Axone battles racism and prejudice in a potluck of cultures
The film gives you a little taste of how poorly we treat our compatriots from the north-east
Chicken chilli, hakka noodles, Manchurian and momo. Our favourite snippets from the Chindian menu are notorious for causing heartburn – sometimes, more than just the one kind.
While Digene can douse the fire in your stomach, it does nothing for the scars left by the cheap jokes made at the expense of an “oft-maligned north-easterner, living on the fringes”.
The racism narrative in our country isn’t new, but writer-director Nicholas Kharkongor is adding a new flavour to combat this bigotry with his ‘food-com’ film, Axone (pronounced as Akhun-e or Akhun-é).
The movie is about a group of north-easterners living as tenants in a larger-than-life Punjabi neighbourhood of Delhi. These 20-somethings are trying to keep their culture alive during wedding celebrations as they struggle to prepare Nagaland’s delicacy, Axone (fermented soya bean cakes).
Axone is food for the soul
Kharkongor considers food the first line of defence that gets activated when someone is thrown into an alien environment. People are instantly curious about what an outsider eats, how he or she cooks.
“Our identity is strongly linked to our food habits,” he says.
“At the London Film Festival, after the screening, there was a long conversation on how south Asians migrated to the UK in the ’60s and the ’70s, and the Britishers didn’t warm up to the curry they made. But today, curry is practically the unofficial national dish.”
Axone, with its strong aroma, becomes a cause for dissent between the protagonists (played by Asenla Jamir, Lanuakum Ao, Jimpa Bhutia, Sayani Gupta), and their landlady (Dolly Ahluwalia), magnifying the racial tensions in the neighbourhood.
“But food ultimately is a way to one’s heart. In that sense, this genre seemed the most palatable, and although I felt it was a risky story while writing it, I now feel it will reach a lot of hearts,” he says.
Kharkongor grew up in Nagaland and Shillong before moving to Delhi to pursue theatre in the ’90s. He wasn’t exempt from the racial repartees in the Capital.
His morning runs were incomplete without the onlookers calling him “Jackie Chan” and “Dalai Lama”. “I did confront them cheekily one day and said, ‘I can understand Jackie Chan, but why do you call me Dalai Lama? Do you think Dalai Lama would run on the streets like me?’.”
The director adds that he was fortunate enough to only be involved in mild exchanges, and it doesn’t take away from the larger narrative of what many others have faced.
“Nido Taniam’s was an extreme case (the Arunchal Pradesh native was beaten to death in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar), and it has affected me a lot personally. One of my characters is a homage to Taniam.”
India is no stranger to racism
Racism, Kharkongor believes, gets a facelift every time society undergoes a wave of change. Through the ’70s and the ’80s, north-easterners went to Delhi University to study.
It was a big population of migrating students. “I used to say Nicholas Kharkongor is the Christopher Columbus of Humayunpur in Delhi back then. I didn’t see any other north-easterner there when I reached.”
But there was no representation in the workforce until the mid-’90s, when the economy opened up and retail stores and malls started mushrooming.
“These were the industries that employed a lot of north-eastern migrants. From a small bunch of students, the community doubled and lived cheek-by-jowl with the locals. That’s when racial remarks became pronounced,” Kharkongor says.
Axone becomes even more important in the current electrifying zeitgeist sweeping the globe. Question of race and representation cannot be ignored by pop culture anymore, and the director knows the moment is ripe.
“Recently, in Never Have I Ever, we saw Indo-Americans take centre stage in an American production. These are all migrants who moved to the West in the ’80s or the ’90s. We are used to seeing them in their shows. But in India, we have been part of the country since the beginning of the time, we aren’t migrants, and still you’ll rarely ever see the north-east being represented in our content,” says Kharkongor.
“Racism won’t go away overnight. But I do have the artist’s privilege to hold up the mirror,” he adds.
Kharkongor hopes that his love letter to his north-eastern brethren will give the country a glimpse into their lives. “It’s an attempt to make the audience realise that ultimately, we are all humans and our emotions are the same.”
For starters and main (dis)course
Take a note out of Axone and take a tour of the north-east via your tastebuds.
‘This easy recipe is non-pungent. It has been a favourite amongst a lot of bachelors living in the metros,” says Avibu Seyie K, food curator of the movie.
Smoked pork with a choice of vegetable – arbi, potatoes or pumpkin
- 350 gm smoked pork
- 2 medium-sized onion (chopped)
- 6-7 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp crushed black pepper
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes (chopped)
- 1 king chilli (bhut jolokia – preferably fresh)
- 2 bunch pokchoy or mustard leaves
- Salt to taste
- Pre-heat the pan, add onion, pork and salt. Lower the cooking flame to simmer, stir in intervals for about four-five minutes until pork fat releases oil.
- Add garlic and crushed black pepper corn. Cook for two-three minutes.
- Add tomatoes and the choice of vegetable. Cook for four-five minutes.
- Add two cups of water and cook in medium flame for eight-nine minutes. Stir every two minutes. Add the king chilli.
- Lower the flame, cover the pan and cook for 10 minutes.
- Add half cup of water, stir. Add the leaves. Cook for four-five minutes.
- Serve hot with steamed rice.
If you choose arbi, it needs to be boiled and peeled before cooking with the pork.