Axone – A tale told wrong?

Elders from the Galo community during the Galo Welfare Society’s foundation day celebration in West Siang district.

[ Marli Kamki ]
Someone said to me, “It has to be worth the wait.” This after the much-awaited film, Axone, was announced to be released digitally via Netflix on 12 June, 2020.
To be honest, I wasn’t that excited actually.
But then the D-Day arrived, and by the same evening, a particular scene from the film, showing a reference to the customary marriage practice of the Galo tribe, was all over the numerous social media platforms, leaving many from the community hurt and offended.
I must have looked at that particular video clip for, like, six times. Yes, being a Galo, I was quite baffled like the others as, having had the opportunity to attend laayap ceremonies quite a few times, I found the one shown in the film somewhat strange.
So, one thing led to another and I ended up downloading and watching the film, after shamelessly asking a female friend for her Netflix ID and password.

What is Axone about?
The film is about a group of friends coming from different Northeast states who have made Delhi their second home. It follows their story and the pains they take to cook a dish using axone – a pungent-smelling ingredient – for one of their friends who is about to get married.
It also rightly captures the ordeals (starting from sexist comments to racial slurs, attacks, cultural ignorance, etc) someone from the Northeast has to go through in the national capital, and how people from different regions in the country bond over friendship and love.
Axone (called piiyak/agyaa in Galo) is actually fermented soybeans, savoured by many across the northeastern states of the country. Other tribal communities in Arunachal also have their own name for it. The particular delicacy prepared in the film is the one popularized across the country by the Nagas.

The controversy
Towards the end of the film, Minam, one of the central characters, has to marry Chimar. Minam is in Delhi for her IAS interview, and Chimar is in his native place. They marry according to the customary marriage rituals of laayap via Skype (a computer application tool).
However, in place of the bride, her sister is shown sitting with Chimar and performing all the rituals on her behalf. The nyibu/shaman (who usually presides over such rituals) is shown objecting to such practise, saying it doesn’t happen anymore, but relents, considering the extraordinary situation both Minam and Chimar are in.
Now, this particular scene (about one-and-a-half minutes long) has come as a shocker to many from the Galo community as they consider it to be a wrong portrayal of their tradition and customary practices.
And the line, “This only happens in Minam’s tribe,” only adds to it.
This particular scene implies one thing, ie, the existence of the practise of ‘bride replacement’ in Minam’s community, and that a certain ancient ritual is associated with it.
Members of other tribal communities in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, including the Galos themselves, have been left thunderstruck over the existence of such practices among the Galos.
Many have questioned me about the same, which must be out of curiosity, I suppose. Nowhere in the movie is the word ‘Galo’ mentioned by any of the characters, but the presentation of Minam’s character clearly implies that she is a Galo.

Who are the Galos?
The Galos are an indigenous tribal community primarily inhabiting West Siang, Lower Siang and Leparada districts, the southeastern side of Upper Subansiri district and in various settlements in other districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Descending from the same Abo Tani group, the Galos are considered genetically closer to other tribal communities like the Tagins, the Adis of Shi-Yomi district, the Nyishis, etc.
The Galo community has been recognized as a scheduled tribe under the Amendment of the Constitution (ST), Order, 1950, Part-XVIII.
As a community, the Galos have a rich repository of indigenous knowledge, culture and traditions, which are passed down orally from generation to generation. For example: We have a unique naming pattern in our community. We follow a patrilineal method to name our children.
The last syllable of the father’s name (the ‘patrisyllable’) is used as the first syllable of the child’s name (the ‘autosyllable’). For instance, Jumnya-Nyamar-Marli. Here, Jumnya is my late grandfather, Nyamar is my father, and Marli, that’s me.
Let’s take another example. Say, if the father’s name is Tanii, then the children may be named as Niito, Niiya and Niishi. Now, this may continue as Tani-Nito-Topo-Poni-Nikam-Kamki, and so on.
Since the Galo people had no written language of their own, this method of naming helped them in remembering their origins.

