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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 05 March 2024

The Archies: Zoya Akhtar’s Bollywood-meets-Broadway teen drama tries to be more than the comics

Starring Suhana Khan, Agastya Nanda and Khushi Kapoor, Riverdale in the Netflix film centres around an Anglo-Indian community in north India

Ramona Sen Calcutta Published 08.12.23, 12:23 PM
The Archies, directed by Zoya Akhtar, is streaming on Netflix

The Archies, directed by Zoya Akhtar, is streaming on Netflix

I discovered Archie comics at the age of eleven, much to my mother’s consternation. They quickly became contraband in the house because she didn’t want me picking up the wrong ideas from American teenage lives, about hanging out over milkshakes and dating boys. Of course, I caught up on the antics of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica on the sly. Those comic strips were a portal into a different world which bore little resemblance to my own or anything I was familiar with.

Zoya Akhtar’s Netflix film The Archies — starring Suhana Khan, Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja, Yuvraj Menda and Aditi Dot — manages to capture that feeling of disbelief. It’s even more confusing because it’s 1964, Archie Andrews and his gang are Anglo-Indian midnight’s children of sorts, living in an idyllic town called Riverdale tucked away in the hills of North India. The film demands that its audience imagine the Archies as an Anglo-Indian community who live fantastical lives in this fantastical land.

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Founded by an Englishman called John Riverdale in 1914, Riverdale might as well be Narnia, where its residents speak contemporary Hinglish and are stylishly turned out all the time in modern retro fashion imitative of America in the 1960s. Archie & Friends are 17 (on the cusp of adulthood, as they always seem to be), leading American sitcom lives (the dream I wasn’t allowed to dream), and clearly not dressed for the tropical hills as they cycle about the sets that evoke the mise en scène of the American comedy drama series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The Archies has been stitched together with ingredients Akhtar assumes her audience already has a palate for — like a do-it-herself Donburi with our favourite combination of meat and veggies. There’s a bookshop out of a storybook managed by Betty Cooper’s father, enviable wardrobes and houses for people apparently living simple lives, a patch of green to save and therefore a higher purpose to live for, idealistic kids who stick up for The Right Thing against corrupt or jaded adults, and of course plenty of song-and-dance a la Bollywood-meets-Broadway to convey life lessons and real emotion.

Riverdale High girls come together in Jughead’s imagination to demonstrate how Archie should watch his back, in a sequence reminiscent of ‘Cell Block Tango’ in Chicago while all the kids seek to show Archie how misguided he is, in a chorus which will take you back to High School Musical — ‘We're All In This Together’.

If you grew up reading Archie comics, you’ll look for and be able to find all your favourite markers — Pop Tate’s chocolate milkshake for instance as well as an insatiably hungry and impossibly girl-averse Jughead whose crown is replaced with a bakerboy cap. Mr Weatherbee has hair but Miss Grundy is still no-nonsense. Yes, you might miss Archie’s jalopy and the fact that Moose doesn’t threaten Reggie enough. There’s also Dilton the token gay geek, but it’s passe to hate on him in this fantasy ’60s era, so Reggie — the boy Dilton has a crush on — tucks away his arrogant swagger to comfort the cleverest boy in the school, displaying a moment of wisdom beyond his age, epoch and even his character.

Reggie is the unexpected surprise in Zoya Akhtar’s film. On screen, he possesses an emotional awareness which he never did on page. In Akhtar’s universe, underneath the cute-boy-hair flip is a young man with intelligence and depth. And in case you thought Archie was always just a harmless doofus, watching him oscillate between Betty and Veronica will remind you of that boy you want your friends to never end up with.

At its best The Archies is a parody of everything that is represented as quintessentially ’60s in popular culture. At its worst, it’s just Indians play-acting as Americans on an elaborate stage. With little depth and too much imitation, most of the characters and plot simply do not ring true. Everyone is sugar-coated, even the bad guys are like Disney villains. Archie, who shows no signs of growing up, makes a rash impulsive decision to postpone college in London because rescuing Riverdale’s heritage from being uprooted (literally) becomes more important.

Betty and Veronica forgive Archie as they always have, even though adolescent romances are usually far more tumultuous. It’s a world where everyone is eager to forgive and forget, even Mr Lodge who refuses to waste a second being angry at his daughter’s treachery. The fuzzy feel-goodness will bring to mind movies like Enchanted but we’re no longer in the early millennium still reaching for the simplistic, rose-tinted comedies of the ’90s.

And yet, The Archies does attempt to be more than just a cosy-comical romance-ridden teenage drama fantasy from the comic books. It tries to emphasise how growth and development come at a grand personal cost — unhappiness and disillusion. With successful entrepreneurs advocating 70-hour weeks, selling our souls for a higher pay cheque is par for the course if we want to live wealthier (and therefore better) lives. What Akhtar has done is capture the zeitgeist, because as we’re discovering that Gen Z is reluctant to be chained to offices or choose things that keep them tethered to a constant cash flow. They would rather be able to skate around their Green Park and hang out at their local chocklit shoppe than sell out to the highest bidder for the so-called better life.

Betty has the self-awareness to understand that her father doesn’t just sell books, he shapes the personalities of children. Gen Z knows that there’s more to life than just profit but also that everything is politics – a lesson Archie himself learns rather quickly (too quickly to believe that someone so receptive to advice would be so exhaustingly indecisive about his romantic interests). But where is that going to take them? Will they crumble like the parents of Archie and Betty when faced with the choice of trading up? Will they find a way to be happy with their quaint local comforts? We can only wait to find out.

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