Looking at North, by North-East

Updated: Jun 17, 2020, 07:37 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

We are what we eat, aren't we? That's just Culture 101. And, because food is such an instant marker for a community, Prejudice 101 too!

A screen grab from the trailer of Axone. Pic/Youtube
A screen grab from the trailer of Axone. Pic/Youtube

Mayank ShekharOf late, looking at how content travels online, there is a deepening belief among global buyers/players, that the more specific a story, the more universal it is likely to be. Which is, of course, in contrast to the earlier idea that for a film to be dubbed mainstream — it should be generic enough first!

Digging in little deeper on that thought still — beyond the specific striking a (universal) chord, there is often a story/film that so deeply represents the world it is set in, that it develops an umbilical/sticky cord for the people it is set among. Mainly, when that film appears in the mainstream. It feels like one's own movie for those outside, and not just for the characters inside.

Tell you a missed opportunity in that regard? The Farhan Akhtar starrer Rock On 2 (2016), a hardcore, commercial movie about rock music, set in Shillong (Meghalaya) — where even Bob Dylan's birthday is annually celebrated like Bapu's (Gandhiji's)! But, no, there was hardly any real rock music-scene, let alone Shillong, in Rock On 2.

Had there been, guarantee, it would've attained cult status in the North East region, that the Mary Kom biopic (2004) did a better job surveying. So what if the Punjabi Priyanka Chopra played the Manipuri boxer in the film. Gandhi (1982) is no less a movie-bible for Indians, though the Brit Ben Kingsley played the father.

And no, it does not matter one bit that the Bengali Sayani Gupta (and she's brilliant) plays a Nepali in the film titled Axone, which is mysteriously pronounced Akhuni — assuming the Sumi (Nagaland) dialect where the word's form isn't phonetic.

The film, primarily in Hindi, dropped on the global/mainstream streaming giant Netflix. It's set among people you'd call from the 'North East' — signifying the seven sister states that are quite different from one another, but clubbed into the same in the rest of India.

What was the last great film we saw from the North East? Bhaskar Hazarika's Aamis, in Assamese. What was that about? Food. So is this. But there is no connection. You only have to see Aamis to know why that can never be!

Axone is, I'm guessing, a thick gravy/paste made from fermenting soybeans. It's a pork delicacy served on big occasions. But, apparently, it smells vile. How vile? We could have known if the film was in 4D, with the aroma wafting into the nose, from the screen. No, that leap in technology isn't lightyears away — it's here. Can't wait to check out AR Rahman's VR (Virtual Reality) movie, Le Musk (2015)!

That said, you can tell the smell of akhuni is pungent enough for the young characters in Axone, living in hostel-like digs in a congested Delhi colony, having to figure out a place to cook it, all through an impossibly long afternoon. They can't do it in their own homes. The neighbours will simply not allow that to happen.

We are — to such a huge extent — what we eat, aren't we? That's just Culture 101. Saw this surrealistic documentary, Sapna Bhavnani's Sindhustan. It's on the history of Sindh, yes; but it's told with the presence of the Sindhi curry, being cooked in the kitchen, in the present. Lovely!

Flip-side: History of food — because it is such an instant marker for a community, and therefore prejudices — is also the history of war. And the victors and the vanquished, thereof. Think harder about it. You'll realise it's not something we acknowledge enough. And it's not changed at all.

Get on the vegetarian Marine Drive, if you like! Or just watch the butter-chicken loving North Indians in Axone. The same people are collectively called "Curry" as a cuss word across Australia, for instance. Inevitably this food-bias is an entry point for much bigger bigotries, and that's what we see play out between neighbours and the North-Eastern folk in Axone.

A film like this, dropping in the time of COVID-19 — when Indians with East Asian features were targeted by illiterate, round-eyed, brown people, with racial slurs, supposedly directed at the Chinese — is a lot like Spike Lee, the baap of Black Lives Matter (BLM), coming out with his latest, Da 5 Bloods, right at the peak of BLM (on my watch-list)!

But then Axone is not entirely an angry film. The writer-director Nicholas Kharkongor (full disclosure: friend) is, firstly, an A-level empath. He looks at the idea of biases at large. And he also looks at film as a fun medium, foremost — with a touch of humour, and quirky characters; putting together such a fine bunch of Bollywood and North-East actors.

Of the latter, I know only one in the mainstream — the Assamese Adil Hussain. He randomly sits around here as a Haryanvi Chaudhary, smoking hookah on the street! That fellow in the film generally gazes at guys from the North East.

As does all of Delhi, by the way — at a huge population in the national capital, that is altogether 'otherised'. Like elsewhere in India. For the first time ever, to the best of my knowledge, that gaze is reversed! Axone is an umbilical/sticky cord film.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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