The arrival of Kharkhonger’s Axone on Netflix is aptly timed when the country is witnessing a new breed of racism towards the people of North East India. Racism targeted towards oriental Indians has been an everyday affair, but with the pandemic, it has transitioned to take a different turn. From ‘Chinky’ or ‘Momos’,they are now maligned as ‘Corona’.
Produced by Yoodlee Film, Kharkhonger’s movie is a social narrative projecting the subtle interplay of food, identity and racism. It has been seen that, a spate of reviews has accused the filmmaker of narrating filtered racism, made palatable for the mainstream viewers, rather than dealing with the bare truth. For many, instead of voicing awareness on racism faced by the Northeasterners, the movie is steeped in the didactic message calling out to mingle and assimilate with the mainstream culture. However it will be a churlish commentary to tag the movie as an apologist (of racism) for not confronting archetypal racism more brazenly. The movie should not be limited exclusively to racism. There are other narrative strands like food and identity which are also integral to the movie. It is as much of food and identity as it is about racism.
Food is at the heart of the movie. Every other thing hangs around it. Food manoeuvres every action and incident in the movie: the confrontation on the street while buying groceries (where Chanbi was physically assaulted by standing up to racist slur), an altercation at the apartment with the landlady and the neighbours for cooking Axone and the narration of Bendang (Lanuakum Ao) being severely assaulted at Lajpat Nagar all play out in the process of preparing the dish.
Set at Humayunpur, South Delhi, the film follows a group of friends planning to cook Axone (with pork) on one of their friend’s (Minam) wedding day. Axone (pronounced as Akhuni), made of fermented soya bean, has a pungent smell that may be unpleasant for those who are not familiar with the cuisine. Though, a popular delicacy among communities of Meghalaya and Manipur, the cuisine is predominantly considered a staple delicacy of the Sumi tribe of Nagaland.
Axone, derived from Sumi word ‘XO’ (Khu) means smell. The subtitle of the movie “Recipe for Disaster” also humorously supplements to the pungent aroma of the dish. While it downplays the cuisine as a disaster, it successfully establishes its distinct identity. By ridiculing the recipe, the authenticity or the uniqueness of the cuisine as an identity marker of the North East is sustained throughout the film.
The film opens to a tense and suspenseful mood as Upasana (Sayani Gupta), Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Zorem (Tenzin Dalha) go out to procure Axone in a secretly locked room atop a terrace. While they nervously tiptoe up the stairs, the man, surprisingly a north Indain selling the food, in the room is equally nervous as he opens the door for them and inspects if someone has noticed their arrival. The purchase of Axone is ironically compared to an eerie scene of drug smuggling or gangster transacting contraband in any popular movies.
The scene draws parallel to the suspicious eye or attitude that is attached to the cuisine/ food habits of the North-Eastern people. In her recent article “Corona’s Animal Connection”, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi writes- “In just Manipur alone there is a terrible market in a district called Tamenglong, where dogs, pangolins, snakes, bats, monkeys, and everything you can imagine, are sold daily.” It is fascinating for a Member of Parliament and that too an animal activist to cook up such unfounded rumour. If such comment is not appalling enough read the “Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi” (2007) issued by the Delhi Police. The directive mentions that a proper caution should be taken while preparing Northeast cuisines like Bamboo Shoots and Akhuni so as to avoid conflict / ruckus in the neighbourhood. It is ironical that cooking one’s choice of food has become a security issue and instead of upholding the marginalised section, the state legitimises such racial profiling.
Informed by incorrect sources or sometimes biased mainstream media houses, people from the region are often tagged as snake eater or every species that walk on the ground. Such stereotype goes even to the extent of associating them with cannibalism. Despite a good number of decent northeast restaurants or cafes have sprung up across Indian cities and the country being characterized by its intermingling of varied races, ethnic food from the North East have not made it into the mainstream culinary space till now. Sneha Saikia, a popular Assamese Chef based in Delhi, bemoans that -“It is very sad that even in this day and age, people of Delhi, are hesitant to try Northeastern cuisine. The ratio is very less who are keen to know more about our cuisine”. Such reluctance springs from the schematic notion that anything and everything that comes from the region is primitive and remote. Their initial plan to cook Axone was to surprise Minam on her wedding day, but confronted with many impediments Chanbi and Upasana, at one point, convince themselves that Minam can have her wedding even without Axone. However, in the process, their determination to cook Axone becomes more adamant and the intention evolved into something else. As Balamon (Marenla Imsong) asserts, “even if it kills us I think we should cook Axone today.” Her assertion foreshadows how the food and their identities are intertwined. Axon ceases to be merely food in its literal sense, but becomes an embodiment of who they are and what they are. Their tradition and history converge in the food. Most importantly, being out in the cities and away from home, this food is the little piece of their imaginary home and culture. The recipe is the only entity that stands out distinctly while every other aspect of their lives is integrated into the mainstream culture. It becomes a symbol of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’ and also a way to subvert the mainstream culture.
The film, though being slammed for being too soft on racism, Kharkhonger has taken a huge leap by introducing a mainstream movie with oriental faces. He admits it was a risky venture, but a much-awaited move. All in all the film is brilliantly done with an intelligent humour, putting together food, identity and racism at one pot and places Northeast cuisine at India’s table. It is now for the nation to decide whether to partake the food or remain aloof.