Axone was a much awaited film- simply because it promised ‘to speak for the Northeast ‘-the mainstream after all has taken so long to look east and whenever it has chosen to ‘speak’ for us – it has always been distorted and misrepresented, steeped in stereotypes. Axone’s promise to speak of ‘lived realities’ of the people of the Northeast-in choosing Axone as the title and the theme of the movie- to engage with questions of racism through food politics- there really could not have been any better time than now to bring forth the harsh truth of racism experienced by people of the Eastern region. But all it did- and very problematically- was to cater to these crucial questions from a very privileged and elite position, almost similar to the stance of the mainland- lacking depth, ignorant and oblivious of the ‘lived realities’ that it seeks to represent. Interesting debates have already been forth from the Northeastern community it seeks to represent; my purpose therefore is to introspect on the representation of the Nepali character of Upasna Rai as ‘part of’ and yet different from the Northeast.
Being a Nepali remains one of the most complicated identities despite being guaranteed and recognized as an Indian citizen by the law of the land. Often the confusion of the Indian Nepalis with the Nepalese citizens from Nepal, the ‘identity crisis’ continues to define the existence of the Indian Nepalis. The confusion over questions of belonging therefore never ceases to exist for the Indian Nepali community, rendering them one of the most misunderstood and under-represented community in India. These insecurities of the Indian Nepalis constantly play out in everyday spaces and engagement with the mainstream- representation therefore is critical to the existence of the Nepali community. The representation onscreen is crucially inter-twined to the question of belonging off-screen for the Indian Nepalis, which is why ‘incorrect’ or ‘in-appropriate’ representation always manages to strike a chord amongst the Nepali community in India. It is no wonder that Pataal-Lok’s thirty second clip of the ‘Nepali whore’ immediately triggered a wave of protest steeped in emotions of anger and resentment amongst the Indian Nepalis, always typecast and fit into stereotypes as ‘Bahadurs’ or exotic sex workers or background tea garden workers.
Making sense of the Nepali character in Axone
The Northeast and Nepali identity is often used interchangeably by racist mainlanders to address people from the Eastern borders, highlighted in numerous instances of popular culture which incorporates the ‘Northeastern face’. The assumption of the Manipuri transgender character in the web series ‘Pataal-lok’ streaming on Amazon Prime, as a Nepali for instance is reflective of the cultural stereotyping the ‘Northeastern’ community is subjected to- ‘often misrecognized, unrecognized and treated as foreigners from places such as Nepal, China, Thailand and Nepal and this withholding of “Indianness” works to discriminate against and marginalize them.’1Axone’s representation of the Nepali female character does nothing to disrupt this stereotypes- rather it presents a poor reflection of the Indian Nepalis and their geo-political realities. For instance, Upasna’s intolerance for the smell of Akhuni completely distorts the fact that keenema –a Nepali version of Akhuni- is a relished delicacy amongst the Nepalis reflecting the lack of engagement with the Nepali culture. Amidst the group of North-easterners, Sayani Gupta’s portrayal of Upasna Rai- a Nepali character in the movie Axone raises some pertinent questions about representation, inclusion and accommodation.
The emphasis here seems to be more on amplifying the Otherness of the Nepali character which is rather disturbing especially because of the face chosen to play this character which is closer to the ‘Indian face.’ Does this imply then that the Nepali faces due to their resemblance with the Indian face are free from racist discrimination? All that comes across throughout the movie is Upasna’s desperation to prove her ‘Northeastern’ identity both within and outside the community which while highlighting the differences within the broader ‘Northeastern’ community downplays the realities of the Indian Nepalis equally subjected to racism. Rather than nuanced engagements with these internal differences within the broader Northeastern identity, the Nepali character’s presence is uncomfortably unsettling- out of place and desperate to belong to the Northeast- succinctly explained by her onscreen Northeastern boyfriend when he states that, ‘your best friend thinks you don’t even belong as one of us.’ From the beginning of the movie till the end- Upasna’s friendship with her friend Malem- is incomprehensible to the audience – is she desperate to prove her friendship or desperate to just belong?
No more stereotyping of Nepali Women –Please.
A conscious choice was made by the director in choosing Sayani to play the role- emphasizing the ‘facial difference’ as ‘beauty of art’ but it simply downplays the experiences of Nepali women subject to gendered racism- despite the facial difference. The implication of this choice of facial difference rather problematically implies ‘mainstream looking face as being treated fairly while those with their Mongoloid faces with contempt, lust and malice.’ Instead of calling out gendered racism –which takes different forms and expressions for women with ‘different facial features’ and ‘proper’ Northeastern looking faces- the movie seeks to address these lived realities from a very privileged position of ignorance and oblivion. Nepali women belonging to the upper caste Chettri/Bahun community, Newars, Dalit Nepali women share similar features with the Upper caste Hindu communities in the mainland. The facial similarities however has not prevented Nepali women from being stereotyped, exoticized and sexually objectified, subjected to sexist and racist discrimination.
The fetishism for the ‘Northeastern’ girlfriend therefore is a common experience of most women coming from these regions and Nepali women scattered in different parts of India. Women from these regions are perceived to be ‘sexually available’, ‘wild’, ‘free’ premised upon an exotic understanding of the cultures of these places and communities. Women therefore are subjected to horrific forms of sexual crimes emerging from a structure of gendered racism to everyday insinuations and harassments in the metros. The director may be correct in amplifying the difference of Upasna from the rest of Northeast for after all the ‘Northeast’ is a broad category. The problem however is in the representation of Upasna’s ‘desperate attempt to belong’. It is true that friendships and solidarities between the Northeast and Nepali community are more easily formed vis-a vis their mainstream counterparts. But these solidarities and friendships are fored out of a shared sense of alienation and marginalization faced by these communities.
The movie received both acclaim and criticism within the Northeastern community and the Nepali community scattered in different parts of India. But for most of us Nepali women- Sayani’s portrayal of Upasna was bleak, lacking depth, malleable, pitiful and most importantly conspicuous by her desperate need to belong as a ‘Northeasterner’. Upasna is further presented as a dimwitted, unambitious, malleable character- completely deprived of agency- happy to settle for ‘true love and marriage’ vis-a vis her Northeastern friends- ambitious and career oriented. The representation of Upasna as naïve and childlike in her demeanor- constantly being told what to do by both her friend and her boyfriend is a poor reflection of the Nepali women as opposed to her Northeastern counterparts- strong, opinionated and visibly dominating. It simply seems like her character has been co-opted to amplify the Otherness of the Nepalis within the broader community rather than offering a nuanced engagement with the diversity of the Northeast. Axone which claims to speak for us rather than disrupting stereotypes simply reiterates these stereotyping of Nepali women which haunts the representation of Nepali women onscreen.