BFI #LFF 2019: AXONE Film Review

Sayani Gupta as Upasna in AXONE

When given time to breathe, Nicholas Kharkongor’s AXONE packs an emotional punch, turning this light-hearted and bittersweet comedy into something much more poignant and resonant

3.5 out of 5 stars

Following the success of his debut film MANTRA, filmmaker Nicholas Kharkongor returns to the big screen with his latest film AXONE, a bittersweet comedy about love, friendship and overcoming prejudice.

Set on a hot summer’s day, AXONE follows Upasna and Chanbi, two friends who want to prepare a special North Eastern Dish – Axone Pork – for their best friend Minam’s wedding. The problem is that, while in Nagaland, the distinctive aroma of this traditional wedding stew is welcome, in this Delhi neighbourhood, its pungent smell offends the locals. As the group of friends struggle to find a safe place to prepare the dish in peace, unexpected obstacles arise and comedic chaos ensues.

AXONE Production Still

On the surface, AXONE has everything you could possibly want from an original comedy romp. Echoing MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING in its style of comedy, Writer and Director Kharkongor makes light of the different quirks of cultures that make up today’s modern India through its collection of oddball and zany characters. There is also some strong cast performances from Sayani Gupta as Upasna, the bridesmaid desperate to make her best friend’s wedding day run smoothly, as well as Vinay Pathak and Dolly Ahluwali who provide most of the comedy as Upasna’s judgmental landlord and as his overbearing mother.

Yet, beneath this light-hearted and bittersweet comedy wafts the pungent smells of racism. From finding a house with respectful landlords to the verbal and physical abuse the friends have to endure on a daily basis, Kharkongor exposes the deep-rooted discrimination towards people from other parts of the country that has existed in Delhi for a long time. When given time to breathe, these scenes really pack an emotional punch, pushing this bittersweet comedy from a run-of-the-mill parody to something much more poignant and resonant.

AXONE Production Still

Shame then that it’s never really made clear how – or why – the making of the Axone dish is so important. Its inclusion in the narrative feels more like a driver for the comedy (and the prejudice), leaving us to question why it is so important for the characters to finish the dish.

The same can be said for the decision to exclude the character Minam for the majority of the film. Her bond with Upasna and Chanbi is clearly the reason why the friends are going to such lengths to make her wedding day special yet Kharkongor chooses to hide this friendship from us until the very end of the film. As a result, we never really care for the character or indeed the consequences if things don’t go to plan.

That said, while AXONE is a work of fiction, its themes will no doubt resonate with the young Northeasterners living across India. The decision to slip between Hindi and English also goes some way to making this funny and bittersweet film more accessible to mainstream audiences, giving us a glimpse into the lives of this oft-maligned community whose differences should be celebrated, not scorned.

AXONE screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 2 October 2019