I already put up a No Spoilers review, I recommend you read that if you want a sense of the film as a whole to decide if you want to watch it. This is the review for those who have already seen it and want to discuss it.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
Our two heroines Sayani Gupta and Lin Laishram are trying to prepare for the last minute wedding of their roommate, Aslena Jamir. There are two challenges, preparing the space to make it look festive, and making the special dish with Axone (fermented soybeans). They are helped by Sayani’s boyfriend and employer, Tenzin Dalha, who runs a shop of Northeastern items. The challenge is to find a place to cook this strong smelling dish without causing complaints from the neighbors. Rogan J is the young son of the landlord, and a casual friend of Tenzin, he volunteers to help. At first they cook in the apartment, but then the landlady finds out and forces them to stop. Lin Laishram has a panic attack when talking with her and is treated, then they start hunting a new place, asking an older friend who suggests they go to the community center. At the same time, they move the party to a new space, the apartment of Lin’s boyfriend, a musician and poet Lanuakum Ao. They can’t find Lanuakum at first, then discover him locked up in an inner room having a panic attack. Lin comforts him, he feels bad because he failed to defend her earlier when some young men insulted her in the market, and it brought up memories of when he was almost beaten to death in a racist attack. Sayani finds an empty event space in a basement. She starts cooking when they are interrupted by the family who rented the space next. Lin arrives and recognizes the young man as the one who insulted her in the market. She confronts him again, and humiliates him, his family leaves, but they are still not able to finish cooking. Sayani gives up on her first batch of Axone and pours it out.
Aslena arrives home at the apartment to find no one there and calls her friends, upset. Everything seems impossible, but then Tenzine steps in to help again. He collects the ingredients that are needed again, and Rogan helps Sayani get set up again on the roof of their building. Back at their apartment, Aslena arrives home and they all dress in their best traditional garb and walk down the street to Lanuakum’s apartment for the wedding. We learn the backstory of this wedding, it is being done at long distance over Skype because the groom’s grandmother back in the village is dying. We also learn that Tenzin used to date Aslena and Sayani feels not quite good enough because of that. In the middle of the ceremony, Rogan J starts thoughtlessly talking to Lanuakum and irritates him, he attacks Rogan and calls him an “Indian”, Rogan is hurt and Tenzin shows him the video of the attack on Lanuakum. It ends with Lanuakum and Rogan tentatively becoming friends, and Tenzin proposing to Sayani finally moving on from Aslena.
A lot happens in this movie but it’s not about what happens-happens, it’s about what it means. Most of the meaning we don’t even learn until the end. We know this wedding is last minute and we know Sayani is determined to make Axone for Aslena. But only at the end do we learn that Aslena is Tenzin’s ex, Sayani wants to prove herself as worthy as Aslena, wants to get Aslena firmly married and out of her mind, and also loves her enough to want this for her along with all her other feelings. We get all of that towards the end of the movie, but what we already saw was Sayani aggressively asking for Tenzin’s help while he seemed reluctant, we saw Lin tell her she was acting strangely because of her weirdness with Aslena, we even saw Sayani refusing to accept help and insisting she knew the recipe when clearly she was uncertain. By the time we get the backstory, we had enough clues to make us understand Sayani’s feelings of insecurity without needing further explanation.
Even the meaning of the wedding we don’t understand until the very end. It’s not just about Aslena getting married, it’s that she has to be married at a distance, her sister sitting proxy for her in the ceremony. Her friends want to make this day feel special for her, want her to feel like a bride, even though she is the loneliest bride in the world, without even her groom next to her. We see their stress, we see the whole friend group talking about how it has to be nice, it has to look festive, but we don’t fully understand why it is so important for this particular wedding that the bride’s friends do everything they can to make it special.
Of course the racism is the most important of those things that don’t happen-happen, but still mean something. It’s woven in through out the film in so many ways, every interaction our central characters have outside of their community is about stereotypes and prejudice. Our “good” Delhi-ite Rogan even makes assumptions and hangs out with them because he wants a Northeastern girlfriend. The most interesting interaction to me was with the harasser at the market who confronts Lin. Early in the film she goes to the market to buy ingredients and overhears two men making terribly sexual remarks about her. She calls them out, loudly, and they confusedly and calmly deny anything, say they don’t know what she is talking about. The crowd believes them, tells Lin to calm down and stop insulting them. She refuses to calm down, and one of the men suddenly slaps her. At which point the crowd turns on him and rushes him away. Later in the film, this same young man with his wife and parents shows up at one of the spaces where they are trying to cook. Lin confronts him again and tells his wife what he has done, he again completely denies it, denies even having seen her before, and his mother starts to tell Lin to be quiet, that women like her come to Delhi to seduce their men. Lin refuses to be quiet, and the young man bursts out “stop talking or I will slap you again” unconsciously confirming her story. His mother keeps talking, but his father slaps his mother and tells her she is humiliating their family by talking like that. Lin tells the father his son must have learned to slap women from him, and the family leaves.
