This was a very good very well-made movie, of a structure that has a long history in film but is rare in Indian film.
In 1927, German director F.W. Murnau made his American film debut with “Sunrise: A Tale of Two People”. It’s a silent film about a country couple, a young farmer and his wife, over the course of one day. It starts with him preparing to leave her for an exciting older city woman, before he has a change of heart, and instead they go into the city together, have a day out, and then return home. It’s a truly lovely film, every frame is a thing of beauty, the score is a miracle of old and new music flowing together, Janet Gaynor is luminescent as the heroine. But what I want to talk about is the structure, one single day in which our characters go through so many emotions.
Murnau wasn’t the first to use that structure for a narrative film, but I want to use this example because it’s really beautiful, and also really old. The idea of dropping into one momentous day in people’s lives and watching them go about a journey that brings them to some kind of resolution at the end, that is at least 100 years of film history. But it’s not something that comes up a lot in Indian film, Indian film is more of a birth-to-death cover everything kind of structure. This film breaks from that, and it’s a radical decision. I think it is a radical decision because the film wants to deal with a radical topic.
If the movie had come at things the usual way, starting with a childhood flashback, then explaining the whole situation and so on, the audience would have been primed to neatly tuck the story away in the realm of “fiction”. Because that is how we experience fiction, but that is not how we experience life. We experience life in little confused bits of feelings and knowledge and figuring things out. So the film comes at the story sideways, gets us interested in these characters and curious about their lives, and then slowly expands out until we can begin to grasp the complexity of their day to day existence, even if it is not the same as ours.
This movie is about Northeastern immigrants living in Delhi. It is also about young people with no family around who have created their own ad hoc family. Both of those things are against the standard rules of Indian film and Indian society. So instead of giving the audience time to get their back up about that, we are thrown right into their life, willy-nilly, and left to try and catch up before we can let our prejudices take hold of us.
It’s a movie that takes the tack of making it easy for us to get interested, but hard to understand everything. Before I saw this film, I had no idea what Axone was. But, that’s on me. I should have known. This isn’t a movie that puts in an audience insert to ask questions and make us feel better for going on the same journey towards knowledge. Instead we see these sympathetic charming interesting young people talking about things we don’t know about, and it is up to us to find out more, to understand their lives. They don’t need to explain it to us, that’s not their job.
It should not be surprising that the film was made by a Northeasterner, Nicholas Kharkongor. It’s his third film, all of them made on a tiny budget with a solid cast of art actors, released in film festivals and so on. He made an extra effort with this film, all the actors have some kind of Northeastern heritage. Meaning they are all relatively unknown, excepting the two character actors he cast to play the token Delhi-ite landlord and landlady. That’s another layer of the “it’s not my job to make this easy for you”. We have no familiar faces here to ease us into the plot, no experienced big name actors. The most important qualification for being in this movie is having a Northeastern background. To the point that the actual background of the actors was written into their characters for added authenticity.
It’s also just a really well-made film. That “a day in the life” structure is really hard to do meaningfully, and this film handles it. We weave in life decisions, cracks in friendships, identity issues, new connections, and a larger consideration of what it means to be a minority in a country that has a hard time acknowledging it even has minorities. All in slightly over 90 minutes, and just a few hours of life.
Give it a watch, you’ll be glad you did.