Love for the Seven Sisters
Some recent small budget films have set the ball rolling for greater inclusivity of people from the north-east; more has to be done
Change in India often creeps in quietly. But even when its pace is slow, any change, if for the greater good, must be celebrated. I watched two delightful films in the last week. They were enjoyable not for any cinematic excellence (the production quality was quite average to be honest as small budget films usually are) but for the themes that they dealt in. 'Axone' and 'Penalty' — both films had north-eastern characters as the protagonist and the plots unfolded through the prism of their lives. Pop culture in our country has conveniently and comfortably been segregated in such a way that the north-east has been either invisible or caricaturised.
The Gorkha security guard with his accented 'ji shaab ji' (Yes Sir) has perhaps been the only north-eastern character to be included in our Hindi films. From yesteryears, it is only Danny Denzongpa who made a mark in Indian cinema, mostly playing villainous roles and never once being able to incorporate his ethnic roots into his film roles. For long, there have been few acting parts in commercial cinema dedicated to talent from the north-east. Today, we have actors such as Adil Hussein, Geetanjali Thapa, Patralekhaa, and Bijou Thaangjam essaying indelible character roles. Therefore, it was my utmost joy to watch both 'Axone' and 'Penalty' that give not only space to north-east actors but also ensure that the plot revolves around their acceptance in the 'majority' India.
To quickly summarise, 'Axone' is about few friends from the north-east living in Delhi wanting to prepare a wedding delicacy of pork cooked in the pungent flavours of 'axone' or 'akhuni' (fermented soybean). Their trials and tribulations of preparing this dish with its overpowering smell in a typical neighbourhood in the capital and the underlying plots of racism are endearing and too close to home. 'Penalty' on the other hand deals with the aspirations of a young footballer from the north-east who comes to study in a college in Uttar Pradesh to realise his dreams. The actors in the film, except the protagonist, barely pass off as footballers with their scrawny physiques and spindly legs and the film sorely misses camera work best-suited for sporting films. But what tugs at the heart here too is the innate racism among the majority of Indians towards people from the north-east. With their mongoloid features, different cultures, and food habits, people from the north-east have long been tagged as 'outsiders'.
You might feel that these are inconsequential matters, after all, there are bigger issues in life to be worried about. But think of this — North-East India, comprising of seven states, has over 45 million people. So, that is 45 million people who have found little to no representation in our mainstream entertainment. Look back at your life — school, college, work-life — how many friends do you have from the north-east? How many people from the north-east live around you? Many will complain that they have faced verbal slurs and been called 'chinki'. Stray incidents of violence against north-eastern Indians is also prevalent. 20-year-old college student, Nido Tania, was brutally beaten to death with iron rods in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar in 2014. Stray incidents of racism are rampant; even during the time of COVID-19, many northeast Indians have been racially attacked and prevented from buying essential goods.
The discrimination has been so much that many do not want to leave their home states, venturing out only for better education or job prospects. Today, it is encouraging to see more youngsters venture out of the seven states. Much of the food and beverage industry runs by the hard work of people hailing from these states. But it has taken a long time because we have not made it easier for them. And repetitive incidents of discrimination and racism continue to play spoiler.
Growing up in Kolkata, we had classmates in school and college from the north-east. Most would stick together, only a handful made friends with non-north east people like me. When you are young, you naively believe that it was because they were shy, quiet people; or could not speak English or Hindi well. Only now, do I know better.
'Axone' and 'Penalty' have set the ball rolling; we must do more to achieve greater inclusivity of the north-east people. Food and pop culture are always the surest ways to bring in inclusiveness. And even though 'momos' may have reached every neighbourhood market, we must strive even further to familiarise the rest of India with the beautiful locale, rich culture, delicious food, and wonderful people of the north-east of India.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal