There are things we need to look beyond the chinky faces to understand the problems with Axone. The problem with Axone runs deeper than and beyond the apologetic tokens; it has its roots in the internalization of a colonizing culture and mirroring of the same. Now, let’s understand what it means. The relationship between mainland India and the northeast is not one of the equals. There is an underlying inequality in the relationship when it comes to power, favouring mainland India. Historical erasure has enabled the Indian state to shape our identity in the way as they please. For instance, Manipur’s history has been kept away from public knowledge, especially post British colonialism and before merger to Indian Union. Instead, mainland Indian history has been taught to the indigenous people of Manipur. It has allowed the people of Manipur to think of themselves as being Indians historically. Mass settlement of the mayang in the indigenous lands over the decades has impacted the indigenous people politically and economically. For instance, Tripura. Militarization in the region along with the impunity of AFSPA has terrorized and taken the lives of these indigenous people. The mainland has always had socio-economic and political control over the northeast. It is quite visible even in the recent cases of “dog meat” ban in Nagaland and environmentally destructive coal mining projects in Dehing Patkai and Etalin Hydro Electric project in Dibang Valley.
Bollywood: Internalizing Toxic Culture
Bollywood has been the most easily accessible form of media and entertainment for the longest time. Most of us grow up admiring and replicating Bollywood in various ways along different stages of our lives, and many still do. The cultural assimilation with Bollywood over the generations has left a deep internalized impact into the minds of the indigenous people. Unlike the rest mentioned, Bollywood does not seem to pose any threat. Masquerading as entertainment, it slowly engulfs you into its culture of misogyny, hypermasculinity, objectification of women, stereotyping, cultural appropriation, racism, colourism, ableism, classism, beauty standards, and many more. It monopolizes the entertainment industry in India and portrays “making to it” as the epitome of accomplishments in the field of entertainment. In addition to the years of internalization of this culture, its image so built makes it an unachievable dream of many, which when achieved translates into “dream come true.” Bollywood thus portrays itself as the dreamland and many start putting it on a pedestal. Henceforth, conforming into the Bollywood culture has become a necessity to reach there or replicating it wherever one is has become the norm of “making progress” towards getting closer to success. Most of the mainstream artists in the northeast (Manipur, for instance), especially in the field of entertainment, look up to Bollywood because of the said internalization and the extravagant idea of Bollywood. They start mimicking the looks, storyline, music, and the luxurious displays with a pinch of their respective local touch. For those who have stepped into the mainland, they slowly learn to mould and accommodate themselves to fit in. Thus establishing a sense of dependency on Bollywood in order to be successful in the field of entertainment. It is similar to the dependence we have on the mainland spaces for education,health care, political and economic situation or decisions.
Birth of Tokens
The struggle of people from the northeast to get into mainland spaces has always been multifold as compared to any mayang, be it in any field. The power dynamics completely favours them while desperation grows inside the people from northeast. It triggers their vulnerability, which allows the mayang to tokenize them. Tokenization, here, seems like a step towards success to these desperately vulnerable people from the northeast struggling for acceptance. Bollywood holds no exception. The only difference may be that mostly the privileged class from this frontier gets to the fringes of Bollywood. Only when the idea of “northeast” becomes saleable, Bollywood tokenizes and capitalizes on it. It is no different from the scene in the field of academia wherein the mayangs use “northeast” and its issues for political gain or to earn brownie points. Since the people from northeast are deprived of attention/acceptance for so long, even the crumbs that come with tokenization seem like the first taste of success. The tokenized privileged class from the northeast justifies it in the name of “struggle” and imitates the mainland. The works and words of these tokens are products of this internalized colonization culture and mirroring of the same that Bollywood has taught them. Two films in case are: Axone and Mary Kom.
Axone: A Small Budget Replica of Mary Kom
Mary Kom is a typical big budget Bollywood movie with a superstar while Axone is a small budget supposedly minority-representing Bollywood movie with “minority representation.” While Axone can still be considered a film about people from the northeast, Mary Kom is just another Bollywood movie, which just happens to have its story based on a person from Manipur. However, these two movies have striking similarities that reflect the said internalization and imitation.
