Axone Review (SPOILERS): When Even the Smallest Things Are Hard

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.

Axone (2019) - IMDb

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.

Here's what you need to know about Axone, the secret Naga delicacy ...
By the way, here is a photo I found of the dish. It’s intensely fermented soybeans, used to flavor various dishes, through out the Himalayam regions

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.

8 thoughts on “Axone Review (SPOILERS): When Even the Smallest Things Are Hard

  1. So my first impression of Axone when I saw the trailer was that it seemed rather Virginia Woolf-esque. A day in an ordinary life, memories of an attack, someone ‘settling’ for a fact of life and someone accepting that bittersweetness.

    And it is! But in a wonderful way that makes it desi! It adds the desi spices to something rather cold and English and makes a wonderful dish like Chicken Tikka Masala.

    My favorite person was in fact Sayani, because she’s not purely happy for her friend, she’s a little bit jealous of her marriage and she also wants her to get married as soon as possible so she’d be out of the way. It’s a complex portrayal played very, very well.

    The harasser is another kettle of fish. It’s strange that he picked up the worst attributes of both his parents and in a way I saw it as being so because both parents have “agreeable parenting”, where both are instilling similar values in their son. The dad taught him not to respect women as a whole and his mother, perhaps in a way to shield herself, taught him not to respect a small subset of women. So of course that was going to happen. If, perhaps, his mother had been a bit more vulnerable about her pain, he might have just left with the message that racial discrimination was okay and hitting someone wasn’t, which might have led to some more questioning down the line and him being less of a jerk.

    I think these are all of my thoughts…for now.

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    • Oooo, Virginia Woolf is a really good comparison. A slightly unusual day, the emotions and challenges of daily life, and coming out the other side of it slightly changed.

      What I love about Sayani is that she’s not perfectly happy for her friend, but at the same time is. It’s an odd mix that feels very human and real. Part of her motivation is to get Aslene safely married and away from Tenzin, part of it is to somehow “prove” to Aslene that she is a good person, but part of it is also her sincerely loving Aslene and worrying that her sad rushed marriage should feel as wonderful as possible. When Aslene actually appeared, I was ready for her to be snotty or needy or something, but instead she was just lovely and truly grateful to her friends, and everyone was truly happy for her. Friendship is complicated!

      I was also interested that the Harasser family was the only “traditional” family structure we saw. Rogan’s landlord’s family was a kind of funky single Dad, and a grandma, and a 20 year old. No parental unit around. And then our friends were their friend-family. I don’t think there is any super big meaning to that, more just that part of the harassers sureness of being “right” was that he knew he was married, and his parents were married, and he had a new baby, and he was doing everything “right”.

      On Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 9:56 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. That I hadn’t even heard of the dish axone or knew how to pronounce it revealed how little I knew about the cultures of the Northeast! It shines a light on so many different things – that ‘outsiders’ can also discriminate within themselves, Northeasteners get married to Sikhs (the turban wearing Northeastern featured guy was so unexpected, I burst out laughing!). The wedding reveal at the end was well done because it answered everything I was asking throughout the movie – where’s the groom, where’s her/his family, why is she getting married on the day of her super-important interview?

    The thing which bothered me though was Lin admonishing Lanuakum for not making friends outside his community as if it’s a justification for his attack? It’s completely irrelevant, he could have tons of friends from another community and still be the victim of their hate. This review brings up other points the reviewer didn’t agree with: https://thewire.in/film/axone-movie-review-racism-privilege

    I wasn’t fully sure what was up with Tenzin. He didn’t seem fully eager to help from the start, when he tells Sayani how Aslena feels about her not belonging to their group, I figured he doesn’t agree with Aslena’s mentality and hence doesn’t want to be involved in her wedding. But then it’s revealed she’s his ex and he seems to have feelings for her! Maybe the point was for his character to have confused feelings.

    I had many other thoughts while watching (it’s that kind of movie), this is all I can think of now!

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    • I loved the wedding reveal at the end, because we had this increasing feeling of urgency and panic around the wedding without really understanding where it was coming from. By the time we get the full story, we are already feeling the feelings, it just feels in the gap of the reasons. Plus, you get the other gap of understanding that no matter how hard this day was for everyone else, it was worst on the bride. Instead of resenting that the characters we know had to go through all these things, we end up feeling glad they worked so hard because the poor bride deserved something fun after possibly failing her interview, having to get married last minute at long distance, and all this sad stuff.

      I don’t think Lin admonished Lanuakum for not making friends and thus causing his attack, it was more that after his attack he had shut down and stopped reaching out. For me, it was less about “adjust, go along” and more about “for your own mental health, you need to make an effort”. That’s his character journey through out the film, he seems barely comfortable with other Northeasterners and only truly able to be himself with Lin. It’s not a healthy way to live, we see how before the attack he was happy and smiling and relaxed, his PTSD has made him shut down more and more and more. The film shows us that the Northeastern community is the truly close safe group of friends, and that’s okay, but it’s not healthy to not be able to even talk to anyone else. Or to put it another way, assimilation is hard and unpleasant but is necessary for their survival. It’s not fair, it’s just the reality. If the film had had someone say “we can stay in Delhi and never talk to anyone outside our community, that’s fine” or say “I am an educated person but I can go back to my village in the Northeast and somehow find a way to be happy”, I would have found that inaccurate. The social structures are also economic, there are no opportunities in their home, they HAVE to come to the city, and part of the price they pay is putting up with daily racism and finding a way to get along.

