I am all for inventive writing but it takes a different stretch of imagination to place The Archies in 1960s India. Why not spare the country’s stifling economy from the period if the idea was to showcase a wardrobe full of natty dresses and crisp trousers? Filmmaker Zoya Akhtar – as if she is woken up from a bizarre dream – sets out to make it all official. The result is an odd-looking, shallow-sounding, and constantly snooze-worthy retro musical that introduces a broadly unremarkable young cast to mainstream Hindi cinema.
Enter Riverdale – a town inhabited exclusively by the Anglo-Indian community in 1964. The familiar Archies gang comprising of Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, Ethel, and Dilton makes merry in the school, ice cream parlors, balls, and the Green Park – a lush garden they all seem to have a soft spot for, although it is never fully established. The interpersonal equations from the comic find tiny alterations in Akhtar’s Bollywood adaptation. When Archie dilly-dallies between the poor-good Betty and the rich-spunky Veronica, the girls take a call between themselves. The genius Dilton gets to display less of his geekiness but his sartorial freedom and sexual preference become the film’s points of discussion – taking away the character’s essence. If Reggie gets some moments to shine, Jughead and Ethel are left to feed on crumbs.
Coming to the central conflict in The Archies, hell breaks loose when a group of powerful adults – akin to a cliched ‘70s Amitabh Bachchan-starrer – decide to replace Green Park with a mammoth hotel project. The defenseless adults (who also happen to be the protagonists’ parents except Veronica’s) do not care less and the youngsters take charge to nobody’s amusement. It is a premise as flimsy as it reads in a film that wears a dulled-out Wes Anderson look sans the symmetry and humor. The clothes are glam, the sets are gorgeous, and yet the story feels distant. It would make you pop the pertinent question: Why are they up to what they are up to?
Zoya Akhtar’s film is imagined on a musical template with uneven use of songs and dances. The Archies is a production designer’s wet dream and the team delivers the filmmaker’s vision (albeit unexciting) and is helped considerably by DOP’s (Nikos Andritsakis) polaroid-worthy frames. Earlier this year, we saw how Barbie existed in a similar la la land but with ample sass, style, and sarcasm. The Archies turns too big for its heels and boots when it – out of nowhere – blares out lessons on capitalism and with along a song ‘Everything Is Politics’. The myopic worldview stands revealed every time the writers extend their sympathies towards the less privileged whereas it remains magically in sync when the kids go out and have some fun.
As for the lead performances, the young cast is uneven at best. They get access to the finest props and they dance like a dream. Still, no moment or interaction lingers. Suhana Khana is the better of the lot with a genuine spark and a smile that reaches the eyes. Agastya Nanda fails to transform into Archie – the object of desire to two wonderful girls. Khushi Kapoor’s screen presence is non-existent to the extent that she goes unnoticed even in solo frames. A sweetheart to readers across the globe, Betty turns into the most unmemorable character in the film. Vedang Raina is a looker and the lad is reminded of it every day. Therefore, the actor’s over-waxed hair and calculated gait strip the spontaneity out of his act. Dot and Mihir Ahuja do not get much scope even though the latter’s stringent efforts give him some sort of visibility. Yuvraj Menda disappoints with his jarring Hindi diction (which is second only to Kapoor’s) and the actor’s sole emotional moment fails to evoke the desired emotion.
The Archies ends up as a film that does not engage, inspire, or make us feel a thing – not even to pen a review that appreciates or bashes it. In what appears to be a vacay film for Zoya Akhtar, it can be viewed passively as you work out or do your daily household chores and still not miss a thing. The film’s screenplay (Akhtar, Reema Kagti, and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon) is so vanilla that it prevents us from taking an interest in the larger issues it projects. As for its artistic merits, they are limited to the filmmaker’s slim imagination – some of which intermittently works (the music) and some do not (costumes and styling). With so much undeserving talent (or the lack of it) on display, The Archies might organically catapult the term ‘Nepo Baby’ into the Oxford Dictionary. However, the bigger fear is whether its cast members will make solo debuts anytime soon. Or worse, if Netflix announces a sequel. Now, that will be the briefest horror story ever conceived.
Rating: ★★ 1/2
The Archies is now streaming on Netflix.