Film Commentary: On Axone — by Enatoli Sema
October 04, 2020
"The intent for writing this piece arose from a desire to note a historic event for the people from the Northeast," writes Enatoli Sema in her commentary on "Axone," a film she considers a "critical piece of art." In response to the film and what it inspired in the writer, Sema first reflects on her heritage, culture and its intrinsic value and secondly, on the "unacceptability of discrimination."

The first time I saw the trailer of Nicholas Kharkongor’s new movie, I was surprised that someone would even consider making a movie with such a title. ‘Axone’—a word I, a member of the Sumi tribe of Nagaland, could instantly connect with. Here was axone being introduced into public dialogue, something I could not have possibly imagined when I was a student at Delhi University, where harassment started right after breakfast when I took the rickshaw ride to my college. The idea of a mainstream movie featuring a cast of artists who mostly looked like me was refreshing, and I eagerly anticipated the movie with the rest of the Northeast world.

Axone’s plot focusses on a mission undertaken by two flatmates, a Manipuri played by Lin Laishram and a Nepali played by Sayani Gupta, who along with their male Mizo friend, played by Tenzin Dalha, attempt to procure the forbidden ingredients required to prepare a special smoked pork dish for their Arunachali friend on her wedding day.  From then on, the movie revolves around the drama and the risk undertaken in preparing this dish because of the foul smell it emits while being cooked; something which north Indian landords and neighbours aren’t always prepared to deal with. As the movie progresses, it opens up and touches upon issues faced by young adults who come from the Northeast and are attempting to make a living in a big, insensitive and unwelcoming city. Many pertinent issues are raked up by the old Punjabi landlady played by Dolly Ahluwalia, a type who is familiar to many: someone whose livelihood depends upon the rentals collected from her tenants but who is averse to and even repelled by a culture she cannot relate to.

As preparing the dish becomes progressively difficult, the movie continues to be layered with various issues faced by people from the region; from having to lie to the landlady about cooking the dish, to Chanbi needing to defend her dignity and feeling betrayed by Bendang, her Ao (a major tribe in Nagaland) boyfriend, played by Lanuakum Ao, who was bullied and beaten up in the past in a clear case of racial violence. The movie deals with issues at three different levels. For a movie that is an hour and a half long, it is a lot to cover at one go.

This movie has invoked a range of emotions in the Northeastern region - perhaps a little too much scrutiny for a movie with a small, focused plot. One can’t overburden a film with expectations. But this movie is not just a movie, it is representative of decades of raw emotions stuffed in gunny bags left to smoke in the fireplaces of our ancestors. Its excess baggage is heavy with voices that were earlier silenced because of our small eyes and different features. It comes with years and years of feeling and being told that we do not belong. It comes after an angst-ridden journey for generations whom the system failed. It now continues to narrate the stories of migrants forced to move out of their beloved homelands for sustenance, survival and dreams though the walk is tough and the challenge is daunting.

For a lot of us the story falls short at various levels because it was expected to rescue us from horrid, unspeakable nightmares that lay dormant in our memories, neatly repressed and sometimes fading. There are stories that I am ashamed even to narrate because they betray my vulnerabilities. When I was a law student at Delhi University and one of my friends from the region was declared a ‘reserved category, good for nothing’ by an eminent law professor – in front of the whole class - just because she came a few minutes late. And I was quiet, I was angry, boiling inside when I heard about it; I chose silence because it did not even occur to me that what he had done was wrong, worthy of inspiring dissent. My head hangs in shame. Here I was seemingly equipping myself to fight for the rights of others, but I couldn’t fight for my own; for the rights of people who came from my part of India and looked like me. I still can’t decide which part is more ironic, that the right of a minority law student was being violated or that the violator was a knowledgeable person of law. Either way, I was hoping that this movie would slap my former professor in his face.