      For whether or not the film did everything it should, I have to think the director/writer purposefully chose to tell a small story. He isn’t claiming to speak for his whole community, that is not within the film, it’s just a group of maybe 6 friends over the course of a day. For these people on this day, this was their experience. And that is accurate to these people on this day, even if it isn’t accurate for them on another day, or another group of people.

      Tenzin was really interesting! So much there. For one thing, he had a store and Sayani was his employee. And on the other hand, Aslene was studying for her IAS exam. So his ex-girlfriend was beautiful and smart and on her way to a top position far above him, and his current girlfriend was working for him. We can fill in that Aslene feels like the dream girl, the one that got away, while Sayani is just too easy to have value for him. And is he reluctantly doing all these things for the wedding because he loves Sayani and it is important to her or because he still loves Aslene and wants her to be happy? Did he propose to Sayani because he realized he loved her, or because he finally understood he had lost Aslene? That hug at the end, when Aslene draws him and Sayani together, is it an indication that she forced this couple? What is the backstory, did Aslene encourage her roommate and her ex to start dating and that’s the only reason they are together now?

      On Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 10:39 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I tweeted about the film and got a couple of responses from Northeasterners who aren’t happy with the film and it’s been eye-opening. I don’t agree with everything but there are two big problems with the film that as an outsider needed to be pointed out to me:

        1) Two of the leads aren’t from the Northeast. Tenzin is Tibetan and Sayani is Punjabi. I don’t have a hardine view of representative casting but given the subject matter of the film I think the director should’ve at least cast all the leads from the portrayed community. The majority of Northeastern Indians in the film don’t have lines or character names.

        2) The character portrayed by Lanuakum Ao is based on a real life hate crime where a man from the Northeast was beaten to death by a mob. In the film the character gets chided by his girlfriend for not making friends outside of his community and when he lashes out and calls Shiv a fucking Indian, Shiv’s reaction is given the same emotional weight as his near death. At the end he sings a Hindi song which seems to represent that he’s accepting that he has to assimilate and Shiv doesn’t have to do any self-reflection on his attitudes toward the community and how they might be harmful even though he’s well-intentioned. It seems to be devaluing the man’s emotional pain and offering a facile solution to recovering from a terrible act of racial violence.

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        • Some comments on either this review or the other one linked to some articles that had similar issues, so I’ve been thinking about it.

          1. I’m uncomfortable with this, because it’s an identity thing. Sayani Gupta is from West Bengal and was born and raised in Calcutta. Her last name is Punjabi I believe. But does that mean she isn’t Northeastern? Meaning, are we going to require her to present a family tree and explain that she has Nepali heritage that is not reflected in her last name, or her birthplace (and there is a large Nepali immigrant population in Bengal, it is statistically super possible for a Nepali woman to have met and married a Punjabi man in Calcutta and had a child with a Punjabi last name)? I don’t like that, that makes me very uncomfortable. The argument against her casting seems to be purely based on her birthplace and last name, and to me that is far from enough to prove she doesn’t have a right to play the role. If she is of Northeastern heritage (which I am going to assume she is), this is just cruel, to call her out online and tell her she doesn’t have a right to her identity because of her last name. And in a larger level, it kind of feels odd that no one is even considering the possibility of a mixed heritage, that people might marry outside of their community and their child would have a mixed background.

          2. I simply don’t read it that way. I answered in more detail on another comment, but to me the story the film is telling is a person struggling with PTSD who is increasingly incapable of reaching out to other people, any other person. And what he is being told by the only person he trusts enough to even talk to at this point is “you have to take a chance and open yourself up again or you will never heal”. I also saw Shiv as putting in more work in that mini-interaction. Lanuakum lashes out at him harshly, I think even hits him, in a way that is more related to his trauma than to anything Shiv said in the moment, And when he comes back, Shiv immediately forgives and is friendly and happy again. The larger story I saw in the film is people struggling with trauma as a result of racism and trying to find a way to survive it. Forget curing racism or solving the problems, let’s look at on a day to day basis how you handle living away from home, because you have to live away from home, because there are no jobs back home. To me that was the most realistic and powerful moment of the film, showing that this group doesn’t even have the luxury of getting angry at their situation. What else could the film show? This is the reality.

          One of the articles that was linked said something about expecting a movie that would be their Selma or Rocky IV, and I’m sorry but that is simply not the movie this was ever going to be. It’s about their day to day life, no heroics beyond just surviving day to day life. There was a discussion I heard somewhere about Raisins in the Sun, some Black activist getting angry about a play that is just about every day problems when so many terrible things are happening. But then he read the play and realized, THIS is the problem, where are going to live? How are we going to live? You need to treat those “boring” problems with seriousness, they matter too.

          On Wed, Jul 8, 2020 at 9:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I don’t have much to add to what you’ve said other than this was wonderful and heart-wrenching and good god the blatant unapologetic racism, it was horrifying. When I was in Delhi I got a massage at my hotel and the massage therapist was a young woman from the Northeast. We started talking and she poured her heart out about how she was constantly dealing with men pressuring her for sex and that her employer did nothing to protect her. As I watched the film I thought about how easily her story would’ve fit into the narrative.

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    • Yes! And I was interested that in this movie none of the female characters had that type of job. They were a shop girl, a woman studying for a government job, and a woman who sounds like was getting some kind of call centre job. It fit with their characters and so on, but maybe also the director wanted to say “you assume the masseuse is a prostitute, you assume the woman you see on the street is a masseuse, but in reality they could be anything”.

      On Tue, Jul 7, 2020 at 10:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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