Axone Review (No Spoilers): A Day in the Life of a City

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.

Axone' Review: Sayani Gupta's and Lin Laishram's film brings the ...

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.

Sayani Gupta - Wikipedia
Sayami Gupta I recognised, and that was meaningful too, an actress as interesting onscreen and talented as she is, someone who leaps out in even small roles, should not still be barely recognizable. It is her looks that limit her, and prejudice against northeastern women.

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.

24 thoughts on “Axone Review (No Spoilers): A Day in the Life of a City

    • It’s such a good movie, I want to do what I can to get more people to watch it.

      There’s a Spoiler review coming at some point, looking forward to discussing it in more detail with you then.

      On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 3:19 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  1. It is such a good movie. I went to university in Delhi and lived on campus with lots of students from the northeast, so it brought back many memories.

    Just a small point of clarification, Sayani Gupta’s character is supposed to be from Nepal, not from the Northeast. There is kind of a hint in some dialogue that within that group of Northeastern immigrants she is considered an outsider, which is probably also why she is the most hell bent on proving her connection to the others. The actress herself is Bengali.

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    • Thanks for the clarification, I caught that, but wasn’t sure if it meant she was ethnically Nepali or Nationally Nepali. Is there a Nepali community within the borders of India?

      On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 4:28 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • She is definitely supposed to be from Nepal because she also has a Nepalese accent when speaking Hindi. I can’t judge how good her accent is, but I have heard enough Nepali accent to recognize that she is at least trying to do that accent. I don’t know about community, but there are definitely a decent number of students coming to study in North Indian universities. When I was a child, there used to be a lot more immigrant workers coming from Nepal to India, but now that I think about it, I don’t see them as often anymore.

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      • She is definitely supposed to be nationally Nepali, because she also has what sounds like an attempted Nepali accent to my ears. When I was a kid, it was much more common to see Nepali immigrants in India but that seems to have decreased now. Now it is a lot more young people coming to study in North Indian universities.

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        • Interesting, thank you! I was thinking she was different just because she was part of a group that had more of a national origin, not that she was actually from a different country.

          On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 5:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • It is possible that she is an Indian national but ethnically Nepali. There are such communities in Bengal at least, I had teachers and schoolmates who were part of that. Sayani pulled off the accent quite well because I wondered why it felt familiar from the start and when her ethnicity was revealed it fell into place!

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  2. “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.” What do you mean by “both these things” here? Also as mentioned above, Sayani (not Sayami) Gupta is not of North Eastern heritage.

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  3. “Both of those things are against the standard rules of Indian film and Indian society.” I really wish that when such statements are made, they are qualified by “most of/ a majority of Indian society”. I find such sweeping generalisations troubling. For eg. in pockets of South Mumbai/ Delhi young people living independently, having a healthy pre-marital sex life etc may not be uncommon/ unacceptable. Recently, I find that this has come up in your writing a couple of times and frankly, it comes across as a bit judgemental. Just as how Desis (who it seems you are more sympathetic to, perhaps because you know them better) cannot be all painted with the same brush, India too is many Indias. Reading another’s PoV makes me confront my own prejudices so I thought I would share my thoughts on your writing too.

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    • It’s a good point. My intention in the statement was that “standard rules” would be the qualifier, meaning “the rules that are common for the majority of society”, as you say. Perhaps a better way to put it might have been “against the generally accepted norms of Indian film and Indian society”?

      What I was looking at was how this movie, and Pink for instance which also shows young women sharing an apartment, or the movie Dear Zindagi where a woman lives alone, or plenty of other films, do show those young people you describe. But even within that pocket, they still have to deal with telling white lies to the landlord, with neighbors judging them, and so on. Young people living independently still does not seem to be a social norm, based on what I am seeing in these films. It happens, but it is not what is universally expected to happen.

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      • I was a student in Delhi 20 years ago. Even at that time, most of my friends were single people living together in flats. Hindi movies might not show it, but this is actually a fairly common thing in the big cities in India. My brother in law started his job in Mumbai in 1990 and was living with a group of friends in a shared apartment. Where do you think all those IT support people that American companies employ live? Most of them are too young to be married and have kids. Pretty much all of them are from smaller towns who have moved to the big cities for jobs. It might not be the norm in smaller towns because there is very little reason for young people to move there if they don’t have families, but it is very much the norm in the bigger cities. You find it unusual because it is not part of the usual movie narrative. This is fairly similar to the US. You wouldn’t have a show like Friends set in a small town because people in small towns don’t live like that.

