The lingering impact of Axone

Let’s get this straight out the gate: Tenzin Dalha does not sound nor looks like most Mizo friends I went to school with and whom I hung out with during my time in Delhi.

Sayani Gupta, while she may look the part, is unable to properly capture the ‘typical’ North Bengal Nepali accent; if that was ever the aim.

And as a person from Arunachal Pradesh who has been having conversations with friends for the last 24 hours, there is one plot-point in the film that seems to have many vying for the director’s blood.

Right from the moment when the trailer for Axone first dropped, I did not come across any person from the Northeast of India who was not excited by it and was not looking forward to watching it.

Finally, there will be representation of people who make up around four percent of the country’s population on celluloid.

For people who have been on the receiving end of racism for years in all its forms from systematic to the casual on the city streets of Delhi or the office spaces of Bangalore, it was heartening to learn that a film has been made where they can physically and culturally identify with the main cast of characters.

As happy as I personally was, I had my apprehensions in the beginning.

“Why is a Bengali woman playing a Nepali (or is it a Gurkha) character,” I found myself asking myself, my friends, and on one occasion, the director himself.

Nicholas Kharkongar is a director from Shillong who has made a name for himself over the last few years in the film festival circuit.

Last year at the Nagaland Film Festival in Kohima, I had the chance to meet him and ask him why he chose to cast Gupta for the role.

His reasons were a few but most notably that he still had to ‘sell’ the idea of such a film to the studios and would have needed an established name.

“Also, you can’t say that Sayani does not look the part of a Nepali girl,” Kharkongar had told me back then.

I had to agree that Gupta indeed did look the part, and certainly much more than Priyanka Chopra (Piggy Chops) did as Mary Kom.

‘Geetanjali Thapa’, I thought but let it slide. The idea still did not settle firmly with me but it was one that I was willing to go along with.

By now, a number of people have watched the film, the reviews are out, and hence the basic plotline is public knowledge. Inevitably, people have come out with their criticism of the film.

In complete honesty, when the film’s trailer dropped, I was not expecting a cinematic masterpiece along the lines of Selma, Malcom X, or The Birth of a Nation.

It was evident from the trailer what the tone of the movie was going to be. This was not going to be a dark film with a heavy subject at its core. It was, from the get-go, going to be a comedic take on a serious matter.

Could it have been made better? I’m no expert but, heck, Citizen Kane could have had a better story, and yet it’s hailed as the greatest film of all time. And with good reason too.

Citizen Kane was so innovative in its filming techniques that every movie that has come out since then has been shaped by it. (Watch this video to understand the importance of Citizen Kane.)

Even with its straightforward plot, Citizen Kane is celebrated for the impact it has had on cinema.

We can nitpick over smaller flaws in Axone, of course. And as film lovers, we should take issues with it and flag issues as we would with any other movie and as such should be criticised on the basis of the overall plotline, character development, technical aspects, and other such matters.

But Axone is not ‘just another film’.

I never completely understood why Black Panther was nominated for an Oscar or why it won all those awards it did the year after it was released. Its story, action sequences, cinematography, music score, visual effects, etc were at par with any other films that Marvel Studios has churned out from its assembly line over the years.

Yet, I understood its cultural significance on American cinema and psyche. To have an almost entirely all-Black cast was/is significant.

One can make the same argument for Crazy Rich Asians.

Apart from being an all-Asian cast, the movie was like most romantic comedies. It wasn’t bad, per se, but this was not a film that approached the genre in the most nuanced manner.

But, here we were. The joy of Asian-Americans seeing faces they can identify with on the big screen must have been overwhelming for many.

Of course, as majorities in our home states and minorities in another, we may not feel the same emotions not having lived the African-American or the Asian-American experience (until someone spoon-feeds the perspective to us and excavates the jingoistic nature of Indianess that has been drilled into our minds through textbooks).

Films are art, and art can never be viewed on its own. Art must be contextual. The context here is representation. Having faces from the Northeast (okay, okay, a Bengali woman and a Tibetan man too) shown on cinema is the context here.

This is a film that needs to be viewed in its larger social, cultural, and even political context of what it means to finally have more than one actor from the region across the screen in a film on a global platform like Netflix.

Axone may not open the doors wide open for actors from the region in mainstream cinema nor will it necessarily usher in larger representation on screen (TV ads where the only Northeast characters are not beauty parlour attendants or call centre reps).

But one can hope that it has allowed us to put our foot on the door and keep it open. Like the smell of the dish, one can hope its impact lingers.

PS: It would seem remiss to not point out to the anger that has been visible across Arunachali Facebook. It is regarding the wedding that takes place remotely over Skype. While most have pointed out that it is not practiced in their tribe, it is something that can best be verified by cultural keepers, our shamans, cultural historians, et al.

