In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a white police officer on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, mass protests have erupted all over the world chanting slogans in union like ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM henceforth), ‘No Justice No Peace’, ‘White silence is Violence’ etc. condemning the death of George Floyd in particular and the oppressive forces of racism in general. It has once again brought the issue of racism to the forefront despite the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelming the world. In the face of racism, the pandemic stands miniscule and innocuous. This has sparked a new life to the debate on racism all over the world amidst a pandemic. Derek Chauvin, the killer, now faces charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Fast forward to June 12, 2020 when Axone, the much-hyped Bollywood movie that sells itself on being the first ever Bollywood movie to highlight racism faced by the people of ‘Northeast’ in the capital city Delhi of India began streaming on NetFlix instead of having a theatre release.
What connects these two incidents is, undoubtedly, the issue of racism. The former revolves around racism in the USA and in the European countries which has forced the oppressors to re-examine their history. Statues of slave owners were tumbled and the White House turns black as protestors raged outside. A symbolic overthrow of the oppressive system indeed. The later revolves around the people from the ‘Northeast’ of India in the capital city of India and the racism they face on a daily basis.
What is most intriguing about these two events is the stark contrast in its approach and understanding. What could have been a part of the international anti-racism uprising, Axone fails to join the movement because the approach and understanding of racism reflected in the movie is exactly what BLM movement is fighting against, the fallacy of ‘individual racism’ as opposed to racism as ‘individual racism supported by institutional power and systemic racism’. Most people understand the term racism from its dictionary meaning. Merriam Webster defines racism as follows:
- a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
- a) a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
- b) a political or social system founded on racism
- racial prejudice or discrimination.
This is the understanding of racism in the film Axone. The director, its casts and crew habitually endorse and preach this understanding of racism. This speaks very loud and clear when the director says, ‘I didn’t want to make a biased film.’ It is assumed in this understanding of racism that anybody who harbours the above given thoughts or act it out can be a racist or has the capacity to act as a racist. Which is why the concept of ‘reverse racism’ seems so alluring and legitimate, a beloved term for the white racists and the brown racists. Chanbi played by Lin Laishram, one of the main protagonists in the movie, embodies this understanding of racism when she tries to console Bendang, her Naga boyfriend whose life hung by a thread when attacked by a group of racist mainlanders because of his race and hair colour, by telling him that he should try to make friends with the mayangs and be not so stuck up in his cocoon. Her words ‘some of them might have problems with us but most of them are nice to us’ mimics the cringey clichéd tropes such as All Lives Matter, Not All Men. It assumes that racism is about ignorance, individual prejudices and scattered isolated incidents.
This understanding of racism is precisely problematic because instead of addressing the problem of racism in its entirety, it only sees the tip of the iceberg of the idea of racism. In this way, the symptoms of the malaise are being equated with the malaise itself. It not only hides from view the origin of racism but the social and systemic nature of racism sustained and supported by the existing institutional powers as well.
To correct this error in the understanding of what racism means, it is reported in The Guardian that “Editors at Merriam-Webster confirmed on Wednesday that they will revise the word’s definition after a campaign by a 22-year-old Drake University graduate, Kennedy Mitchum.”
The Guardian report said Kennedy Mitchum pointed out in an e-mail to Merriam Webster that “Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary,. It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”
While BLM movement focuses on systemic racism supported by institutional power to understand their racism, Axone is unable to get further than the now challenged dictionary meaning. On the one hand, the meaning of racism is changed according to the necessity and the lived realities of blacks so that the term is better suited to the action or concept it signifies. On the other hand, our lived realities are made to fit in the outdated and misleading dictionary meaning of racism which is not capable of explaining the racial oppression we experience in our whole lives. In short, the pledge to change even the dictionary meaning of the term is an act of acknowledgement how short the term is in capturing the reality of existing systemic racism. The fact is, the essence of the term “racism” goes much beyond just individual racial prejudice, and when this difference is not given its due, it can dilute the debate on racism. Racism is not a matter of merely individual ignorance, personal opinion or prejudice. This is a condition in which racial discrimination has been built into the system to make it seem a natural quotidian response of communities in position of greater social and political power.
