Zoya Akhtar's The Archies Is Like A Boomer Costume Party Starring B'wood's Gen Z Darlings 
Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies Is Like A Boomer Costume Party Starring B’wood’s Gen Z Darlings 

The Archies theme is like a trip to Mohenjo-daro

To mark the arrival of her favourite little ones in Bollywood, filmmaker Zoya has thrown a grand costume party called The Archies. But, strangely, she decided that the theme of her carefully curated, very precious party won’t be something that the kids know or can relate to. Instead, she picked a theme that belongs to bachcha-log’s mummy, papa and her generation. The very-very American world of Archie comics is a sweet, faded memory that lingers somewhere in the minds and personalities of the boomer and Gen X generation (those born between the 1960s and 1980s). 



Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Moose, Jughead, Ethel and Dilton with their silly, vanilla humour are characters that fuelled the imagination of our Doordarshan generation on slow afternoons. Mostly we rented these comic books from local libraries. Sometimes we stole them because they gave us a glimpse into a foreign world where friends bantered, fought, joked, romanced and ate. Archie comics gave us some serious styling goals, and made us crave pink sundaes and burgers with fries at a time when the only burgers I had seen were the ones sold in cinema halls, and it was basically an aloo ki tikki with a fat onion slice sitting inside two greasy buns.


For Bollywood royalty that half-heartedly sip frappuccinos while posting selfies on their Instagram page, The Archies theme is like a trip to Mohenjo-daro.


So kudos to them that Agastya Nanda (Archie), Khushi Kapoor (Betty), Suhana Khan (Veronica), Vedang Raina (Reggie), Mihir Ahuja (Jughead), Yuvraj Menda (Dilton) and Dot (Ethel) look the part. And some of them can act as well. But the film never feels like it’s theirs. It feels like they are guests invited to Zoya Akhtar’s world where they get to play dress up and dance and smile when instructed.


The reason for that is not the generational confusion, but stilted writing (by Zoya Akhtar, hairstylist-turned-scriptwriter Ayesha DeVitre Dhillon and Reema Kagti) and direction. The characters are one-dimensional copies of the comic book characters, but less animated because they are caged in a very lame, predictable plot. But even that could have been dealt with if Zoya Akhtar knew how to have some fun. The Archies’ basic problem is Akhtar’s misplaced pursed-lip seriousness with which she has constructed this world and conducted the proceedings. 


The film’s setting is supposed to be an imagined hill station in north India, but it’s actually a place born out of the manicured fantasies of second-generation Bandra and Santacruz-wasis. It is a world where girls and boys dress up like they are in Grease 2, but whose daddy reminds you of Captain Georg Von Trapp and mummy is Julie Andrews ki behen who glides about in her frock, enjoying a few of her favourite things. 


There are no real laughs, no jokes in The Archies. Just self-conscious preening of Bollywood babies in this sun-kissed, comic-book-perfect world. The film does get slightly better in the second half. But I needed three glasses of wine to get through the first half. You too should pour yourself something before reaching for the remote. 



The Archies, set in 1964, arrives with a back story which explains how Riverdale came to be the place where Anglo-Indians dwell in sweet harmony with pastries and nature. The town where some residents speak the hoinga, jayenga dialect, has a bookstore run by Betty’s sweet daddy, a very pink beauty parlour where Ethel works, Pop Tate’s soda-pizza-burger place where Jughead eats more than he serves, a band that Archie leads, and a local paper run by Reggie’s dad.


The film’s story becomes clear the moment Veronica Lodge arrives in Riverdale in a limousine with her rich businessman dad, Hiram (Alyy Khan). He plans to turn Riverdale into a town of malls and customers, and has set his evil eye on the sacred Green Park where each resident has planted a tree that bears their name and date of birth. A corrupt official in the town’s council is helping Hiram and we pretty much know how it’s all going to end.   


To delay the inevitable, a lot of time is spent on introducing the characters and their motivation to us, though they are all single-note. We meet them at their precious school, Riverdale High, and at their home. The gist is this: Betty loves Archie, Archie can’t decide between Betty and Veronica, Veronica doesn’t care who she is with as long as she is the centre of  attention and everyone’s first choice, Reggie likes to snog, Jughead wears a dreary flat cap, Ethel is smart.