If it happens, the director obviously took artistic license and made some changes. Whether that was a wise move since cultural representation is a touchy subject and can ruffle feathers when not approached authentically, is up for debate.

That aside, what many seem to have taken an issue with (but not outrightly saying it in plain language) is what is apparently being ‘implied’ by that wedding scene that if the bride is not present it is OK to wed the sister.

Since art is subjective, it’s fair to say that oftentimes people see in artworks what they want to see. Our interpretation of art is often a window into our own minds.

Axone is streaming on Netflix.

(A small portion of the article has been updated.)

Colossal and the demon in me

A few weeks back I caught the Anne Hathaway-starrer, Colossal, and identified with it in a way that I least expected.

Colossal poster

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t watched the film yet but wish to, you should probably not read any further.

OK, with the mandatory spoiler alert warning set aside, let us begin.

Basic premise: The movie begins with Hathaway’s character, Gloria, coming home in the morning to her boyfriend after what was an alcohol-fuelled night out with her friends. Apparently, this has happened too many times in the past and her boyfriend, Tim, has her stuff packed and tells her to leave. Is this a break or a break-up? I don’t know and honestly who really does?

I mean, what does it even mean to be on a break? Or on a break-up? Does a break-up ever leave anyone feeling ‘up’?

I digress.

Gloria takes her things, moves back to her hometown where she grew up, moves into her parents’ old home that is now empty, and quickly runs into Oscar (portrayed brilliantly by the funny Jason Sudekis), somebody she went to school with.

After his father’s death, Oscar has been running the family bar where he takes Gloria in for a few drinks where he introduces her to his two friends, Garth and Joel.

During the course of the night, it becomes evidently clear that Gloria is kinda attracted to Joel, who happens to be a nice enough guy but someone who won’t really be able to hold an intelligent conversation for too long. But who am I to judge?

As one would expect, Joel tries to make a move on Gloria and for some reason, she pulls away. The timing is bad for Joel since that is when Oscar happens to walk back from the bar and to the table and sees Gloria backing out.

Now, I don’t know what the director and the script writer had in mind when they wrote that scene in but in my interpretation, Oscar isn’t too thrilled about his friend hitting on the girl whom he clearly likes. With men who hold themselves to a silly code of honour, not hitting on someone his friend likes is a no-go zone. Perhaps that’s what Oscar thought, I don’t know.

Anyway, after a night of drinking, at around 8.05 in the morning, Gloria gets out of the bar and begins making her way home. On her route is a park where she strolls around for a while before falling asleep on a bench. She then wakes up and heads home to sleep some more.

Around nine hours later, she wakes up to a call about some mysterious event on the other side of the world- a giant monster towering above skyscrapers has shown up in Seoul, South Korea, out of the blue making weird gestures. As she watches the news reel videos of the giant monster on TV, Gloria realises that she shares a connection with the monster halfway across the world and her actions are reflected by the creature.

Doesn’t take a genius to realise that this physical imitation of Gloria’s actions are also meant to be metaphorical- as the monster’s movements across Seoul leaves in its wake a trail of destruction, killing people and levelling skyscrapers -much the same way that her alcoholic ways damages her relationships and leaves a debris of dust behind her.

Did I see the parallels to Gloria’s behaviour to my own self-destructive pattern that has dominated my life for almost a year, now? Absolutely.

Whether individualists like me like it or not, people around us are affected by our actions. As much as we may wish for that to not happen, the actions of ours do end up impacting our families, friends, former friends, haters, lovers, and the ilk.

Our actions have a ripple effect, and the ripples do not just run linear or inwards- there are collateral damages.

What happens unfortunately is that for some of us, that pressure of knowing that our actions impact others only makes us spiral deeper into the rabbit hole.

I am an alcoholic.

I may have said this before but earlier I drank for no reason; now I have many. Am I making an excuse? Most likely, yes.

It would be nice to have our actions not have consequences but that’s not how the world works. But must we conform to every way that the world wants us to?

I am an alcoholic.

A couple of nights ago during a night filled with alcohol, rage, tears, and some misguided behaviour, I lost my little messenger bag which contained everything I had- my phone, power bank, watch, an external hard drive filled with films, and a wallet that contained little to no money but all my ID cards; for a few days I had no identity, so to speak.

It isn’t the loss of “things” that left me upset. No, it was the idea of what the incident represented that had my heart and head aching- why is this happening?

My wallet contained very little cash and ATM cards for banks accounts that had a total of 723 rupees in them. Meaning, I lost very little in terms of tangible value. What I did lose were two photographs of memories of what once was and what will probably never be.

Not to sound too self-serving or self-pitying, but I’ve been trying to pick the pieces of my life for about 12 months now in the most unhealthy of ways- drowning in alcohol. The morning after (and since) that night, I’ve asked myself several times- how low and how many times must I fall before I learn to rise up and walk?

