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.)

Shillong Sojourn

Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have no deep-rooted connection with Shillong. I didn’t study here for my school nor did I spend any time in my college years. Yet somehow, the city beckons me and I feel a sense of homeliness whenever I am here.

Legend has it that when the British first arrived here, its hills reminded them of Scotland and so it became to be that it was (and is still) called ‘Scotland of the East’. Regardless of how the moniker came to be, Shillong is a beautiful place.

The present day capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong served as the capital of undivided Assam under the Raj and continued to be so until 21 January 1972, when Assam moved its capital to Dispur.

Up until the early 2000s, Shillong was the educational hub of the Northeast of India. While newer schools across the region have eaten into this reputation, with schools and colleges like St Anthony’s, St Edmund’s and Assam Rifles Public School, Shillong continues to be a hot favourite among many parents and guardians.

I, myself have a number of friends who finished their formal education in the hallowed halls of some of the aforementioned institutes. And although I have no personal connection to Shillong, the city with its narrow lanes, black and yellow Maruti 800 taxis and kwai ladies, feels like home.

don-bosco-square-in-laitmukhrah

Don Bosco Square in Laitmukhrah.

Located at an altitude of 1,520 metres, Shillong enjoys a pleasant weather throughout much of the year but gets quite chilly during the winter months. Home to the Khasi people, the lingua franca of the Meghalaya capital is the Khasi language but English and Hindi are understood and spoken as well, aside from Garo, Jaintia and Assamese.

A popular destination amongst tourists from West Bengal, Assam and other north-eastern states, Shillong offers many options to visitors wishing to stick to the typical tourist trail. From Ward Lake to the Shillong Peak and the numerous waterfalls that pepper the city, there certainly isn’t any shortage of ‘tourist spots’ to visit. And while one must take in these places, the soul of Shillong really lies in its streets.

Walking around its narrow streets, it becomes evident that Shillong has major traffic issues. Small roads and too many cars mean that the streets are often packed to the hilt. Driving in Shillong itself is an art; one that the local taxi drivers have mastered well.

The main city is spread around an area of 10 square kilometres so obviously walking all the time is not an easy task. Taxis, either Maruti 800s or Altos, are a useful mode of travel within the city.

the-famous-black-and-yellow-taxis-of-shillong

The black and yellow taxis of Shillong.

Driving on half-clutch is pretty much standard fare and do not be surprised or scared if in the middle of your commute the taxi driver turns off the engine. Driving in neutral when going downhill to save fuel is practice as old as the city itself.

All over, whether in busy market places or the narrow back alleys of the city, one can see Khasi women wearing the traditional jainsem or dhara selling kwai– areca nut.

The Khasis, like the Garos and Jaintias of Meghalaya, are a matrilineal society and hence trace their lineage through the mother’s side of the family. Little surprise then that the women play an active role in the daily lives of the people.

Peeling away the skin of the kwai with their small and handy knives, the women (called kong which is Khasi for elder sister) may not appear to have all the worldly desires that engulf our lives but seem happier and content than most of us caught up in the web of ours.

Of course, where there is kwai there’s also chuna or slake lime which marks its presence all over the city’s walls.

a-chuna-smeared-pillar-in-shillong

A chuna smeared pillar.

Kwai is eaten pretty much the same way that paan is in that the nut is chunkier than the supari and does not contain any tobacco or other flavourings. The way to eat kwai is to simply wrap it in a betel leaf that has been smeared with chuna. What one will notice however, is that not all of the chuna is contained on the leaf alone as any excess slake lime is smeared on the closest wall. Therefore, the walls that line the streets often have white markings on them. They are not by design.

Kongs and kwai aside, Shillong is quite a busy city with the main shopping centres located in Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Laitumukhrah. Shops in these markets sell everything from branded apparel to ‘Bangkok goods’ to everything in between. And while new cafes and restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisine, no trip to Shillong can ever be complete without tasting the local Khasi dishes.

a-kong-seeling-kwai-is-taken-by-surprise

A kong selling kwai is taken by surprise.

Small eateries, colloquially referred to as jadoh stalls, are dotted all over the city. Jadoh is a rice and meat dish that can most closely be compared to the pulao. However, make no mistake, jadoh is very clearly an authentic Khasi dish often paired with dohjem (pork belly cooked with sesame seeds). If you are lucky you can also sample the dohshine, a blood sausage that is guaranteed to make a convert out of any apprehensive traveller.

Of course, while food is an integral part of any city and its culture, Shillong is much more than that. It takes a visit for its magic to charm you. Twenty years since I first started to visit the city, Shillong continues to charm me.

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Himalayan Pulse.