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‘Axone’ and food politics in Indian cinema

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 18, 2020 Published on June 18, 2020

Unfamiliar flavours: A still from Axone. For the people of the North-East, fermented axone stands for the world they have left behind

Films often choose to highlight differences through the motif of food and ‘Axone’, streaming on Netflix, is just the latest

The setting is Humayunpur, a Delhi neighbourhood with a significant populace from various parts of north-east India. Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Upasana (Sayani Gupta) are cooking smoked pork with axone (fermented soya beans, pronounced “ah-khuni”). It’s their friend Minam’s wedding day and they want to surprise her with her favourite dish. Soon, the strong and distinctive smell of fermented food reaches their bigoted Punjabi landlady (onscreen granny Dolly Ahluwalia, hamming it up gleefully), who immediately orders them to stop cooking, reminding them that she had rented her house on the condition that they’d not cook badboo waala khaana (smelly food).

This early scene sets up Axone, a feel-good dramedy on the experiences of young people from the North-East residing in Delhi. Currently showing on Netflix, the film, directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, is essentially a well-intentioned, earnestly performed story with its heart in the right place.

But it has to be said that the story’s optimism is ultimately misguided — in the softer world inhabited by these characters, systemic racism is ‘solved’ by a quick heart-to-heart, by strumming the guitar to a saccharine Hindi song; and yes, by a hot traditional meal shared with friends (or even recent acquaintances). As real-life immigrants from the North-East know, things rarely click into place that easily.

The fermented axone stands for the world that the people of the North-East have left behind. It is unfamiliar — and even foul-smelling — to a city like Delhi, and has to be cooked covertly. Indian cinema has served enough examples down the years that make this divide among people amply clear — especially through representations of food politics.

Food fit for kings

In a flashback sequence from Baahubali: The Beginning (2015), we see how food is used as a faux-equaliser of hierarchies, a largely symbolic gesture that whitewashes socio-economic disparities — it is important to note that both the inequality and the symbolic gesture are part of the ruling class’s design. We see the young prince Mahendra Baahubali watching his bodyguards seated underneath a tree, eating unspecified “simple food” off leaf-plates, led by their war-weathered chief Kattappa, whose family has for generations been bonded in servitude to the king of Mahishmati (the fictional kingdom Baahubali is set in). Mahendra goes up to Kattappa and demands that the old man share his plate with him. Kattappa refuses, insisting that this wasn’t “food fit for kings”; it was intended for the slaves, and to the slaves it shall go. Mahendra, however, insists on eating the food, addressing Kattappa as “mama” (uncle), for good measure.

This is too much for the soft-hearted Kattappa — tears welling up in his eyes, he feeds the young prince with his own hands as rousing, heroic music plays in the background. Kattappa’s deputies smile; this is a prince unlike all the others, a just, egalitarian leader.

Except when you consider the fact that Mahendra (or any other member of his family, for that matter) does absolutely nothing to improve the lives of these people in the slightest. If anything, the warmongering ways of Mahishmati get these soldiers killed in progressively gruesome ways through the course of the film. But, hey, the king shared a plate with his slave-warrior — and, just like that, the caste system is dead, long live the king!

An even more extreme example of such misplaced righteousness happens in Ronit Roy’s Rice Plate, one of the 10 shorts that made up the 2007 anthology film Dus Kahaaniyan. A thoroughly bigoted woman (Shabana Azmi, in quite possibly the single worst thing she’s done) accidentally shares a plate of rice with a Muslim man (Naseeruddin Shah) at a railway platform hotel; she’s convinced it’s actually her plate when it isn’t. When she realises that the man had actually shared his own plate with her (and merely smiled as she yelled at him), she miraculously overcomes decades of social conditioning and ossifying bigotry — and lo! We find her sharing a train berth happily with a Muslim family.

Of course, the film’s over-the-top nature and clumsy metaphors make a little more sense when you consider the fact that Rice Plate was an unauthorised adaptation of The Lunch Date, a subtle, stylishly shot (in black-and-white, for obvious reasons) and vastly superior 1989 American short film about racial prejudice. Not all foods lend themselves to Indianisation. Context is not just vital, it’s everything.

In recent years, of course, India has seen beef vigilantism claiming the lives of its own Muslim citizens — a 2017 Reuters report estimated 24 Muslim men were killed between 2010 and 2017 in such incidents. Over the past three or four years, there have been several depictions of this violence in Indian films and TV. In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2017), it’s a Dalit man who’s thrashed into a coma by a Brahmin politician’s goonsfor consuming what they said was beef (it was actually mutton). Most recently, the Amazon Prime Video series Paatal Lok featured a scene where a Hindu woman is repulsed by her skullcap-wearing Muslim co-passenger eating meat — we see her first throwing up and then refusing the water offered by the ‘unclean’ Muslim. She creates a scene and a mob assembles on the platform, eventually thrashing the man to death.

The ‘purity’ paradigm that Paatal Lok utilises simply but effectively is an old, old one for Indian society in general and Bollywood in particular. It continues to be a popular gambit — in Padmaavat (2018), the cruel Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) tears into a large slab of meat with visible relish. In Tanhaji (2020), Udaybhan (Saif Ali Khan), the ‘Muslim-coded’ Hindu warrior (works for the Muslim emperor, wears kohl in his eyes) also consumes meat with a similar joie de vivre.

