Axone – a fermented soybean product often used in making stews – omits a pungent smell. Just like its namesake, Axone leaves a foul odour. This tale explores a chaotic day in the back streets of Delhi as a group of 20-somethings prepare a celebratory meal for a bride-to-be. Nicholas Kharkongor’s film makes a fair attempt at portraying a divided Delhi. But it is ultimately even more disordered than the day it recounts.
Axone is built on a false start. It takes far too much time to discern what is occurring in the opening act. Chanbi (Lin Laishram) and Upsana (Sayani Gupta) are running around the narrow city streets trying desperately to achieve something – we just don’t know what exactly this is. Confusion is seemingly the first option on the menu. Even after the steam has cleared and the narrative is more comprehensible, there is little working in the film’s favour.
At the heart of the story is the axone. Chanbi and Upsana are trying to make a pork-based stew for their friend Minam’s wedding party. It is the bride-to-be’s favourite dish and therefore must be delivered at all costs. The girls’ plans are ruptured when they can no longer cook the dish in secrecy; the fumes from the axone pollute the entire apartment block to the anger of their fiery landlady. They are forced to employ the help of friends, their boyfriends and local residents in order to make Minam’s night memorable.
The terrible smell of the axone generates much of the pandemonium in the story. It is therefore baffling and contradictory that, by the end of the day, the all-important ingredient no longer has its distinct and intolerable smell. But Axone’s credibility had evaporated before it undermines its own narrative.
There are missteps in both drama and comedy. The overly melodramatic and unconvincing performances are woefully similar to the mediocre soap operas that dominate Indian television; the lighter moments are rarely funny. The tones are not balanced appropriately to the point that it is difficult to know what we are meant to feel. A product of this is a score which intermittently resembles something you would hear in a crime re-enactment. The final product is almost entirely bereft of joy and humour.
Axone does not seem like the second feature in a director’s career. It feels like a debut effort from an overzealous filmmaker. Knowing that Kharkongor has also previously penned nine full-length plays adds insult to injury.
In what might be the only marginally redeeming feature is the presented face of Delhi. The main characters are migrants from India’s north-eastern states. Because they are ethnically different to the locals, they face discrimination, suspicion and misunderstanding. Axone – a dish from Chanbi and Upsana’s native states – is therefore particularly offensive to the senses of Delhi’s indigenous residents.
It is clear that these facets of social commentary are Axone’s purpose for existing. Although Kharkongor makes a valiant effort, the moments where race relations are brought to the fore amount to little more than tokenism. They are moments of example rather than analysis. This might be fascinating to learn about for anyone unacquainted with India’s domestic and societal politics, but Kharkongor is remiss for not honing his script into a more rigorous and in-depth portrayal of the external and internal conflict of being a migrant and a minority.
If the necessary attention was not given to make the screenplay airtight and entertaining, then should an audience be expected to commit its full attention? Kharkongor must reassess his recipe before his next filmmaking venture.
Axone had its World Premiere at LFF on Wednesday 2nd October
by Rahul Patel
Rahul Patel is a freelance writer covering Film and Television. His favourite films include When Harry Met Sally and Shrek 2. His special skill is knowing the complex Emmys rules. Follow him on Twitter @RahulReviews (if you’re brave enough).