The movie Axone, released 12th June 2020 on Netflix was a flick much awaited by the Northeastern population of India. With hardly any representation in mainstream Bollywood, a film with an all North-Eastern Indian cast was something that most of us had high hopes for. The director, Nicholas Kharkongor, does a good job in highlighting the hubs of the North-Eastern Indian population and the racism they face on a daily basis. It’s a simple story that weaves itself through a timeline of a single day – perhaps a way to show the depth of the problem that exists in mainland India. Though Axone was mostly praised and well-received by social media, my personal opinion is that this was because not everyone knew about the problematic undertones of this movie except mostly the North-East Indian population. ‘Axone’, the much-awaited movie which had stimulated the interest of many nation-wide falls short on several high expectations.
As soon as I completed watching Axone I wasn’t sure what baffled me more: the number of lazy assumptions about the Indian- Nepali speaking community or the misrepresentation of one’s race and food habits which was just plain ignorant. I believe that the movie deserves plaudits for including Nepalis and our own trivialised marginalisation and struggles both at the hands of North East and mainland India, and addresses casual racism and the causes of alienation. There are a lot of things that did not sit well with me and its negligence on our part will underpin such erroneous misrepresentation as part of our already existing complex nature of identity and culture.
The first misconception I would like to address is that Upasana Rai (the Nepali protagonist played by Sayani Gupta) mentions that Nepalis don’t cook Axone. One question that arises here is that if they mentioned that Nepalis don’t cook it then why was Upasana so keen on cooking it? The portrayal was extremely displeasing and piquing. Wasn’t there another way to subtly portray Nepalis as trying too hard to fit in the North East crowd?
Axone known as ‘Kinema’ is an ethnic food of the Kirat community, mainly Limbus and Rais and in fact, these communities have a centuries-old tradition of its fermentation. Ironically, the most amusing part of Axone was that a ‘Rai’ character incorrectly stated that Nepalis don’t cook it. So Axone, in fact ridiculed and discredited centuries-old food culture of the Nepali and particularly, the Kirat Community.
Moving forward, the biggest blunder that Axone committed was casting a non-Mongolian looking actress to play the character of a woman whose ethnicity is ‘Rai’. I personally ween that a movie which is only just about two hours long can’t carry the burden of pondering deep into the complexities of race and identity because ‘North-East’, as opposed to the mainland imagination of being a singular category, is a homeland to a large number of culturally diverse tribes and ethnic groups. However, the character of Upasana Rai leaves distasteful evidence of how little research has been done at the filmmaker’s part to flesh out a Nepali character.
The nature of identity politics in the Nepali community is complex be it in the country of origin i.e Nepal or in the case of Indian- Nepali speaking community in Sikkim or Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal or the sparsely scattered Nepali communities nationwide. I will now address why choosing ‘Rai’ as a typical Nepali girl was inappropriate to showcase Nepalis in general. I can only provide a brief outline on the subject of race which is as intricate as it is vast, in the case of the Nepali community.
There are distinct groups of Nepalis –
i) The Khasas: Indo-Iranian: Chettri and Bauns with 100s and more of surnames under them who are migrants from India, who formed the Nepali nation-state and introduced the Nepali language.
ii) Janatis: Sino-Tibeto-Burmanese: They are Sherpas and Tamang who migrated from parts of Tibet; Rais and Limbus who are more Sinic and whose ancestry and migration is linked to China; Gurungs and Mangars are a mix of Burmese and Tibetid people. Each tribe has its own distinct culture and language
iii) Newars and Tharu: Newars are a mix of Indo-Iranian and Sino-Tibetan people whereas Tharus are a mix of Tibeto-Burmese and tribal people of North Indian plains.
In case of Nepalese from Nepal, they equate their nationality to citizenship rates than ethnicity and in case of Indian-Nepalis, it is just the linguistics that identifies them as ‘Nepalis/Gorkhas’ because they speak in Nepali despite belonging to different caste or ethnic groups. This background of ethnicity is referred to here, to highlight that ‘Rais’ belong to the Mongolian race and are one of the most Mongolian-looking ethnic groups in the Nepali community. So what were the makers of Axone thinking while casting a non-Mongolian looking actress to portray a character of Mongolian race?
