As kids in the late-1970s and ‘80s, Zoya Akhtar and her brother Farhan were always surrounded by stacks of Archie Comics, an enchanting and somewhat already antiquated view into American culture besides the movies and the music. They were a permanent curiosity frozen in time, like skating or rock-and-roll. “My mother was reading them before me,” says Zoya, who recalls cycling down to a local lending library in Bombay to pick up issues. There were also bookstores that sold the bumper Archie Double Digests. “The big 500-pagers were a huge treat to sit with and go through and fight over.”
Of course, back then, the adventures of Archie, Betty and Veronica and the rest of the Riverdale gang were much ‘simpler’, redolent of an easy-going Americana, before Jon Goldwater stepped in and ushered the comic into the 21st Century. “When I read the newer comics,“ says Zoya, “They are more diverse and inclusive, in sync with today’s zeitgeist.”
The Archies— a live-action musical adaptation that recasts the beloved American characters as teenagers in a hill station in 1960s India — is releasing on Netflix on December 7. At its centre is a classic Archie conflict: a quest to save Riverdale, with a smattering of heartbreak and life lessons. The film stars a host of young actors — Agastya Nanda as Archie, Suhana Khan as Veronica, Khushi Kapoor as Betty, Mihir Ahuja as Jughead, Vedang Raina as Reggie, Aditi ‘DOT’ Saigal as Ethel and Yuvraj Menda as Dilton — and has been written by Zoya, Reema Kagti, and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon.
Zoya says that from the outset, she wanted to make a wholesome, nostalgic, family-friendly Archie, eschewing the smuttiness and genre experimentation represented by something like the Riverdale TV series.
“I wanted to do a kids’ film,” says the director of Gully Boy, Lust Stories and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara who has also backed the edgy and much buzzed-about web shows like Made in Heaven and Dahaad.
“I’m doing something on a streaming platform and there’s a lot of — including what we’ve done in the past — adult narratives, so here was my chance to do something for the tweens and to really talk to them. The film is set in a simpler time in India and we wanted to keep that innocence and that wholesomeness. It is that one film where the whole family can sit together and happily watch.”
Early promos of The Archies drew criticism over the casting — debutants Agastya, Suhana and Khushi all hail from renowned film families. Zoya, in an interview, knocked the media for its apparent hypocrisy over nepotism, since it fixated on the three star kids on the film’s poster and ignored the others. During our interaction, Zoya declined to address the controversy directly, but did reiterate in another context that the film has ‘seven’ and not ‘three’ leads.
“In the comics, because there’s a love triangle and it is called Archie Comics, so Archie is a lead in that sense. But there are entire issues dedicated to just Betty and Veronica, or just Jughead or Dilton or Reggie. People say ‘three leads’ because it is a love triangle, so to speak. But I see seven leads in the film.”
She describes the entire cast as equally talented. “They all have a particular comfort in front of the camera, a particular kind of confidence that comes through. You cannot tell it is their first time. They are not awkward in themselves and in their skin.”
Zoya Akhtar on finding her Archie (not making him orange-haired)
….I needed Archie to have an innocence. You have to believe that he’s not a player. He genuinely likes both Betty and Veronica, and you have to see that. You know he wears his heart on his sleeve and Agastya just has that loveable, likable quality.
….I thought it would be pushing it too much to make him a Carrot Top. It was nicer to keep it within what boys from the Anglo-Indian community look like. They have brown to black to light brown hair. It was better to keep it in that range, right?
Initially, Zoya wanted to set the film amidst the Anglo-Indian community so as to retain the characters’ original names. But as they researched, the cultural history of Anglo-Indians started to chime with the ‘essence’ of Archie Comics. “There was a culture of music and fashion and food that was important to them. There was a culture of dating. There was the history of how they were placed in India… the hill stations, the architecture. A lot of the values were similar. There was a lot about the community that lent itself to this story.”
Zoya stands by the whimsical and idyllic visual design of The Archies, a sharp breakaway from the gritty environs of her previous feature, the slum rap musical Gully Boy. The film has been shot by Nikos Andritsakis (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Ugly) and the production design is by longtime collaborator Suzanne Caplan Merwanji.
“We fused hill station in India in the 1960s with a magical, Enid Blyton-y, dreamy aesthetic,” Zoya says. “We had to push the sense of reality because it’s there when you read the comics as a kid. You go like, ‘Oh that milkshake looks perfect, these friends are really fun, I could wear that mini-skirt..’” Her brother, actor-filmmaker Farhan Akhtar, wrote the dialogue while her father Javed Akhtar penned the lyrics (Va Va Voom, a phrase present in the original comics, came from Farhan and later became a song.)
On the potential of expanding The Archies into a franchise, given the vastness and wildness of the IP, Zoya says it will all depend on the audience reception. “It will be fun to figure out new ways of doing it.”