~ Cecil Thounaojam
Unlike Axone, the indigenous food, Axone (the film) is a mayang recipe specially made digestible for the mainlanders on the discourse of racism in India, with a pinch of salty apologism and a handful of bland tokens just enough to satiate the racist palate of the mainland. It attempts to dilute the issue of racism in India by neutralising moments highlighting racism against people from the northeast with either prejudice within northeast or an emotional moment for mayang tears or a “not all Indians are racist” pep talk. On top of that, for a movie with racism as its promotional talking point, it does not mention the word even for once. Calling the violence against people from the northeast as racism is important to highlight the institutional and systemic oppression and not equate it with certain prejudices or reactions to racism. Otherwise, it reduces racism to just mere misbehaviour of certain people towards others. It is necessary especially for such a film that juxtaposes everything in an “attempt to be unbiased” and tries to introduce “we are all racist” narrative.
The film highlights the racist violence that people from northeast face, to the extent of getting traumatized and living in constant fear. One can also see many faces that we identify with. It is thus bound to have a lot of us like and appreciate the film for bringing our faces and issues to “mainstream” light for the first time. After having no representation and depriving them of any recognition for so many years, it is possible that these marginalized people crave for even a little bit of attention and settle for even the least. However, it is necessary to understand what we are settling for and at what cost. Is an apologetic film with a misguided narrative on racism enough for the years of systemic racism? We need to look beyond the faces in the film; we need to understand what is being portrayed and which narrative is being propagated. The film has more layers that subtly or quite evidently push the agenda to dilute racism against people from northeast with gentle mudslinging.
First, let’s talk about the cast. Although eighty percent of the cast is people from the northeast (according to Nicholas Khargonkar), eighty percent of the screen time is occupied by a Tibetian, a Bengali, other mainland actors, and a Meitei. The rest of the northeast cast do not get proper screen time, some do not even get a screen name. Shiv’s girlfriend, a mayang, gets more screen time than some of the northeast casts. On the other hand, Adil Hussain, an Assamese Muslim, is projected as a mainland character, whose only purpose is to sit in front of a shop and observe. The irony is that a person from the northeast is portrayed as a mainland character in a film about racism in India, which is supposed to represent people from the northeast. The granny landlady, the mainland uncle and a mainland guy called Shiv get more defined roles and screen time than the rest of the northeast casts. Only in one scene, all the characters from the northeast get to speak one dialogue each, in the search for a place to cook Axone, just to show the diversity of northeast. Of all the issues highlighted in the film, it is also the least convincing one. Apart from Lin Laishram, most of the northeast casts are just mere props. None of them have any character or story or any significant contribution. The other two lead characters that get most of the screen time are Tenzin Dalha (a Tibetan) and Sayani Gupta (a Bengali) who plays the role of a Nepali. What’s more surprising is that while the rest of the northeast casts speak proper Hindi, she alone is made to have an accent. Are they compensating for the appropriation? Or is it an opportunity to showcase her talent and shine?
Let’s talk about the most nonsensical part of the film – its storyline. It is filled with apologetic narratives with no confrontation of racism. With every point raised on racism, there is a digression, which many mainland racism-deniers use to run away from the point of conversation. When there is an episode addressing racism that Chanbi (played by Lin Laishram) faced, the film raises an issue of prejudice against Nepali in the northeast. Here it is about Upasana (played by Sayani Gupta), who gets a lot of focus and is discussed for a good amount of time, again and again. It is not to say that there are no prejudices within the northeast communities and should not be discussed, but the way it is done in the film is only to shift the focus from racism faced by the people from northeast in the mainland. Are they trying to suggest that out of hundreds of communities living in the northeast, some are in conflict with the Nepalis living there, so it is justified for the people including Nepalis to face racism in India? Or it is claiming that racism also exists in the northeast too and we should think about it. Not everything is racism, northeast’s relationship with the mainland is different from the relationship few communities have with Nepalis. These are apples and oranges. Not everything is racism; ethnic conflict, colourism and racism are all different. The film would have served the cause if the Bengali actor who played a Nepali was made to express how Bengalis treat Nepalis and Northeasterners. ‘Nepali’ is also a racist slur used against all people from the northeast. The film does not even address that. It portrays as if Nepalis are not victims of racism in India, but are victims in the northeast. In another instance, the mainland character Shiv constantly annoys and triggers Bendang, to which Bendang loses his mind and calls Shiv “Fucking Indian”. Instead of addressing the triggering and the trauma, the film spends some more screen time in displaying the emotion of Shiv for “being at the receiving end” of an act of resistance against racism. It’s like having all the empathy towards an Indian for being upset when called “mayang.”
Another episode, also the worst, is the conversation about “not all Indians are racist.” This happens when Chanbi and Bendang have a conversation around his trauma. Instead of confronting racism and comforting him, Chanbi goes on victim blaming Bendang for not having Indian friends and only being with people from northeast. She even says that “all are not like this, most of them are nice,” which basically translates to “not all Indians are racist.” This ignores the history of the relationship between the region and the mainland. This fails to address the systemic racism that people from northeast face in India. She further imposes the racist idea that one can survive in these Indian spaces without getting racially attacked if we mingle with them and live at their mercy, just like how she has done. It is again victim blaming and also dismisses the whole point of living with fear coming to these spaces that are known for racial attacks, which have made people from northeast to only find safe spaces amongst their own. These narratives of mayang fragility are constantly used by mayang whenever confronted for their racism. In spite of it all, the film ends on a positive note where all of them, from the northeast, sing a hindi song that seems to help them cure the trauma caused by racism and live happily ever after, just like a Bollywood fairy tale. If anything that this act proves, it is reinforcing the misunderstanding that speaking Hindi and singing Hindi songs automatically makes us “Indian.” Along with this, there are various instances that assert Indiannes in order to be accepted and treated with dignity.
This movie is a classic case of mayang fragility promotion. It is about how the racists are also humans and resistance to their racism makes them feel bad. So, we should understand that our resistance should not hurt the feelings of these racist mayangs because they can get hurt very easily. It is more hurtful for someone lower in the social hierarchy to raise their voice as compared to someone who is above us doing the same. All in all, the film is an apologist propaganda to diminish and dilute the issue of racism in India by bringing up the narrative that “we are all flawed” and “we all have prejudices against each other.” It succeeds in pleasing both those deprived of recognition and the perpetrator of racism in India. If one has to list out, there are more issues in this film than what is mentioned in the article. Finally, Axone, the film, is an insult to Axone, the indigenous food. While the former is palatable to the Indians, the latter is not.