates in society. Being the most vulnerable, many northeasterners resort to “silence” as a way to end the matter, especially in the absence of a law to prevent racial attacks against ethnic minorities.

The film explains the struggles of cultural assimilation in a metropolitan and portrays Naga culture sensitively, showing the emotional costs of migration from a racial minority-migrant standpoint. However, its overall narrative indulges in an undesirable balancing act. This is the one discontent with the film’s narrative. Bendang expresses an internalised anguish and trauma as he has suffered physical violence. When Bendang calls Shiv, the house-owner’s grandson,  a “*** Indian” for violating his personal space, his girlfriend “sensitises” him to the fact that he has not made any friends among mainland Indians despite living in bustling Delhi. In effect, she charges him with not being “open” to assimilation. The film does not question the very idea of assimilation. It portrays Bendang’s anguish as a form of parochialism rather than a reaction to the heavy burden of intolerance and ignorance. This has very disconcerting implications, for the onus of acculturation cannot be on migrants, certainly not those who are subordinated by residents of the city they have chosen to live in.

For instance, in 2014, Delhi Police had set up a North East Cell dedicated to the concerns of people from the region, but soon senior officials were seen “advising” them to participate in Hindu festivities in their neighbourhoods, so as to camouflage themselves better. Considering the wide appeal of cinema as a form, and the power of the moving image to influence the audience, film makers need to think harder about the political implications of even their most well-meaning messages. It needs to be realised that the “mainstream” cinema cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound for too long. A balancing act hollows out the very purpose of “social” cinema and risks being called hypocritical.


Prannv Dhawan is a student of National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Bhavya Arora is a student of Hansraj College, Delhi. The views are personal.

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