The first thing that hits me about it is the completely calm denial of the harasser. It’s not even that he is pretending offended innocence, just confusion and rationality. His behavior says that he knows here will be an assumption of innocence for him. He doesn’t have to bluster or prove anything, the crowd will always be on his side and take him at his word. And the crowd proves him right, Lin becomes the “crazy” person because she is yelling louder and louder while he is calm. When he slaps her, he is hurried away by the crowd, but not attacked in turn, or arrested, or anything. There is a different standard for a woman who looks like Lin making such an accusation versus any other woman who might have been standing in that marketplace.
And then there is his family dynamic. His mother taught him his behavior, that much is clear. But while she was warning him away from loose women, all he heard was confirmation that they were loose, less than human, there for his pleasure. His wife is silent through the whole confrontation, Lin even speaks directly to her, warning her that her husband will hit her too, and she does not respond. His father is silent until he bursts out and slaps his wife. So we have a racist mother, and an abuser father. And a son who is both an abuser and a racist, and finds Lin a fit subject for both sides of him. It’s a great metaphor, showing how Lin is twice cursed as a woman and a Northeasterner. And it’s also a fascinating character choice, the father seems to be disgusted by his wife and son’s racism, he is “good” in that way, but he is also “bad” because he hits women. That is true, you can have someone who believes “good” things in the abstract but still sins.
Lanuakum’s attack is something the audience never sees, just sees the reactions of others to it, and that is such a smart choice. The racism the film is attacking isn’t the big showy hate crime murders, it’s the thoughtless everyday kind. Their food smells bad because it just does, and so of course no one should be expected to put up with the smell. That’s a normal expectation, they are the odd ones for not minding the smell. Of course a young woman in the market looking Northeastern is going to get commentary. She shouldn’t be slapped, that is crossing a line, but she shouldn’t object so loudly when she is called names. And of course a young Delhi man is going to dream of a Northeastern girlfriend and find their marriage customs odd, that’s a compliment and friendly joshing, they can’t complain about that. None of these people intends harm, feels hate, they just feel a difference and it disturbs them. With the right circumstances, that disturbance can turn into mob violence (which we almost see when the neighbors confront them for cooking). But more interesting, with the right circumstance, that disturbance can turn to understanding and friendship.
Rogan’s character is the key to this film. He’s a young man who met the Northeasterners at some party, they don’t even know him well enough to know his real name. But he is quick to join in the conspiracy of wedding planning because he is young and eager and wants to feel part of things, wants to make friends. Through out the film, he keeps helping, going far above and beyond what is needed. At the end, he dresses up specially for the wedding, just assuming he is invited (after everything he did to help), and cheerfully asks questions about the ceremony and why they are doing what they are doing and so on. Until he takes a break to get a drink in the kitchen and starts teasing Lanuakum about his “weird” customs, and Lanuakum snaps at him, insults him for being insensitive, and storms out, leaving Rogan heartbroken. The film takes both their sides, in that moment. On the one hand, Rogan was being hurtful and insulting and didn’t seem to know or care. On the other hand, Lanuakum never even gave him a chance, never tried to be friends, after this person had helped them so much. They were equally wrong in that moment, but in the larger context, it is Rogan who has to do more. Tenzin shows him the video of the attack on Lanuakum, that is the context, Rogan is part of the majority group that is in power here and Lanuakum is not. So when Lanuakum is convinced by Lin to come back and at least try to make friends, Rogan does not look for a big apology or anything, just gives him instant acceptance and friendship.
And that’s the movie. A bunch of young people from all over the Northeast (there is a great moment when they are all talking in their home languages on phones looking for a place to cook Axone, and none of them speaking the same language but all of them “speaking the same language”) are trying to make a special dish so their sad lonely bride friend can feel like she is at home. Along the way they fight with racist assumptions, attacks, and past-trauma. And they fight within the group, Sayani not feeling like she belongs fully because she is Nepali heritage instead of Northeastern, Lanuakum and Lin fighting over if they belong in Delhi or not, Tenzin struggling to say good-bye to Aslene and accept his new future with Sayani. Nothing is perfect at the end, Aslene is still on the other side of the country from her groom, Lanuakum and Lin still aren’t sure if they will return to the village or stay in Delhi, Tenzin still loves Aslene a little bit and is settling for Sayani, and of course racism still exists. But they managed to create a bubble of home and happiness within this slice of time together, and for today that is enough.