Sayani Gupta surely wasn’t an exemplary person to be cast as a Rai character in Axone given that it is a Mongoloid race which beholds physical traits like small eyes, small nose and round faces. Although her features are very close to that of Khas Nepalis of Aryan origin but that again, does not justify that the makers miserably failed to distinguish between the Mongolian Nepalis and the Nepalis of Aryan origin. The fallacious portrayal and misrepresentation based on their appearance was highly inaccurate and misleading and a disgrace to the Rai community.
It is also to be reiterated that when the film prescribes to the notion that Nepalis do not look like a person from the ‘North-East’ – it could imply that Nepalis are not subjected to the same racial experiences and discrimination. It erases the history of violence and racial discrimination that the Nepalis are subjected to, in mainland India.
Please do not misunderstand me – I have nothing against Bengalis (Sayani Gupta is a Bengali) and this is also not to instigate hate against the Bengali community, but given the power dynamics between the mentioned communities, the casting of a Bengali actress as a Nepali in Axone has hurt the sentiments of many Indian-Gorkhas. This takes us back to the century-old identity struggle for Indian Gorkhas, in the context of which, the Bengali bhadraloks have time and again asserted power over our fellow Nepalis. The imposition of Bengali language on non-Bengali speaking communities in West Bengal can be cited as one of the recent examples of the power monologue.
Meanwhile, one needs to understand the different pattern of migration that has already happened in the series of histories of the Northeast region. In Axone, Nepalis have been spoken of as “outsiders” multiple times and to my understanding, the mention of ‘outsider’ is related to the anti-Nepali sentiments which had grown during the historic Assam Movement which was predominantly against Bangladeshi migrants but soon, Nepalis were also included in the anti-foreigner discourse. This sentiment soon extended to other North-Eastern states where it quickly turned into direct and violent attacks on Nepalis leading to ethnic cleansing. Looks like the makers carried along with them the Anti-Nepali sentiments in Axone as well and instead, ended up generalising and reinforcing such sentiments towards all Nepalis.
The Nepali character’s lack of relatability to the community was further underscored by her laughably unrealistic, cringe-worthy Nepali accent and tone. Chanbi and Minam were such strong and impressive characters. Where on one hand Minam was attempting to crack the civil service exam and on the other hand, Chanbi was portrayed as diligent and career-oriented. Meanwhile, Upasana was projected as naive and simple, only waiting for a man to come and marry her. Dear makers of Axone, Nepali women need not be othered from empowerment. This is very similar to how Nepali characters in Hindi Cinema have historically been typecast as either a ‘Darwan’ or a victim of trafficking. Axone betrays a decent portrayal of a Nepali character even when Upasana centres the maximum screen presence throughout the film. Also contrary to the movie’s depiction, most Nepalis living in the cities speak English quite eloquently without the distasteful accent. Though most of the Nepali speaking community are first generation learners, especially in higher education, they are doing quite well even though it might be tough for them. However, Axone has failed to showcase the good part and kept them docile while depicting the character of Upasana Rai in the larger discourse of Northeast people.
Axone certainly is an eye-opener into the world of racial discrimination and prejudice that people from the North-East are constantly subjected to in metropolitan areas. I believe that Axone truly is a stepping stone to encourage acting talent cast from the North-East and possibly widening of Bollywood to include and portray beyond North-India.
This article is based on a purely subjective experience because everybody puts their own spin on the movie from their perspective. This article is not to denigrate the cast and makers of Axone but rather comes from a need to rectify such misconceptions, which if not corrected might engender new forms of social stigmatisation, generalisation and stereotypes against the Nepali community.
The writer is currently pursuing Masters in Sociology under School of Liberal Studies from Ambedkar University, New Delhi.