Representing Northeastern states and their cultures in the mainstream and creating a space for actors from the region in Bollywood is a good start
When Mary Kom movie was in the making, the question of racism and representation came to the fore. Many articles were written on the politics of representation, and normalisation of othering in Bollywood and entertainment industry. Lin Laishram was being considered initially to play Mary Kom in a biopic on the ace Indian boxer from Manipur. However, the makers of the movie chose to toe the existing line under the pretext of making a commercial Bollywood movie and roping in Priyanka Chopra to play the lead character. The rest is history.
Bollywood is familiar with its treatment towards indigenous communities from the states of the Northeast region, thus enabling racism through the usage of slurs, and caricaturing them as savage, immoral, wild, and uncivilised.
Several years later, a movie named Axone about people from Northeastern states and directed by Nicholas Kharkongor was released on the popular OTT platform, Netflix, on June 12. The movie is an effort to present the everyday realities of communities from Northeastern states in metropolitan cities in India. He, as a Northeasterner from Nagaland himself, carries a rich experience of his stay in Delhi and elsewhere in India.
Yoodlee Films production is behind the movie, which aims to address the void in the mainstream film industry by casting all the major characters in the movie from the states of Northeast India. Casting actors like Lin Laishram from the region can be seen as an attempt to debunk the notion of a typical 'Indian' look in film industries like Bollywood.
The story of the movie follows the lives of communities from Northeast living in the Humayunpur village of south Delhi. It is aptly titled Axone (pronounced as a-khu-ni), a word rooted in Nagaland for fermented soya bean which is commonly used in cooking pork as pork axone. The movie picks up from how a group of friends scrambled round to prepare pork axone stealthily to celebrate one of their friends’ wedding as a surprise. However, they run into trouble with landlords and neighbours as the aroma from cooking the dish tickles the nostrils of people in the vicinity and brings out their instant stereotypical responses to the unknown bordering around racism.
For a section of people from Northeast where axone is part of their food culture, its aroma in places like Delhi evokes a sense of home in a far-off place. In the backdrop of the movie, the story also toucheds upon the case of racism faced by one character named Bendang. Kharkongor infuses trauma and fear psychosis into experiencing racism, a situation that is relatable to people from Northeastern states living in other cities. Bendang’s experience bears a similarity to Nido Tania’s case in Delhi where he succumbed to death from racist attacks in the year 2014.
Through pork axone, the movie deals with racism, and identity of communities from northeastern states. It tries to locate situations of people of northeastern states in places like Delhi and brings forth their realities. The movie will connect with people from the region who once stayed or are currently staying far away from home across India, for it speaks about their everyday experiences, inconveniences, and negotiations.
Axone, in addition to its focus on racism and how people from northeastern states try to find a space to be themselves through the act of cooking pork axone, also brings out another narrative which suggests that a sense of belongingness and home can be created in any place far away from homeland by blending into the mainstream culture.
This takeaway comes off contradictory to how an act of cooking pork axone is seen as a search to carve a space to assert one’s identity. In a metropolitan city, one can be far from home and practise one’s culture and identity (maybe one at a time in a gradual manner through the involvement of everyone). That way, diverse identities, and cultures can be retained, preserved, and practiced in metros without finding the need to compromise by trying to fit into the dominant culture.
The viral video of Lin Laishram in the recent past where she was falsely painting the term ‘mayang’ as racist is seemingly a continuation of the part of the movie in trying to blend into mainstream culture. Mayang is a term used by Manipuri to identify people who are not from Manipur; the term is not induced with power and its dynamics unlike how historically powerful group stereotypes the racial other. Terms like firangi, gora, angrezi, etc, to identify white people by Indians can be taken up in this misplaced notion of racism. Race, as it has been known, is a social construct while racism is a real operating with institutional supports, power, and privilege.
The movie, though very noble in putting forth the realities of people from northeastern states and their experiences, falters flatly in its attempt to put forth racism in a time when #BlackLivesMatter and coronavirus related racism are happening. Rather it tries to fit into the mainstream culture without the embodiment of one’s community identity. Racism is a reality that continues to haunt and traumatize people from northeastern states since colonial times as per written records. Representative politics is not a sole answer to end racism, decolonisation needs to be brought in, and work towards 'power-sharing'.
Representing Northeastern states and its cultures in the mainstream platform, and carving a space for actors from the region in Bollywood is a good start. That said, in a movie on racism, the chance to present the perspective of people from the Northeast is gone sooner than the aroma of axone. The crux of the movie is about seeking validations to be accepted and assimilated into a place far from home.
(Richard Kamei is a PhD candidate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed are his own)