All is going as it should, with a little joy, laughter and some sad Dear Diary moments, till things begin to change in Riverdale. Bad businessman Cooper has started to buy shops, turning owners into employees at his stores. And Riverdale, which once felt like Hobbit land with boys and girls going on their cycles to visit friends, is beginning to resemble a gated residential colony in Gurgaon. 


The first half of the film, in which William Shakespeare is quoted, followed by William Faulkner, feels dull and dead. The kids sing and dance, but the choreography is joyless and the young actors, especially Suhana, Agastya and Vedang, look anemic and dehydrated, as if they’ve been put on a strict zero-carb, zero-salt vegan diet. The two-hour-23-minute film picks up exactly at one-hour-eight minutes when Archie, who is headed to a college in London, announces in his classroom, “I don’t think about politics. Uska meri life se kya lena dena“. Reggie, Dilton, Jughead exchange glances and break into a song.


This is Zoya Akhtar’s ‘I want a Grease2-style Reproduction song’ moment. Though it doesn’t feel organic, and nor it is a patch on the electrifying, risque original, it does breathe some life into the film which had been comatose till now. The song’s lyrics are like the opening lines of Politics for Dummies, but here onwards the kids band together to fight a common enemy, and the film gets some political heft and purpose.


What follows is a primer from kids in chauffeur-driven SUVs on how to save a community park, with several well-meaning messages thrown in. There’s a scene about gay love, a slap on the wrist of newspaper editors who kowtow to big corporate interests and some lite feminism. But the most powerful and relevant message is the one about a minority community whose members claim Riverdale as their “mulk”, a home where they too have planted trees and are equal co-owners.


All this politics doesn’t ever feel like it belongs to the film’s characters. In fact, I could almost feel the presence of Zoya, Kagti & Co. in some of these scenes. Yet, just like Archie transforms mid-song, the film’s politics, coupled with its staggering naivety, began to grow on me. As the kids danced and protested to save trees, their dream of a perfect world made me feel my cynicism is jaded and pointless. And despite their selfie expressions, the cute dimples of Khan, Bachchan-Nanda and Kapoor began to look less entitled, and a little bit vulnerable. 



When you love someone, you automatically love their child. And so it is with the daughters of Shah Rukh Khan, Sridevi, and Amitabh Bachchan’s grandson. Suhana Khan arrives with silken straight hair and the air of entitlement required of Veronica. As she skates around on roller blades, it’s as if she is allowing the world a few moments to watch her and return the favour by tingling her interest and making sure she’s not bored.  


Suhana is charming and has a lovely smile. But she smiles a lot, and then smiles some more, never really going beyond that. In several scenes she seems so caught up in looking perfect that the tension makes her body stiff. Even when she dances, it looks like she is doing the steps but has no rhythm. Agastya Nanda is cute. He looks and acts the part of the confused, self-obsessed Archie who can’t decide which girl he loves and so he courts both and cheats on both. Though he clearly has potential, there’s no moment when his character leaps out and touches us.


Khushi Kapoor, however, has many such moments. Her Betty is quite fabulous and it’s her feelings for Archie that are the only real thing in this film. Vedang Raina can clearly act. But he, like others, sacrificed to let Bollywood babies shine. Both Suhana and Agastya need to stop going to the gym and dance classes and enroll instead in acting classes where the air conditioning doesn’t work. They don’t just need to learn the chops, they also need to live a little in the real world that their audience lives in.  


Zoya Akhtar is a very fine writer and director who has made some seriously strange stuff. Whenever she stays real, there’s magic on the screen. But the moment she goes for posh, everything she touches turns to plastic. There are several similarities between Karan Johar’s Student of the Year and Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies, including in the fetishised school interiors, uniforms, and even the politics they sprinkle like jimmies.  


But the la la land world that Karan Johar creates has interesting Punjabi campiness and an inherent Punjabi-bhenji vibe which stops it from feeling pretentious. He is also funny and melodramatic. Zoya doesn’t do funny. She’s a serious director. In The Archies, there’s just one smashing dialogue and it is assigned to Betty Cooper’s mother played by Koel Purie. 


That’s why Akhtar’s The Archies, despite being set in a gorgeous, perfect world, is bland and boring, as if we are watching a rerun of an old sitcom where every few minutes someone arrives with a large placard, telling the live audience to “Laugh”.


I wish someone had held a placard throughout the film at Zoya Akhtar that read, “Chill! It’s just Archies”.


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