First, the leads. Priyanka Chopra puts on a chinkiface for the film Mary Kom, using prosthetics to make her eyes look similar to that of Mary Kom, or chinkies in general. In Axone, Sayani Gupta, a Bengali, plays the role of a Nepali. Though she did not use prosthetics, she compromised it with her fake and exaggerated Nepali accent.
Second, the secondary leads. Sunil Thapa, a Nepali, plays the role of Mary Kom’s coach. In Axone, Tenzing Dalha, a Tibeto-Indian, plays Sayani Gupta’s love interest and Lin Laishram, a Manipuri, as another lead.
Third, the tokens. In a movie about Mary Kom, while the mayang mostly took up major roles, two Manipuris, Lin Laishram and Bijou Thangjam, are merely used for tokens. Similarly, Axone has a Bengali, a Tibeto-Indian, and other mayang actors taking up most of the screen time while the rest of the characters from the northeast are distributed with crumbs.
Fourth, the misrepresentations. Mary Kom is a cringe-fest of misrepresentation, be it the underground fight club, mixing of random Hindi accents, use of Meiteilon within the Kom community, and a mayang in the role of a Manipuri. When it comes to Axone, it claims to be a film representing the northeast, Axone fails miserably and, instead, ends up misrepresenting a lot. So much so that the makers forget to represent Tripura, misrepresent Nepali as a community that does not eat axone (kinema) with a Bengali misrepresenting as a Nepali, and misrepresent the Galo community. The poorly done half-baked research, which a part of the Bollywood culture, runs in both.
Fifth, the saleable saviour. The critique of casting Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom has one common response from the makers and the whole of the mayang population: the saleability. Another common response to the critique is that if not for Priyanka, the film wouldn’t be a blockbuster, the story wouldn’t reach the masses, and Manipur wouldn’t be known by many: the saviour. Same are the responses from the team of Axone regarding the casting of Sayani Gupta, including the actor herself who even goes on to justify Priyanka Chopra playing the role of Mary Kom in the name of “Bollywood is a business”.
Tokens with Agency
While the production and direction of Mary Kom are in the hands of mayang, it is obvious how it has turned out. Whereas, people have had hopes on Axone for it has a director and various casts from the northeast. However, the film just comes out as bad as, maybe even worse than, Mary Kom. While Mary Kom misrepresents and culturally appropriates chinkiness, Axone not only misrepresents us and replicates the same Bollywood framework applied in Mary Kom but also presents an apologetic narrative that comforts the racists and victim-blames us. The reasons could be the internalization of self-realisation for the need to compromise in order to “make it” big in Bollywood and be successful. In a post-screening event in Nagaland, Nicholas Khargonkar said, “You have to think of the reach, you have to think of the kind of audience you have and if it is a very serious film… Remember that I still had to write the film and reach out to a production house which has to consider the financial viability of it.” Soon after that someone from the production house said, “We are not being too serious, the North Indians who come in, they can also reflect on it. It’s not like, hey, you are wrong. It’s very well-balanced.” Here, one can clearly see the power dynamics and how the less powerful succumbs to the wishes of the more powerful, almost voluntarily, without the production house having to tell him so. It reflects how someone from the northeast learns to conform themselves to fit in and be accepted, compromising on the kind of narrative they want to put out. Another factor could be the deep internalization of the colonizing culture that shapes the apologetic narrative appeasing the more powerful comes out automatically because the tokens believe in it by now. Most of these tokens feel satisfied receiving the praises from the mayang population even if their own people criticize it. Like The Yatra Kid, a Youtuber from Nagaland said, “it wasn’t about the narrative or perspective of how a northeast person here in Delhi or Mumbai or whatever goes through, instead I felt it was more about the mainlander perspective on how [a] northeast person goes through.”