I wish to confront the monster inside me in the same manner that Gloria did in the film when she flies out to Seoul and faces another robotic monster, and in a way faces her own inner demon.

In the final scene of the film, we see Gloria, having conquered her demon so to speak, enter a bar and order water. It seems like the moment when she has finally defeated her monster when the bartender puts a beer in front and she pulls a face.

The film’s director, Nacho Vigalondo, explained it best when he said: “I think it would be too cynical if she drinks again, and it would be too naïve if she prefers not to drink. The thing is when you’re dealing with addictions, I want to make something that people suffering an addiction can relate to and can understand. Sometimes in a movie when people stop drinking or stop taking drugs, or stop having a bad habit just because, that sounds really, really [neat]. So I have to leave the door open, because it’s not that easy.” (sic)

That’s the thing: many of us when we are damaging ourselves and wish to do something about it but not all of us can quit cold turkey. The intent is there, the action, not always.

Of course, we’ve all heard it more often than not that words and intent mean nothing if they don’t translate into actions. That the intent does not matter and only the actions do. But can every action in life be seen through those lenses? That the intent is inconsequential and the action is what matters? Are the two detached? Is my monster simply a manifestation of one aspect of my personality or perhaps, deep down, that is just who I am?

Rotten Tomatoes review: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/colossal/

 

Silver screen memories: How the reopening of a theatre is much more than that

Kipa Takum and his friends had just won the inter-class cricket tournament in 1999 when he made his last visit to National Cinema Hall here.

“My friends and I had come to see Baadshah,” he says. Having walked more than 10km to watch the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer back then, it was only natural that Takum, who is now a councillor in Itanagar municipality, was excited to be present at the reopening of the hall on Friday that incidentally was showing Khan’s latest, Fan.

National Cinema Hall first opened four decades ago in 1974. It was the first, and for a long time, the only movie theatre in Arunachal Pradesh. The cinema hall was built by Yimar Riba and premiered its first film on December 27, 1974. Earning his education in Basar, then Shillong (St Edmund’s) and later Jawaharlal Nehru College in Pasighat, Riba (who passed away in 2001) was a visionary and a notable figure in his community.

Not only did he open the first cinema hall in the capital, then called Youth Cine Enterprise, he was also secretary of the first Mopin celebration committee in the capital in 1975. “The hall was made from bamboo back then,” said his daughter and present director of the hall, Marbom Mai. There are 332 seats for different ticket prices and even 3D films can be shown, she added. A far cry from when it first opened its doors.

Filmmaker Taro Chatung fondly recalls that he would often frequent the hall and that he wasn’t alone as the highest dignitaries kept him company back then. “I remember (lieutenant governor) K.A.A. Raja and (chief minister) P.K. Thungon coming to the hall to watch films back then,” he said.

Another noted filmmaker, Moji Riba, remembers visiting the place countless times and that the last film he saw at National was Roja. “That song…tum miley…,” he recalls.

Once the go-to place for young and old in the capital, the hall slowly fell into disuse as it became difficult for it to compete with the growth of video halls and the advent of DVDs. “There were times when the hall would be practically empty,” says Dominic Tok, a college professor here. A regular cinephile, Tok lived through the highs and lows of the hall.

“We went every time relatives from the village came to town,” he says, adding that he had seen countless films, not just Bollywood movies but Hollywood ones as well, dubbed in Hindi of course.

In fact, Tok saw the last film that was screened in the hall on that fateful day in August 2007. “It was some B-grade English film,” he says and that the last “good film” he saw there was Anaconda, again, dubbed in Hindi.

“The seats were mostly empty during those last days,” he says.

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Cine-goers queue outside during the reopening.

Mai says she was unable to look after its upkeep since she was still in college back then and could only direct her attention to it when she returned for her holidays. “It became difficult to look after it, especially since new digital technology had affected the markets even in Lakhimpur and Tezpur in Assam by then,” she says. The old projector which played 35mm reel films had become obsolete.

Filmmakers are naturally delighted with the reopening. Chatung says local filmmakers can benefit greatly from it. “What is the use of making films if there is no place to show them?” he asks. Moji hopes that slots can be provided to show films by filmmakers from the state. “Profits may be less but the contribution to society and to art will be immense,” he says.

The Rolex Award winner is also delighted on a personal front. “It’s heartwarming to see an icon from a bygone time coming back to life bringing with it fond memories of a time and town that was far less complicated,” he says, adding that “It’s wonderful that some things will remain constant”.

Echoing that sentiment, at the entrance of the now refurbished hall stands the old projector, an exhibit of an uncomplicated era.

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The old 35 mm projector stands as an exhibit and reminder of a bygone era.