Axone significantly focuses on individual racism while not touching upon systemic racism. This makes a joke out of racism instead of addressing its seriousness and severity. Bendang’s mental trauma after the attack is relayed to us through the audio of a news clip, carrying us far away from the action or any sense of urgency. The ugliness of the attack hence is relegated to an abstraction in his memory. Chanbi’s words that he is a coward for not protecting her from the men who made lewd and racist remarks at her however leads Bendang to sink into a depression. Chanbi’s reprimand also reminds us that the attack was not something which happened in the distant past and instead was an immediate physical and mental trauma the protagonists were left to tackle. In the face of the assault Bendang presumably was left with two choices – defend Chanbi and perish or else ignore the indignity and survive. He chose the latter, and his mental breakdown is now the price.
In the movie, Bendang goes through a cathartic moment. When he was with Shiv, he blurts out ‘fucking Indian’ and storms out of the room leaving Shiv confused and a bit sad. Shiv asks Zorem the cringey clichéd question ‘you guys don’t think you are Indians?’ Since the movie claims to deal with racism, it is expected that the camera would pan towards Bendang to let the audience feel with empathy the emotional turmoil he was thrown in. Instead, the audience is separated from Bendang and is forced to remain with Shiv the landlord’s son (who incidentally has a fetish for NE girls) and sympathize with him. After this episode, like magic, Bendang is finally able to overcome his mental distress, and is seen singing a joyful Hindi song smiling at Shiv.
In Axone, the audience is introduced to racism through racist individuals and their racist remarks and behaviours. This limits the scope of the movie to individual racism. As far as individual racism is concerned, the focus is on counting the number of people who are racist and who are not racist. Logically, it denies the existence of systemic racism. It ignores the privilege that a racist possesses and the system that sustains it. The audience are expected to believe that the two men who made vulgar remarks at Chanbi are racist, but the crowd that gathered later on are not. The problem is that the two men are let free while Chanbi rants frantically. The crowd does nothing to stop racism but encourages it by gaslighting Chanbi and patronizing her, foreshadowing the unsolicited advice she gives to Bendang in the later part of the movie which amounts to nothing but victim blaming. Their act of silencing Chanbi as well as themselves evokes the famous slogan “White Silence is Violence”. For indeed, systemic racism is what makes individual racism feel normal.
While individual racism is visible and apparent, systemic racism is evasive and silent. The fact that there is not a single strong law in India under which one can file a complaint for racial assault tells us loud and clear of the institutional power that allows racism to prevail in a racist system. When a middle-aged Delhi man spat paan on an M. Phil research scholar from Manipur in Delhi University while calling out ‘corona’ to her in March, 2020, the victim could not file any complaint against the incident stating the ground of racial assault although the attack was plainly motivated by her race and acted with an intent to insult her racially. She was compelled to register a case under section 509 (insulting modesty of a woman) of the IPC which shifts the focus from her race to her sex.
In this case too, far from making an attempt at ending racism, the legal system failed to even acknowledge the racial assault. Indeed, institutional racism does not point towards any individual perpetrator but absolve the racist individuals of the racial crime they commit. It reinforces racism with the subtle message that no matter what, you can never be racist in the eyes of the law. As reported in CNN, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd is still eligible for pension worth more than 1 million dollars even if he is convicted. This is how systemic racism which permeates to every aspect of life works. In the Bollywood industry, the obvious casting of Priyanka Chopra, a champion of anti-racism in the USA, to play the six-time World boxing Champion player Mary Kom from Manipur shows how structural racism is embedded in the world of visual representation in India. A more serious form of racism that pervades the ‘Northeast’ states in India is the draconian Act, the AFSPA, defended by the Constitution of India under which cases of 1528 extra-judicial killings have been filed by EEVFAM and are still pending investigation and chargesheeting by the CBI though directed by the Supreme Court to do so.
Axone could have been a flicker from the ‘Northeast’ of India that flames the fire of the anti-racism movements happening all around the world at the moment. But then again, pointed out by a friend, to analyse a Bollywood movie and an international uprising from the same lens would be an overkill. Looking at the bright side, it restarted a conversation on racism in India even though the film itself fails miserably in addressing racism in India. Endorsing systemic racism through its erasure of political history, economic exploitation, cultural appropriation and last but not the least, victim blaming, Axone embodies a direct contrast to the ironic statement in the poem of Tenzin Dalha, a Tibetan who plays Zorem in this movie, ‘If I were to talk of systemic racism, this poem would be swept under the carpet too.”