Guwahati: The racial discrimination that a Northeastern person faces in the nation’s capital New Delhi is a known affair. Nicholas Kharkongor, a film director and a writer from the Northeast, takes up these issues and twists it into a comedy yet meaningful movie titled ‘Axone’.
While the distinctive aroma of ‘Axone’, which is made from fermented soyabean, is liked by all, in the compact quarters of South Delhi’s Humayunpur, this smell brings in a recipe for disaster in Kharkongor’s upcoming film.
EastMojo had the opportunity to have a candid conversation with the director-writer who was in Guwahati as part of the recently-concluded 7th Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival 2019.
Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:
We have all seen the amazing trailer of Axone. So I would like to know about the creative process behind the movie. How did the idea of a movie on a theme like this come up?
So, I have been working in films for a while now and I wanted to make a Northeastern film that’s been on my mind for a long time. So, after the first film, I was thinking of how to approach it. And setting a film in the Northeast has a set of its own problems, especially if you are from Bombay [Mumbai] and approach your production house in Bombay [Mumbai] as well. So, I was thinking perhaps a film that was set in Delhi about the Northeasterns in Delhi would be more apt.
Talking about the Northeastern conditions, it would be about the Northeastern people living outside Northeast. Moreover, there is also a sizable population of Northeast in Delhi and since I have lived outside Northeast for a long time, so I thought this was something that I should get into. Getting the idea was not difficult because you know the whole thing of cooking something that smells a bit to your neighbours or your landlords or your friends is something very common in Delhi and Bangalore.
Since you are cooking dry fish or axone or something else there is always a stink to it, a stench to it. I mean we love the smell but others don’t and so that came easy. And once you have the crux of the idea then you develop it. Since, I am more a feature writer of feature films and so on, I just have to develop it and stretch it out.
How did you assemble the cast for the movie?
Again, for me it was easy to do a film set in Delhi because while it would be about the Northeastern conditions, it also allowed me to use actors from Bombay [Mumbai]. The landlady and the landlady’s son in-law — all these North Indian characters were all actors based in Bombay [Mumbai]. So, that was half the cast and the other half was Northeastern actors. That of course was going to be a problem because there are not too many Northeastern actors and trying to find a lot of them would be a problem. Of course we had some established northeastern actors like Lin Laishram who is in the movie. But there aren’t too many of them and we were looking at a bigger cast so that took a while. But it was something that needed to be done.
Can you tell us some off the camera issues or funny moments while filming Axone?
So we shot the film in Delhi and that too in June and July and I don’t know if you have been in Delhi around the time it is very hot. In fact, shoots do not happen in Delhi around those time for usually shoots happen before the summer and after the summer. There are shoots that happen during the summer but these are small shoots of a day or two but not a whole film on June and July. Because it’s crazy as the heat just makes it impossible and so you are left with fewer hours to work.
Moreover, everyone is strained for the fear of people passing out because of dehydration and whole other bunch of issues and all these played out because we shot during that time and so it was very crazy. There was one time when we shot the last sequence of the film where the marriage happened and coming together of all the characters which is festive and happening and it was shot for six days in a basement where there was no ventilation.
So, by the second day, there was very little oxygen at the end of the day because there was around 60-70 people there. It was super hot, there is no ventilation so people started passing out and falling sick and there were these regular trip to the hospital. Few of the actors including Lin had to be hospitalised and then they came back in these really sickly state and just before you say action they suddenly had to perk up. Since it was the last section of the film which was celebratory and fun and happening so that had to be happy and after we say cut they just fell back, ask for water. So that was crazy, it was tough for a lot of people.
National movies like yours highlighting issues of the region find ample viewership. However, regional movies that highlight the same issue often fail to get the same viewership in the region itself. Why do you think that is?
See you might think that ours is a national film but firstly it is an indie film as it doesn’t have those big Bollywood actors. It’s a national film in the way that it is from Bombay and it will have a pan India release but we will have a very small release. So it’s a difference of degree. So, if you have a film, a Yash Raj film which deals with racism it will have a much wider reach. We have not got to that stage yet but hopefully we will, but if we get there we will have a much wider reach. So, in the same way this film has a wider reach than a regional film and will get a wider reach than the regional ones but still not a large enough reach like a Yash Raj film. However, a Yash Raj film might not look into issues like racial discrimination like we do.
When inspiration is waning, when you feel creatively sapped, what do you do? How do you stay fresh?
I don’t know who is it that said, ‘Journalism is literature in a hurry, because if you have to file a report the next day you have no choice but to do it. So, discipline plays a huge part in the field of an artist. You can be an artist who is swayed by emotions and says ‘Oh I am going through three months of not being able to write’, etc, and I am sure these people are wonderfully talented too but I don’t wish for something like that for myself.
I am very disciplined and it has taken a lot of time for me to get to that stage for me it’s work and I love this work. So I may have a bad day or two but they are a few and far between. I start my work at 7.30 in the morning virtually every day those few hours are golden hours when I write and think but mostly think. So in that way it’s just work, a work you love and enjoy every day and I might have a few bad patches but mostly it’s just a daily affair.