Netflix film Axone and (the lack of) Northeast representation in Indian cinema and TV shows
Axone, with an ensemble cast led by Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram and Tenzing Dalha, tells a story of what it means to be from the Northeast and live in mainland India.
In the first year after he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, almost every single film producer he approached for work turned down Danny Denzongpa. It was filmmaker BR Ishara who finally gave the strapping young man from Sikkim a break in Zaroorat (1971).
In the decades since, Denzongpa has acted in over 190 films playing characters called Balbir, Raju, Bakhtawar and, of course, Danny. Interestingly, Danny was a moniker that his FTII classmate Jaya Bhaduri (now Bachchan) had come up with. The actor, who was born Tshering Phintso was frustrated by the fact that people in Pune either called him ‘hey boy’ or didn’t address him at all. Going by Danny seemed like an easier option rather than teaching people to pronounce his name right.
His name wasn’t the only thing that ‘othered’ Danny. At the time, there was no one who looked like him on our screens. In an interview to Filmfare in September 1976, Danny explained what triggered his acceptance by the industry, “I still look Sikkimese. The only difference is that everyone has got accustomed to me”. The interviewer went on to observe, “Two factors obviously helped Danny initially. Often, a beard was a part of his make-up. And then the Sikkimese look, a bit of exotica, actually built up the tough guy roles he was playing.”
In mid-June 2020, Axone (pronounced Akhuni), a film by Shillong-born director Nicholas Kharkongor dropped on Netflix. The film, with an ensemble cast led by Sayani Gupta, Lin Laishram and Tenzing Dalha, tells a story of what it means to be from the Northeast and live in mainland India. Outside of the seven-sister states, Delhi, where the film is set, has the largest population from the region. And, enough has been written over the years about the hostility this demographic faces.
Axone is a rare peek into the languages, customs and cuisine of a largely ignored part of our country; told by the people whose story it is. The film isn’t perfect but for viewers whose stories have been excluded from Bollywood’s mainstream narrative, it’s a tiny step.
Almost five decades separate Zaroorat and Axone. In this time, we’ve had almost no mainstream actors from this part of the country (Actors from Assam like Adil Hussain and Seema Biswas don’t really count because they can and do pass off as ‘mainlanders’) or had films that told stories from there. There have been a few films like Jewel Thief, Koyla, Saaya, Rock on 2, Rangoon and Qarib Qarib Singlle that travelled eastwards for their picturesque locations but little of the region reflected in those stories.
Bollywood has always presented a very homogenous version of India. Everyone eats parathas, drinks lassi, is doe-eyed, tall and fair and speaks Hindi. Over the years, films set abroad or, as is on trend right now, in small-town India have given makers an opportunity to colour outside the box but getting on to a different page is completely unthinkable. And, this is what explains why North Easterners remain largely unseen on our screens.
“There was a time when you saw a Hollywood film and only saw white faces and there would be a smattering of people of colour. That’s changed now and you see films with Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans in mainstream films and shows. With immigrants getting assimilated into American society, we are now seeing the diversity in the stories they tell. India as we know it today came into being in 1947 and the northeast was very much a part of the country. Yet, today, this is not reflected on our screens,” says Kharkongor.
There are two very obvious ways for correcting this – we need more storytellers from the region, and Bollywood’s casting directors need to make an effort to find actors.
The last couple of decades have seen a significant rise in the migration of North Easterners to the major metro cities. Just reflecting this in our films can be the first step towards greater inclusivity and authenticity. In 2013, when the script of Pink, the Shoojit Sircar film was at a nascent stage, there was no mention of the background of the three girls. “The basic idea was about how girls are stereotyped and harassed. I suggested that one of them should be from the northeast. She wouldn’t even need to dress or behave provocatively for people to think she’s ‘easy’. That just comes with her looks and stereotypes attached,” remembers the film’s producer Ronnie Lahiri, who grew up in Nagaland and Meghalaya. This is how the youngest among the three girls became a Khasi girl who was played by actor-musician Andrea Tariang.
When actor-and-casting director Abhishek Banerjee was given the mandate to cast for Amazon Prime’s much-lauded Pataal Lok, it was very clear that he’d have to find an actor from the region to play the character of Cheeni. “That was our first priority but we thought it would be amazing to find a transgender actor because that’s who the character is. Nikita (Grover, who also played the scene stealing lady constable in charge of frisking Cheeni), our associate is the one who found Mairembam (Ronaldo Singh) through the local theatre groups. As soon as we saw her audition, we knew we had found the actor. There was some pressure from Mairembam’s family about her moving to Mumbai to shoot so Nikita had to go back and convince them,” says Banerjee.
Beyond looks, language is believed to be a significant deterrent in casting actors from the Northeast. But Banerjee believes that it’s changing now. “We make films and shows for all of India and not just for one region. And, people speak Hindi with accents everywhere. More over, I think OTT shows have gotten the audience used to subtitles,” he adds.
It’s been six years since its release but it’s impossible to talk about northeast representation in Bollywood and not talk about Mary Kom where a Punjabi actress was cast to play a Manipuri boxer. To make the actress ‘look more Manipuri’, her make-up artist Uday Shirali “brightened her complexion, gave her smaller eyes” and added freckles. When the makers were asked why they didn’t cast someone from the state, the film’s Rs 180 crore budget was given as the reason. “I think the makers of Mary Kom were trying to cast a North Eastern actress in the starring role, but then the budget of the film became really small. So, that’s when they decided to cast a commercial actor, who can pull the film, and make the budget bigger,” said Priyanka in an interview to CNN-IBN.
It was obvious that Mary Kom’s commercials edged out the need for authenticity in casting. “It’s the producer’s choice. If you want to be authentic to the story you are telling, you’ll make it within the budget that you’ll be able to recover. A film like Mary Kom didn’t need such a large budget. At the end of the day, the film is celebrating Mary Kom, who is Manipuri. The film can’t be bigger than its subject,” says Lahiri.
Authenticity is where Axone scores and how! There’s a lovely scene where a group of friends call different people at the same time. They are all speaking in their own dialect. Kharkongor roped in a dialect coach who picked the most different sounding languages to follow each other so the audience would pick up on the subtle differences, even if they didn’t understand the languages. Hindi films are a long way from educating their audience on the differences between Bodo, Apatani, Kokborok, Ao Naga, Khasi, Tangkhul or Meitei. For now, they are all lumped together under the umbrella of the northeast and the only way to change that is to see more of their stories on our screens.
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