Sayani Gupta on playing a Northeastern character in Netflix film Axone: Authenticity is most important
Sayani Gupta discusses Axone, arguably the first mainstream Hindi film that addresses the bias against Northeasternes, and how she has witnessed the same in her life.
Just like her diverse interests (photography, travel, dance and folk music), Sayani Gupta’s unconventional filmography too boasts of a wide artistic range. She has been seen in a string of varied films, including, Margarita With a Straw (2014), Parched (2016), Jolly LLB 2 (2017), The Hungry (2017), Article 15 (2019), Posham Pa (2019), and Amazon Prime Video India Originals Four More Shots Please! and Inside Edge.
Sayani’s next is Naga filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor’s Hindi film Axone, a satire on racism and cultural stereotypes. Arguably the first mainstream Hindi film based on the life of Northeasterners, especially around the age-old racism that they face in our country, Axone talks about the experiences of the community living outside the region, and also makes one realise how little we know about them.
The movie premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, and made its India debut at the 21st Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year, where it received a standing ovation. It also stars Dolly Ahluwalia, Vinay Pathak,Tenzin Dalha as well as actors from the Northeast, including Asenla Jamir, Lin Laishram, and Lanuakum Ao.
Axone follows a day in the life of a group of Northeasterners in South Delhi’s Humanyunpur (now a hamlet for the migrant community). It revolves around a wedding and a group of friends who are on a tiring quest to cook a traditional dish Axone, a Naga delicacy made with smoked pork and fermented soybeans, distinctive aroma of which can be challenging for those unfamiliar with it. The dish leads to a series of comic misadventures with the landlord and the tenants. Sayani plays one of the major characters, a Nepali girl from Manipur and part of the same bunch of Northeasterners.
“I liked the script not only for its authentic representation of people from the Northeast but also because it spoke about diversity. It really opened my eyes to how diverse the Northeast is, how many different languages they speak, the food they eat. It is not a homogeneous entity. There is a huge difference between people, the food, the language, temperament, behaviour, societal norms, and cultures between people in Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, and Nagaland. And on top of that, the script was quite funny. It is a funny film about a socially relevant and serious subject. Nicholas has a flair for it. It is like a comedy of errors, a situational comedy where everything is falling apart. It’s a satire but carries a serious message. One doesn’t wallow in their self-pity but just laughs at the situation they are in. The audience becomes way more receptive, and the film has a better reach when a serious issue is presented in a humorous way,” says Sayani. “I have a lot of friends from the Northeast, from college, and even filmmaker-friends. I have worked with them before but those were smaller, regional films, whereas Axone is far more accessible, and a bigger film.”
However, the disparity between the two groups was not shocking for Sayani as she has seen many of her friends from the Northeast fall victim to racism when she lived in Delhi. She was quite familiar with the frequent ways in which the Northeastern migrants battled bigotry. “I could always see racism happen with many of my friends from the Northeast who live in Delhi. Even in Mumbai, every time I would go out with them for a film, someone or the other would come up and ask, ‘Oh, are you a Nepali?', ‘Oh, so you are a Mongolian?’. Incidents of women getting harassed and molested have always been rampant but with Northeastern women, such incidents, I am told, are way more in our country. They are looked down upon. Their character is often a suspect. There are so many prejudices. It is all so stereotyped. Racism has always existed, and now, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, we saw how the Northeasterners were bullied and attacked. It is so disgusting. The whole divide between us and them is anti-separatism, be it race, colour, gender, caste or class, and Axone is very timely in that context,” says the actress.
In the film, Sayani is the only lead actor who is not a Northeasterner. “But the good thing is that I looked the part because I look like a Northeasterner. A lot of times people ask me whether I was Oriental, Assamese, Nepali, and even when I tell them that I am a Bengali, they insist that there must be some Northeast connection. But yes, I have the Mongolian genes from my grandmother’s side. When it came to choosing me, it was their call. I auditioned for it, and then I worked on the accent and dialect, which was the only challenging part in terms of the performance,” says Sayani.
She continues, “I knew that a lot of people, including my friends, would watch my performance with a magnifying glass, and look for flaws, and I would do that too. But fortunately, two months before I started shooting for Axone, I was shooting for another film in Nepal. I picked up a few local slangs over there. I also took help of a Nepalese friend. I would be on voice messages with him throughout the shoot for every single line. Then I had a Nepali hairstylist. I took her along even for the dubbing. There were a lot of attempts made to make it look authentic. To me, authenticity is the most important. Even for the films like Article 15 or Jolly LLB 2, I worked on this aspect. I feel any part, which is a bit away from your association or your immediate environment, you need to try and make it little authentic and there are devices for it. But I am still nervous. I am ready for some sort of critique also if it comes.”
Filmed in the sweltering heat of Delhi (July 2018), and in cramped conditions, small houses, and a basement, the shooting experience was challenging yet fun and exciting, says Sayani. “It was a very difficult shoot. Obviously the budget was low. It was really tough on everyone, and many of the crew members were hospitalised either because of food poisoning or due to water-borne disease. We shot in a basement for four days with no ventilation. But we had a good time because we had a lovely bunch of people. All the crew and actors from the Northeast were great fun to work with. Some of them I knew, and some were new,” she adds.
While the film was being targeted for a theatrical release, the makers opted for a direct-to-streaming service release because of the ongoing lockdown. “We don’t know when theatres would open up but everyone has realised that it is a great time to release good content because there is a lot of hunger among people. I too like watching films in theatres but now, I feel it doesn’t make much of a difference. What is most important is that the film should reach as many people as possible. What is the point of waiting for theatres to open unless it is a huge film that can only be enjoyed on a 70 mm, say films like Sooryavanshi or 83. Even some of the big-star films can be released on OTT these days. But for a film like Axone, releasing it digitally is just perfect,” concludes Sayani.
Axone is streaming on Netflix.
All images from YouTube.
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