At a time when the world is talking about race (#BlackLivesMatter) and India is talking about migrant labourers (#MigrantLivesMatter), as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is no surprise that a film like Axone, which in many ways deals with both issues, has struck a chord among netizens.

Premiering at the BFI London Film Festival last autumn and currently available on Netflix, Axone (pronounced ‘Akhuni’) stars Lin Laishram, Sayani Gupta, Dolly Ahluwalia and Vinay Pathak, among others. It is directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, who belongs to Mokokchung in Nagaland and has more than 25 years of filmmaking experience.

Axone is a story of a bunch of friends from Northeast India trying to organise a wedding party in mainland India, which involves cooking a pungent-smelling dish. The key ingredient in this much sought-after dish is called ‘Akhuni’, a type of fermented soya bean cake.

Though the film is categorised as a ‘comedy’ by IMDB, there is little comedy in it. The story is akin to Dante Alighieri’s classic poem Divine Comedy, which is a tragedy.

The tragedy of Axone is not really about the acting, script, direction or any of the other creative aspects. It is light, socially relevant, not-much-ado cinema – something that could very well fall in the Amol Palekar genre.

The tragedy of Axone lies in the way the it deals with the intersectionality of race and gender relations. Here too, the problem is not with the depiction of those relations. Kharkongor has astutely depicted the everyday racism and violence inflicted upon people from the Northeast by North India. They are disparagingly called ‘chinkis’ (an ethnic slur implying Chinese features), mocked for their customs, food habits, and even lifestyle.

“All of you look the same”, quips a North Indian uncle.

The racial relationship between people from the Northeast and mainland Indians is marked by a toxic vicious cycle. The latter throw racial slurs at the former and effectively treat them as ‘the other’, and when they retaliate with emotive phrases like “bloody Indians”, their nationalism and patriotism are put to scrutiny.

A North Indian funky kid who wants to have an ‘exotic’ Northeastern girlfriend (despite having a girlfriend, who is just ‘timepass’) asks, “you guys don’t think you are Indians”?

Source: YouTube

This is after he says ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers) in his attempt to gel in with his acquaintances from the Northeast.

Yet, they have either wasted a brilliant actor like Adil Hussain by not giving him a single dialogue or have perfectly used him to play the role of a prying hookah-smoking ‘old uncle’ who occupies a discreet corner of the neighbourhood, staring and judging everyone who whiles past. The line is very thin!   

Similarly, the sexual harassment faced by Northeastern women has been dealt with in a very critical manner, particularly the fact that it carries an additional component of racism. They are flagged ‘easy’, ‘available’, ‘slut’ and what not.

This racially compounded sexual harassment is not just confined to men (and women) from the upper or middle classes, but also among those who belong to the economically lower class. The makers have very poignantly captured the everyday life of people from the Northeastern states and the racial discrimination-cum-violence that they face.    

Perhaps the most tragic part of the movie is the ‘solution’ that it presents, albeit tangentially and subtly. The undoing of the story lies when the oppressor and the oppressed are placed on the same plank, which naturally leads to the proposition that the responsibility of not getting discriminated rests upon those who face discrimination, instead of upon those who discriminate.

Bendang (Lanuakum Ao), who was beaten by a group of mainlanders for his long hair, is reminded by Chanbi (Lin Laishram) that he did not do enough to integrate with the mainlanders, that he created his ‘own Northeast’ in Delhi. He is lectured to about how he did not make one single friend from ‘here’.

The racist North Indian ‘uncle’ who believes every person from the Northeast looks the same | Source: YouTube

Later Bendang sings a ‘Hindi’ song, which is meant to show his full integration with the dominant culture. It seems that evergreen Bollywood music has better potential to ‘integrate’ different communities into one single national community than anything else.

The problem here is not about the intention of the makers. Cinema, like literature, is a reflection of society. In the present times, cinema is very much influenced by the neoliberal worldview. The filmmakers have only tried to depict how racism and its solution are understood in the neoliberal era, which diminishes the role of the state from society and trivialises the concept of social justice by making the individual responsible for his or her betterment. 

James Carr in Experiences of Islamophobia: Living with Racism in the Neoliberal Era observes:

“The absence of state care means that those who are vulnerable to racism must become rational, calculating actors. Imbued with the neoliberal mentality of self-government, they must make calculated decisions on how they should care for themselves as individuals”.

In a neoliberal structure, the ‘individual’ is detached from society. In fact, as Margret Thatcher said, ‘there is no such thing as society’. This detachment means that a person is responsible for his or her wellbeing, thereby completely neglecting the socioeconomic and politico-cultural system of which they are part of. 

Discussing racism in neoliberalism, Carr makes a few more observations that perfectly fit with Axone‘s depiction of the issue. He writes:

”the valorisation of choice and self- responsibility [in Neoliberalism] is matched by the neoliberal rationale that any failure you may have is your fault, an output of your inadequacies. All failures are personal regardless of any structural bases that may underpin them, thus ‘absolving the government’ (and society) of responsibility for the mechanisms that maintain or could intervene to prevent social inequality. The primacy of the individual ‘depoliticises social and political relations by fragmenting collective values of care, duty, and obligation’. Your ‘failings’ are yours alone and the result of your ‘faulty character…Not only is one responsible for their own ‘faulty character’, but they are also responsible for their exposure to risk thus they must engage in a form of risk management …in keeping with the neoliberal ideology…experiences of racism are presented as being the result of the recipients’ own ‘faulty character’. If one is the bearer of racialised signifiers of ‘difference’, they should remove them… Individuals who experience racism must engage in a process of self-care based on their own rational analyses”

Thus, in the penultimate scenes, Bendang is reminded by Chanbi that it was his ‘faulty character’, that is, not having friends from mainland or not having integrated with people from ‘here’ that is responsible for the racist treatment that he faced. Thus, he should engage in a process of ‘self-care’, or in other words, attempt to integrate. The proposition is that he should affect behavioural changes.  

Axone is a classic example of the neoliberal understanding of racism, which is nothing but a mild version of victim-blaming. Today, when migrants in Europe and the United States are demonised and castigated for not doing enough to ‘integrate’ with the respective ‘national culture’ (which has contributed to the rise of fascist politics), the narrative around racism that Axone builds, unfortunately, falls in the very same racist trap that it tries to break.

Source: YouTube

But again, the problem is not with the filmmakers. The problem is the neoliberal ideology, which as David Harvey says “has become hegemonic as a mode of discourse.”

“It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world,” Harvey opines.    

The problem with Axone is that a mainland “racist” person watching the film will take back with him or her the notion that the problem lies with people from the Northeast because they do not attempt to ‘integrate’. That they should sing Hindi songs, talk in Hindi, and all will be well.

Views are the author’s own.

Harshvardhan is a PhD scholar in Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Featured image: A scene from the trailer of ‘Axone’ | Screenshot from YouTube