My take
Personally, I am elated and dumbstruck at the same time. Elated because this is probably the first mainstream film with story and characters (and the actors) from the Northeast; elated because, out of all tribal communities in Arunachal Pradesh, Nicholas (the director) chose our culture to be showcased on the big screen. I’m dumbstruck because a one-minute scene in the film left me questioning myself.
Just like other northeastern states, Arunachal Pradesh is known for its varied culture and diversity as it is home to as many as 29 major tribes and numerous sub-tribes exceeding more than a hundred. Every tribal community is blessed with their own heritage, rich cultural practices and traditions, which form an intrinsic part of their lives.
Trbials hold culture, customs and traditions close to their heart. Their wrongful depiction for consumption of the mass media is definitely bound to hurt anyone. It hurts more when the one steering the ship is a fellow brethren from Meghalaya.
Not just the tribals but any other community from the Northeast or any other region of the country would cry foul over similar instances.
Days ago, after the release of Pataal Lok, the Gorkha community was agitated by the use of certain dialogues in the series which they considered derogatory to their community. They had even filed complaints with the police and the Human Rights Commission for banning the series.
I had then vouched for the creators of Pataal Lok. I still do. The lines, although derogatory, portrayed the ugly happenings and the racial slurs used against the Gorkhas and the northeastern people in Delhi and elsewhere.
Even in social media engagements with many others, I had contended whether banning the series or getting its creators arrested would solve the huge divide and racial discrimination faced by our people. I had to quote scenes depicting racial slurs and abuse from the award-winning movie, 12 Years a Slave (which depicts the harrowing tale of black American slaves back in the day), to put forth my point.
But this is different. Those complaining of wrong portrayal of their customary practices are not attempting to hide or run away from the harsh realities. They are just offended over what they feel – wrong portrayal.
From the little that I know and have learned, filmmaking is an art. Many have used it as a form of expression over the years. Agreed, creative freedom allows you to push boundaries, and I get the larger message that the director intends to convey with his film while using fiction to tell stories everyone from Northeast (who have lived or are living in Delhi) can relate to.
Let’s get back to the scene again – Chimar’s grandmother has just had a heart attack and she could die anytime, leading to the premise that the marriage was done for the sake of his grandmother who wanted to see his grandson married by following traditional customs before her demise.
The film has portrayed an extraordinary circumstance, whereby both the bride and the groom had to marry despite being far away from each other. Different people will have different ways to perceive this scene.
If one looks at it the other way, the director might have wanted to present Minam as a righteous girl who wanted to stick to her roots despite being away from home when she took part in her marriage via Skype after allowing her sister to take her place during the marriage ritual.
The scene could have also been enacted to spice up the plot of the film. Only the director can tell what was in his mind. Even amongst my community, members have taken to the film and given their own interpretations, particularly with regards to the marriage scene. But most of the reactions are unanimous when it comes to wrong portrayal of the customary practices.
More research could have been done before coming up with the marriage scene – which, incidentally, is the main plot of the film – or the scene could have been presented in a different way without ruffling feathers.
Galo marriage customs involve different transactions between the bride, the groom and their respective families. These definitely don’t involve the concept of ‘bride replacement’. Whether someone has done it in the past or not, I can’t say. But almost everyone I have talked to has denied the existence of such a practise.
The community might have not been mentioned anywhere in the 1 hour 43 minutes’ long film, but the references are too strong to just ignore. The question here is not about curbing anyone’s creative freedom but course corrective measures should and has to be put in place. It is still not late, I suppose.
Seldom does anything aptly and actually depicting the different communities of the Northeast on the celluloid comes out. When it does, there will obviously be expectations against any misadventure. Is it wrong for anyone to expect that?
And while the entire team of Axone basks in the positive reception of this witty yet culturally-rooted tale, many from the Galo community in India’s blind spot stand hurt, anguished and agitated over the vilified misrepresentation.