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        • That really speaks to the rural/urban divide though, and why is the usual movie narrative not showing that lifestyle? Because the film industry has to appeal to the less urban areas of India that are the bulk of the audience for the films. We have a similar dynamic here in the US.

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          • I am not sure if this has only to do with films having to do with appealing to the less urban areas of India. If anything, until the recent trend of movies set in small towns, Hindi movies have been getting more and more urban since the success of people like Farhaan Akhtar and Karan Johar. Salman Khan, and to some extent Akshay Kumar, movies are probably the exception in that they are big budget movies whose target audience is in small town India. The bigger problem is that movies set in urban India either focus on the urban rich (KJo movies) or the urban poor (Gully boy). There are very few movies about educated, upwardly mobile young people from middle class families. Konkona’s character in Wake Up Sid would be someone like the people we see in Axone but for plot reasons she had to be given an apartment in Mumbai without roommates, which is laughable for anyone who has ever looked at rents in Mumbai. So, even movies that do talk about people like this, do a terrible job of showing the reality. This is not even a new thing. This is the kind of movie that people like Farookh Sheikh, Deepti Naval, or Amol Palekar were making in the 70s and 80s and getting completely overshadowed by the masala movies. Maybe because those are just regular everyday stories? They don’t have the bling and escapism of rich people stories or the emotional heft of the struggling urban poor. Very often, they don’t even have clearly delineated good guys and bad guys. You really have to make a good movie (like Axone) to bring out the appeal of those stories.

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  4. Did you find the English dialogue easy to follow? I think they weren’t subtitled and I was having trouble sometimes with the accents. It reminded me of what you said in another post about having difficulty understanding a known language spoken in a different rhythm. I think that’s what was happening.

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    • I did find it easy to follow, yes. And now that I think about it, I found it easier to follow than English dialogue in other Indian films. You are right, it is the rhythm!!!! For me, their rhythm felt more like American English (not identical at all, but closer) than Hinglish does.

      On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 8:00 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Yes! I am so glad Kainaat brought that up, because I never would have thought about it otherwise. I want to hear the rhythm of Nagaland speaking now, to see if that is why it feels so much easier.

          On Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 9:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. I just watched the trailer and wow it looks great. Will definitely watch and come back to your spoiler post to discuss.

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    • It really is great! And only an hour and 40, so you can sneak it in around family time.

      On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 9:52 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I started watching last night but couldn’t finish because that’s my life but it was so good! I’m trying to pressure my husband into watching the whole thing with me because I think he would enjoy it. Something that struck me is that the film is almost a caper film like Rififi or the Oceans series. You know, they have to pull off the “heist” and all of the obstacles they face but you also get character development that you don’t see in heist films. And I love that the character building is in all the little moments in the film and how everyone reacts to each other and the world they live in. I can’t wait to finish it.

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        • Maybe more than a “heist” movie, it is a “process thriller”? Except one where everything is difficult and people get too emotional about things. It’s a series of obstacles that have to be overcome to complete a task, and half the obstacles are just “I’m so frustrated right now I want to cry”. Come to think of it, in my experience that is one of the most common obstacles to task completion, it just gets too hard and I have to take a breath and break for a bit.

          I do love that the opening sets it up as a “heist”, we see them going into this shadowy place and secret meetings and urgent phone calls and stuff. And then it’s just to get ingredients for a dish. A great wink and a nod to racist prejudices also I think, we “think” that Northeasterners are going to be sketchy and drug gangs and stuff, but really they are just nice young people trying to cook.

          On Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 9:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. I mentioned about this movie on this blog sometime back recommending it but have since been educated by reading below articles. Three articles written by people from various Northeastern states on why the movie falls short in representing them and their lives. When I first watched I have to admit that I felt happy voices from Northeast got onto the screen but when I started thinking about it the resolution seemed too easy and simple. That is not the reality so I started looking for what people from Northeast are saying about the movie and this what I found. All reviews written by people not from the Northeast states are positive.
    https://www.fpsjreview.in/home/articles/169/axone-uninterested-in-structural-racism-only-looks-to-benumb-victims-and-pacify-perpetrators
    https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/northeast-indian-people-racism-films-dolly-kikon-6480699/
    https://arunachaltimes.in/index.php/2020/06/15/axone-a-tale-told-wrong/

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    • Thank you for the links! I would be interested to hear what the filmmaker says in response, please let me know if you see any interviews with him or any responses like that.

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