The long list

If you consider Bollywood in the 1990s, however, both Padmaavat and Tanhaji are put to shame. In N Chandra’s Tejasvini (1994), Amrish Puri’s villainous character Lala Khurana is fond of saying, “Main khaata hoon vegetarian aur kaam karta hoon non-vegetarian (My diet’s vegetarian, my actions non-vegetarian),” thus bifurcating mankind into good people and non-vegetarians. Hogi Pyar Ki Jeet (1999) goes several steps further and gives us an entire scene where the noble Brahmin character Surjit (Anil Dhawan) is humiliated by the cabal of evil non-vegetarians, led by Thakur Gajendra Singh (Mohan Joshi). Surjit’s sister and Gajendra’s brother are in love but Gajendra will only bless the union if Surjit agrees to consume alcohol and meat in front of his friends.

And so we have the humiliation tableau in play — tears flowing freely from his eyes, Surjit takes off his janeu (Brahminical sacred thread) and consumes the meat and alcohol, but not before begging for mercy. “Main shudh shaakahari hoon (I am a ‘pure’ vegetarian),” he pleads in vain. When you think about films such as Tejasvini and Hogi Pyar Ki Jeet being the norm just 20-odd years ago, it’s no surprise that, even today, the most meaningful, subversive conversations around this topic are coming from film-makers working outside of the Bollywood system. In Bhaskar Hazarika’s Assamese-language film Aamis (2019), for example, an attraction develops between an anthropology student Sumon (Arghadeep Baruah) and an older, married paediatrician Nirmali (Lima Das), helped along by their mutual love of meat-eating. Unable to confess his feelings to Nirmali and aware that nothing can happen between them because she’s married, Sumon does something unusual — he gets a veterinarian friend to slice off a chunk of flesh from his thigh. He cooks his own flesh and serves it to her without disclosing the source. The scene where she finds out is the film’s most important one, an immensely subtle moment that understands the trappings of orthodox Assamese society (although the scene would’ve worked just as well for any other Indian setting).

Bite-sized feeling: In Aamis, an attraction between an anthropology student and an older, married paediatrician is helped along by their mutual love of meat-eating

 

Nirmali storms out of the restaurant they’re sitting in, intending to vomit. But as she hunches over the side of the road, willing herself to throw up, she realises that there’s no point feigning disgust; she smiles instead. She tells him that she understands why he did it — he wanted to be inside her so badly, but the usual way was off the menu. Food and sex thus get tangled up in a political mesh, like in the Boston Legal episode ‘Fine Young Cannibal’, where Alan Shore (James Spader), representing a man who ate his friend to avoid literal starvation, says, in his best bedroom voice, “Just imagine, two consenting adults, savouring each other’s flesh...”

Aamis also reminds us that no amount of ‘small rebellions’ (such as Nirmali and Sumon’s regular hangouts, already viewed suspiciously) is likely to change the status quo. This is a sentiment that Axone would have done well to remember, for Kharkongor’s film makes a strange victim-blaming leap in its last 20-odd minutes. We see Bendang (Lanuakum Ao) being repeatedly approached by Shiv aka Hyper (Rohan Joshi, not the comedian of the same name), an irritating Punjabi teenager from the neighbourhood, who tries to initiate a conversation in vain. By this point, we know that Bendang almost died after a vicious racist assault by a group of men in Lajpat Nagar — and that something is about to give. Sure enough, Bendang screams at Shiv, calling him a “bloody Indian”.

Backstories

Surprisingly, Bendang becomes the villain of this piece, as we see a scared Shiv wondering, “Do you guys not see yourselves as Indian?” At this point, one is prepared for a well-meaning, slightly clunky speech about how India turned its back on the North-East when it wasn’t outright brutalising it with draconian laws such as the AFSPA — such a speech would be the predictable narrative outcome, yes, but it would also be grounded in truth. Instead, Chanbi turns on Bendang and lectures him about how “most of the people here (in Delhi) treat us well” and how Bendang “doesn’t even have one friend from here (Delhi) after all these years”. Given that Bendang’s story is based on the real-life 2014 murder of 20-year-old Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh (who, unlike Bendang, did not survive his Lajpat Nagar assault), there’s a chance that Chanbi scolding Bendang will be read as victim-blaming or ‘both-sides’-ism (arguments along the lines of ‘there was wrongdoing on both sides’). She even berates him for creating a “little North-East” for himself in Humanyupur — doubly surprising, this, when you consider the largely affectionate way the area has been shot throughout the film’s first half.

There’s also the small matter of Shiv’s fetish for women from the North-East, something that he doesn’t hide at all. And, yet, he’s ‘the good mainlander’, as opposed to just about everybody else the group comes across in Delhi. Not surprisingly, most reviewers who do not belong to the North-East have showered praises on the film. The few voices of dissent all come from North-East commentators. As we said earlier, context is everything. A plate of smoked pork with axone (perhaps at Humanyupur’s own Mizo Diner) can solve many things, but systemic racism isn’t one of them.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 18, 2020
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