While the movie attempts to touch upon every issue faced by people who come from the Northeast and move to metropolitan cities on mainland India, it fails in its attempt to address the diversity and distinctness within its Northeastern states and how within each state itself, every tribe and within the tribe every community and within the community every village, is multicultural, unique and distinct. An incident and an example that comes to my mind is when my parents were invited to attend a celebratory feast held for one of my father’s nieces who had married someone from a different Naga tribe. Before the feast, the pastor from the groom’s side was requested to pray. When he started praising God in his own tribe’s language, my parents - especially my mother - had a hard time keeping her emotions in control because the words used by the pastor to praise God translated to a slang used to refer to the male reproductive organ in our Sumi tribe language. The movie was not able to articulate that people from the Northeast are not a homogenous group of people - a fundamental faux pas committed by mainstream India. The movie had the chance to right this perpetual wrong which is an outcome of decades of ignorance by uninformed or unexposed Indians, and it is both prejudiced and dangerous. The very fact that the name of the movie is taken from the Sumi language is problematic; Sumis are one of the major tribes in Nagaland, where 99.9% of the population is Christian, but the movie revolves around cooking a dish using this very ingredient for an Arunachali bride who is getting married by invoking an ancient animistic-ish ritual. This is an example of how the identities and cultures of the entire Northeast have been mish-mashed and made into a khichdi. And this is particularly problematic because unless there is a lucid voice put forth to demolish this naïve seemingly innocent stereotypical picture, there is a danger that this obliviousness will continue to thrive - and with it the belittling of a region which is diverse and contributes richly to the canvas of this country both historically and culturally. Until mainstream India can learn about the Northeast and see its individual tribes, communities and states as unique, and their people as individuals, it will be hard to make real progress in understanding them.

Coming to the delicacy in question: being a Sumi, when I say ‘axone’, I am talking about a dish which has a dark, lush, rich gravy, cooked with delicately smoked pork - a combination of fat and meat, preferably the pork belly portion cooked with dried red chilies simply seasoned with ginger, garlic and wild sichuan pepper. When I plate the smoked pork with axone, it contrasts beautifully with the white rice; the smoked pork should be soft and almost falling apart but not yet, and the chunks of meat is lusciously soaked in that ‘to die for’ gravy. On the side of the plate, I place super-hot chutney made with raja mircha, accompanied by boiled vegetables - including some slightly bitter or tangy vegetables - to balance out the heat from the chutney and oil from the fat. The plate is simple and complex, intense and balanced. It is all of it or none at all. This is how I visualize a plate of axone and smoked pork. The ingredients projected in the movie were all exotic and beautiful because a lot of them are not grown but foraged even today, simple but using flavors that are subtle and complex. And this beauty of axone was royally murdered when the bride was served an insipid-looking gravy - I felt that the bride’s face could not possibly express joy because the axone was not given to us in its full glory.

Later, as a young adult who was relatively privileged, I was able to stay in Lutyens Delhi, from where I could go to Khan Market for my coffee and groceries. I happened to catch an auto one day from Khan Market to our temporary residence, instead of taking our car, a ride that lasted for a few minutes. When I asked him to stop outside the gate, he gestured to insinuate that I was the master’s keep because he couldn’t imagine someone like me staying in a mansion like that. He simply presumed that I was a girl with no morality. And I kept quiet. Enraged and disgusted to my very soul, and yet I was so conflicted that I couldn’t imagine creating a ruckus or yelling at him. In a split second, I thought of going and informing the guard, who was just a few steps away, and then wondering what would I tell him; how would I tell this person who saluted me every time I left or entered the house what the auto driver had insinuated? What reasons could I possibly give him or any of our house staff to explain the cause of my rage and outburst? I just remember fumbling with some very angry words in my head, paying him and letting him go.

These are the few moments in my life to which I wish I could just rewind; which I have several times in my head, since then. I wish I had not only used but abused my authority and power to beat him up black and blue, beat the daylights out of him, register a case, send him to lock up till he had cried and screamed his guts out, begged and begged, wished that he was better off dead. I imagined holding a very public procession to shame this man by letting out a war cry, calling out to all my other Northeastern sisters whose dignity, decency, honour and self-respect had been raped by people like him. People who were demeaning and demoting us just because of the way we looked. Just that. I was hoping this movie would scream and cry out for me, take my revenge and express the anguish that I had kept bottled up for so long.

