Sayani Gupta is a supremely talented actor whose unconventional filmography and role choices make her stand out from the rest.
Even in supporting roles in mainstream movies like Fan and Jolly LLB 2, she ensures that her presence is felt.
Whether it’s playing a visually impaired LGBTQ+ activist in Margarita With A Straw or a courageous village girl in Article 15, she continuously displays her prowess.
Sayani’s forthcoming film Axone is a satire on how people from Northeast India face racism regarding their looks, lifestyle and food habits in the other parts of the country.
It narrates the story of a group of friends who are on a tiring quest to cook Axone – a pork stew with pungent local herbs.
Ahead of the World Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Sayani Gupta speaks to Filme Shilmy on her experience of working on such a socially important film, racism in India and her career so far.
First Article 15 and now Axone is getting its World Premiere in London. How does it feel to have your films gaining international recognition?
It’s good definitely. But most of my earlier films I did were festival movies like Margarita With A Straw. It got a huge international recognition.
We got to travel a lot with the film… It was quite cool. I’ve done both the mass-oriented commercial films as well the independent films.
I’ve been quite fortunate as I had a taste of both worlds.
Article 15 was a film that needed to be made. It spoke about a section of our people that don’t get representation very often.
I think that in itself was an important reason why we wanted the film to resonate with everyone who watches it.
It was heartening to see how much people were moved by it.
Similarly, Axone talks about the representation of Northeastern people in Delhi and the racism there.
It’s a satire but carries a serious message.
As you mentioned, the film deals with racism in a comical way. In what way is such a serious issue balanced in an entertaining manner?
Comedy is the most difficult genre and it isn’t easy to make it.
It’s interesting to see a subject with a pinch of salt and a sense of humour, so one doesn’t wallow in their self-pity but just laugh at the situation they are in.
Which is very apt for the story that Axone is. It’s almost like a comedy of errors because everything starts to fall apart.
They don’t have a place to cook the food because of the smell, they’re getting thrown out of the house they live in… So much is happening.
It just makes one wonder as to how it can be so difficult to cook a traditional dish when people around are not used to it.
It’s so sad that it’s funny.
Why do you feel such racism exists in our country when we’ve always been the ones who have constantly faced it?
I think it’s due to the 200 years of British/colonial rule. There is obviously colonial hangover of fairness.
There is constantly the notion that everything superior is fair and everything inferior is dark.
As such, there is a view that beauty can only mean fair.
I honestly feel it’s the colonial hangover and our industry is also very colour conscious.
I’ve always mentioned that fairness products should not be endorsed by actors because no amount of money can make it okay.
I find it extremely disturbing. But having said that, people do it because there’s a huge market and it pays well.
When it comes to junior artists, the foreign ones are paid more than local ones… Even when it comes to modelling which is so wrong.
It’s great that everyone from the world comes to India to work, but there should be parity in terms of payment and how people are seen.
After doing the film, how shocked were you at the disparity between two groups of people from the same country?
I have lived in Delhi and a lot of my friends were on the receiving end of racism and disparities.
So whilst it did not shock me (as I was already aware of it), it is still important for it to be addressed.
When I read the script, though it made me laugh, I was relieved that someone has at least someone speaks about this.
The director (Nicholas Kharkongor) who is Northeastern himself, documents his first-hand experiences.
Some of my closest friends, who are also from the North East, got into crazy fights because people would say random horrible things to them and even harass them.
It created a very toxic environment.
When you live in Delhi, as a woman, the conditions a very bad. But as a woman from the North-East, they become more susceptible to racism and sexism.
It is very disrespectful.
You’re playing a Nepali character. What was the preparation process like for you?
I was very nervous because the Northeastern accent is very tough to do and there are variations of that accent.
Most of my close friends are from the North-East… As an actor, you’re always trying to play a character as authentically as possible.
Also, out of all the actors in the film, I was the only non Northeastern.
So, the pressure doubled because I knew people would judge my performance with a microscope once the film released. I was extra cautious.
One of my friends helped me line by line and then break them down.
With his guidance, after condensing the dialogues, I added a lot of local lingo/slang… Even though they weren’t in the original script.
I even chose a hairstylist who was Nepali and constantly mentored me with the accent.
I must’ve done every scene numerous times to make sure I didn’t get a single phonetic wrong.
What did you discover the most about Northeast people and culture?
It’s very different in every state. Mostly the food and it is INCREDIBLE.
We were shooting in Humayunpur, a Northeast ghetto in Delhi. They had every kind of Northeastern Cuisine in small restaurants there. We ate so much during the making of this film!
I had taste Assamese and Sikkimese food because of close friends hailing from there, but I never had Naga food and it’s emerged as my favourite.
As far as the people are concerned, it’s like getting to know any other person you work with.
We had a great time and it all seemed like one big family.
Despite it being a film screened at festivals, how do you hope it will strike a chord with commercial audiences?
Right now, the world of films has really expanded. Everyone is watching content from various platforms and countries.
That expansion has really helped in increasing the audience’s taste and appetite for cinema.
I’ve always believed that the audience is intelligent, it’s only us who undermine them.
We didn’t think Article 15 would be such a big success but the film really resonated with people.
Even for Axone, it’s really similar. It’s even more relatable due to the fact that the film is a comedy.
Plus, there are a lot of people in Delhi who have witnessed this kind of racism at first-hand.
The fact that it is a funny film is what makes it commercial.
We’ve never had a film that really represents people from the Northeast, which itself is a huge reason why it has the potential to do well.
You’ve been in the industry for quite some time, but now we are seeing you more prominently. Has this been the phase you’ve always been waiting for?
It’s very funny because I say no to most stuff that comes to me. I have to be incredibly excited about a project to be a part of it.
I have been doing various styles of projects… Sometimes it reaches the audience, sometimes it doesn’t.
But I do ventures that excites me as opposed to what will excite the audience.
The end of 2016 was amazing as I did a lot of really interesting projects. I did two British films that year Darkness Visible and The Hungry.
Darkness Visible was funded by the BFI. It got a small release in the UK and is now on a few digital platforms.
The Hungry also toured at the BFI and other film festivals. That was an exciting and fulfilling experience.
After working continuously for months, I took some time off and refused everything that came to me in 2017. I did 17 short films throughout that year and I travelled alone extensively.
From November 2017 till the last month or so, I must’ve got about 10 days off in total… So I’ve worked every single day.
This is why you will see a lot more of me (laughs). I’ve even worked on season 3 of the British television show The Good Karma Hospital which releases next year.
There is work that I’m doing but it all just depends when (or if ever) it releases. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing more of me!
After impressing us in prominent web series like Inside Edge and Four More Shots Please! We are certain Sayani Gupta’s work in Axone will mark a new benchmark in her career.
The Axone World Premiere takes place at Odeon Tottenham Court Road on 2nd October as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
Watch the Axone Trailer here!