Hardly recognised in mainstream Indian cinema, this film gives voice to another type of Indian migrant experience…
AXONE is the name of a dish from North-east India and was also the title for a film that screened in the UK earlier this month.
A comedy, it’s scripted and directed by a north-easterner (as he refers to himself) – Nicholas Kharkongor.
The north eastern Indian states have a distinct identity of their own – and aren’t always readily identified as being Indian.
‘Axone’ had two screenings at the London Film Festival (LFF) and is very much a tale of these migrants – people moving from one part of India to another to live and work – and for some it reminded them of a time when Britain was a foreign place and they had moved from the subcontinent to build a better life here.
The film centres around a group of north-eastern migrants who want to cook the dish as part of wedding celebrations in Delhi – and it isn’t at all straightforward – therein lies the comedy.
Kharkongor explained the premise of his film: “The most common problem for north eastern Indians (in this case from Assam and Meghalaya, as referred to in the LFF guide), is trying to cook their traditional dish – whether it’s Axone or dried fish or finding a bunch of other ingredients that we have back home that tend to have a rather strong and pungent smell.
“Inevitably, you get into trouble with neighbours.”
The two screenings early on in the festival were marked by a relatable reaction, Kharkongor told us.
“We had full houses and the audiences stayed behind for the Q and As.
“It was a very multi-cultural audience not just an Indian diaspora.
“There were many who remarked about how similar it was to the Indian experience of living in the UK in the 1960s, when Indian curry was said to leave a stench and many Indians got into trouble with their neighbours for cooking Indian food.”
Who would ever have thought that in that in 1960s – rice and curry would be as ubiquitous as fish and chips today?
“And now it is the national dish – Cary Sawhney (London Film Festival programmer and moderator of the Q&A), remarked,” recounted Kharkongor.
The comedy also comes from being in an unfamiliar place and the locals not always understanding or appreciating certain differences.
“The film, at the end of the day, is about prejudices and the migrant and immigrant experience and those are themes that resonate with audiences worldwide,” revealed the director in an email exchange.
Comedy is a notoriously difficult film genre to pull off in India – Bollywood comedy is mostly slapstick and absurd (to western tastes), but hugely popular.
“It has a huge market,” Kharkongor conceded. “People seem to love the dumbed down variety of comedy.
“There is a smaller audience which is growing in size, where you can be comedic while still keeping it real.”
He likens the tone of his film to something like that of ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ – a drama with comic moments.
“This film is like that and while it worked quite well in London at the festival, it remains to be seen whether it will be appreciated by Indian audiences in the theatre.”
‘Axone’ also recently featured at the Mumbai Film Festival (Mami 2019).
While his last project (‘Mantra’ 2017) came about through crowd-funding, this one he pitched in a traditional way.
The bigger challenge was finding the right cast, he disclosed.
“There are very few north-easterners in Delhi (where ‘Axone’ is set) or Bombay (Mumbai) – because there are hardly any north-easterners in mainstream cinema.
“It took a very long time to find actors. We kept putting up posters in markets in Delhi and reaching out to local north-eastern tribal organisations.”
Whether the film will return to the UK or have any sort of further life on streaming or an Indian release remains to be seen – Kharkongor didn’t elaborate but he did tell us what he is working on next.
It will be a film about Nagaland – another north-eastern Indian state with a troubled political history.