And maybe that is the reason why axone is a sensitive topic, both the movie and the dish, because it has everything to do with our emotions. It is not just a delicacy that comes from the region or a condiment that belongs to a particular tribe or people. This ‘smelly stuff’ that we eat sings of our heritage, our culture, our history, our pride, our roots, and everything else in between. That one sweet bite of axone with smoked pork and rice transports us back to the hearth of our grandmothers, where we would warm ourselves around the fire and our grandfathers and fathers would regale us with stories of our long-gone ancestors. It takes us back to our huts, to our rice fields, to our misty mountains, to our roots which are slowing dwindling - only vibrant in our memories. This thing is so entwined emotionally with our being that at some point it defines us, and our identity and it tells our story, no matter how pungent and unappealing it may smell to the rest of the world. It evokes emotions that moves beyond gastronomic palate.

But that apart, after my first viewing and after being monumentally disappointed, I re-visited the movie to face my own judgments and issues I thought I had with it. I saw the movie in new light in respect of the mental checklists that I had made regarding handling the issues of raw discrimination, struggle, harassment, assimilation not necessarily in that order. The scene where the landlady smells axone and decides to confront them and manages to garner support from some of the tenants, I felt drew a relevant picture of discrimination amounting to abuse both verbal and mental. It also showed that not everyone is an enemy, like the ones who comforted Chanbi during both the public confrontations that took place in the movie. Or even the character played by Rohan Joshi, the typical Delhi boy - harmless but unwittingly annoying and, at times, ignorant and offensive - were realistically portrayed. Chanbi as a call centre worker, Zorem opening a store selling food stuff from the Northeast region to survive in the city and Minam sitting for her civil services interview – all of them sweaty and deprived, trying to survive the city was an articulate portrayal.

Though movie was successful in showing a certain level of assimilation through the usage and fluency of the Hindi spoken by almost all characters. However, the issue of assimilation was not as credible - the presence of an oriental-looking, pagdi-donning sardar seemed too forced and superficial. It left the issue of assimilation open ended because even though the Northeastern wife of the sardar played the role of the pacifier, but the character lacked depth. This, on the surface treatment of the issue of assimilation can be seen when Chanbi questions Bendang for not making friends or when Bendang abuses Shiv by calling him ‘bloody Indian’ or when the landlady comes to the rescue of her tenants right at the end of the movie while they were leaving to attend the wedding ceremony. It left this very relevant issuing hanging in the air and therefore though it did open up the issue, it did not treat or deal with it. Assimilation for me would ideally involve a journey of learning and unlearning, of shedding our pretense, breaking down our walls and coming to a point of deep mutual trust, respect and acceptance where we all find ourselves looking at each other through the lens of a human being. That our human traits become the commonality which binds two very different individuals, societies, communities, races together with the realization that in the end we are all humans.

It is perhaps too much of a burden for one man who had the courage to make this movie to carry, too much responsibility to place on a cast; to tell this complex, multi-layered tale, enmeshed with stories of struggle, pain, blood and gore, to complete all our stories within the hour or so that a movie lasts. We have had other art forms come out of this region, dwelling mostly on our past, but this is the first mainstream film from the Northeast weaving our current story as it unfolds. And for that, the release of this movie is historic, regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Our Get Out movie may take many more years, but for me this is a start. Susan Sontag in her essay ‘One Culture and the New Sensibility’ said ‘A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments’. For the uninitiated, axone and a lot of the food that comes from the Northeast, are an acquired taste which you don’t quite get on the first try. And I felt Axone the movie also tasted better the second time round.

Official Trailer: Axone

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About the Contributor

I am a Naga from Nagaland belonging to the Sumi tribe, which is recognized as one of the major tribes in the State but have been staying in Delhi for more than two decades and have lived outside Nagaland for most of my adult life. I am also a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India. I earned my LLB degree from the Campus Law Centre, St. Stephens College, Delhi University. I am the first Naga to clear the Advocates-on-Record (AOR) examination that is conducted by the Supreme Court of India every year as a certification enabling lawyers to file in the Apex Court of the country. Currently, I represent my home state in the Supreme Court as the Standing Counsel.

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