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.)

Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?