As Suhana Khan, daughter of Shah Rukh Khan, and Khushi Kapoor, daughter of producer Boney Kapoor, make their respective entries in Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies, the sunny opening number ‘Sunoh’ welcomes them in. In fact, in a supremely unsubtle gesture, the words ‘suhani’ and ‘khushi’ ring out on the track. Did veteran lyricist Javed Akhtar come up with this glowing idea, or was it his co-songwriter Dot? Either way, it sends out a wrong message. These kids have hardly set a foot into their first film and are exerting an influence.
It was pleasantly surprising to learn that Akhtar would be helming a live-action Indian adaptation of Archie Comics. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s — and frequented railway station bookstalls — you would be familiar with the original comics and know the basic character types and premise. For anyone else, there is five decades of Hindi romantic cinema for reference. From Bobby to Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, our films have always borrowed the Archie template (and mood board). The obsession has carried through into the present age; the two Student of the Year films, for example, or the visual design of Rohit Shetty’s hill station comedies.
Unfortunately, this makes things a little tricky for Akhtar and co-writers Reema Kagti and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon. They know audiences here are all too familiar with the Archie setup, or at least, the famous love triangle at its heart. They are too clever a bunch of creators to serve up something basic and bland. Yet, the platform they have partnered with, Netflix, already has Riverdale; it makes sense they would want their Indian Archie to look and feel drastically different. Akhtar tries her best to strike a balance, but fails. Akhtar’s film feels nostalgic, idealistic…. simplistic.
Also Read: Suhana Khan makes her singing debut with song ‘Jab Tum Na Theen’
The Riverdale of this Archies adaptation is an idyllic hill station in 1960s India. It’s introduced to us in loving terms by Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda), who is 17 and fronts a band. His plane Jane neighbour, Betty Cooper (Khushi Kapoor), nurses a crush on him. While Archie is making plans to begin college in London — “What if Cliff Richard had never left Lucknow?” he asks his parents — his ex, heiress Veronica Lodge (Suhana Khan), has just returned from there. Veronica’s father, Hiram (Alyy Khan), has sinister plans to redevelop the town, converting its centrally-placed Green Park into a luxury hotel. It’s the year of Nehru’s death, 1964, so it is feasible that capitalism is afoot.
The Archies (Hindi)
Director: Zoya Akhtar
Cast: Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor and Suhana Khan, Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja,
Run-time: 141 minutes
Storyline: In 1960s India, Archie, Betty, Veronica and others team up to save Riverdale from greedy capitalists
We meet the other members of the Riverdale crew — Vedang Raina as Reggie, Mihir Ahuja as Jughead, Aditi ‘Dot’ Saigal as Ethel, Yuvraj Menda as Dilton, Rudra Mahuvarkar as Moose and Santana Roach as Midge. Somewhere between finishing school, working part-time jobs, and keeping and losing track of the Archie-Ronnie-Betty ever-shifting romance, these kids will come of age and team up to save Green Park. Akhtar threads together the tale with a set of peppy musical numbers. She takes the American approach, with dialogue and scenario spilling into song. There are no unapologetic ‘fantasy’ sequences here in the strict Hindi film sense. Though The Archies pays tribute to Shammi Kapoor and Mohammad Rafi, it’s a little self-conscious of coming across as too Bollywood.
Some moments come alive by themselves, like the scene where Archie and Betty cycle down to Green Park at dusk. The funniest gag — which arrives all too late — has a handcuffed Jughead being interrogated with a ring of mouth-watering food. The writers have transplanted the story to the experiences of the Anglo-Indian community in the 1960s. We get a mix of accents, hairstyles and personal histories. Archie’s grandfather, we learn, stayed back after Independence and started a travel agency, donating amply to charity. Reggie’s grandfather founded a pro-Independence newspaper.
The kids are all right. Vedang Raina stands out as a handsome, shiny-haired Reggie. Suhana Khan does a traditional interpretation of Veronica (“It’s too early in the morning to get this foxy,” Archie tells her at one point). Agastya, a decent lead, delivers his lines in a hushed, far-off way. It’s as if Archie is always non-committal about what he says or feels. Most effective, however, is Kapoor’s sad, unvarnished performance. Betty’s soliloquies are wonderfully melancholic (they are sung by Dot). Akhtar knows how to throw a party in the supporting cast; Puja Sarup, Vinay Pathak, Suhaas Ahuja, Delnaaz Irani….
The Archies can make for a cozy Christmas watch, easy on the eyes and heart. However, coming from a director like Akhtar, whose Gully Boy(2019) emitted a rare charge, brimming with slang and spunk and detail, it feels like a letdown. The film’s celebration of a bygone socialist-idealist ethos is held back by its all too immaculate design. The Andrews’ family Ambassador is a perfect shade of blue; a road trip appears to play out of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. There are few rough edges of note. This one’s a miss, but perhaps Zoyakins will surprise us next time.
The Archies is currently streaming on Netflix