• Director: Zoya Akhtar
  • Starring: Agastya Nanda, Suhana Khan, Khushi Kapoor, Vedang Raina
  • Rating: 2.5 stars

A picture-perfect hill town. Beautiful people who appear to have stepped straight out of a salon. Colourful men, women and children playing dress up with bouffant, stiff jackets, pipes and swing skirts. Idealistic, well-behaved teens fighting for a cause. And a happily ever-after-ending.

The Archies, directed by Zoya Akhtar paints a utopian world in a comic book frame. It is evident from the opening credits that Zoya, the maker behind deeply layered, complex yet highly entertaining movies and series like Luck by Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Gully Boy and Made in Heaven, has treated this Netflix release with an indulgent feathery touch that a title like this deserved. It’s a musical, a comedy, a teen love story and a film with a message. (Yes, it’s all of those)!

Let’s get straight to the story. In Riverdale, a sweet little hill town in 1964 India, resides a group of 17-year-old Anglo-Indian kids with their families. This is a community that has been criminally under-represented in Indian cinema, so seeing them on screen is a welcome change though it’s far from a realistic representation.

Archie (Agastya Nanda) is Riverdale’s heartthrob with two pretty girls Betty (Khushi Kapoor) and Veronica (Suhana Khan) vying for his attention. He has other friends (Jughead Jones, Ethel Muggs, Big Moose, Reggie etc) each with their minor quirks but together they are a happy bunch who cycle around town, go swimming in the sun, dance in the park and do the twist at house parties. The plot revolves around these teens with the adults merely playing supporting parts, so one would assume it would be about teenage heartache, triangular puppy love, competition, falling in love and adulting. Say, a 1960s version of ‘The Kissing Booth’ or ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’….the regular teen fluff stuff.

Wrong. The fluff is there in dollops but the story is about a historical ‘Green Park’ being usurped by corporates (including a parent of one of the kids) for a hotel, which the youngsters are determined to stop. Now, not all teen movies need to be about love, fun and coming-of-age. One can have a frothy movie about pretty youngsters who also have a conscience.

But the question is – why call it The Archies then?

For people of a certain vintage, Archie comics were a window to the American way of life. The books were an essential part of growing up and I remember exchanging them with schoolmates, with each taking their own side in the Betty vs Veronica battle for Archie’s love. Leafing through an Archie was as comforting as watching an episode of Friends – a chuckle and good times were guaranteed. One actually felt we were part of Riverdale’s residents.

The Archies offers no such feeling. Neither does it take Gen Xers on a nostalgic ride nor does it offer something new to millennials or Gen-Zers who may not be familiar with this world. The Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones in this film could have been called any other name and it would have made no difference. For something that was marketed as an ‘Indianised’ version of the comics, that’s a huge letdown. The only thing ‘Archie’ about the characters in the film are the names.

The bratty Ronnie and sassy Betty I remember, fought hard for Archie’s affection. Here, they are best friends who are ready to sacrifice their love for friendship – because, girl bonding! Reggie isn’t a mean guy, always ready to steal Archie’s thunder and Jughead doesn’t crack a single cheeky, sardonic one-liner.

The result is that the fun gets zapped out of the characters! In comparison, Karan Johar’s uber stylised, unrealistic Student of the Year starring Alia Bhatt, Sid Malhotra and Varun Dhawan had more verve and spunk.

The next big question – how do the “nepo kids” fare? From the time the movie was launched to its release, the spotlight has been on the famous star kids making their debut. So here’s the verdict. Agastya is a born star. He has an inherent charm, and while it’s too early to rank his acting chops, the young man has a tremendous screen presence. As does Suhana Khan, Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter. Her Veronica doesn’t have the zest or the haughtiness of her comic book original and her dialogue delivery falls flat in some places. But she does sparkle in a few scenes and hopefully the journey will be better from here. Khushi Kapoor is charming. Among the rest, the hot Vedang Raina as Reggie makes an impact.

But the reason why none of them stand out is because the young debutants appear too conscious of expectations placed on them. Secondly, the screenplay (credited to Akhtar, Reema Kagti and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon) places them in boxes where they look like the Archie comics characters but have none of their essence.

Having said that, The Archies is an enjoyable watch, especially compared to the serious violent and cuss-words laden films we have been treated to of late. There is a subtle hint of political messaging (one of the Anglo-Indian characters talks about the country belonging to the minorities as well), and there is a radio address where Archie likens the cutting of trees to cutting down one’s past. William Shakespeare and William Faulkner are quoted, and Ruskin Bond is referenced, which is sure to bring a smile to a book lover’s face.

The musical numbers are well-choreographed and the production design and colour palette have a distinct comic book feel. All these elements make the film exude a warm, cosy energy which is sweet but not enough to make up for the lack of a compelling story.

If you want a teen film based on the Archie comics that is truly Indianised and still strikes a chord, watch Aamir Khan’s coming of age 1992 flick Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander. If you want to watch the next gen of Bollywood take centrestage, give The Archies a shot. And if you want the real deal, source the comic book from a vintage shop and visit Riverdale again.

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