The Archies Review: Return To Innocence

The Archies is an evergreen thought passed on from generation to generation. But Sukanya Verma wishes it had some of the comic’s tee-hee humour and hyuk hyuk too.

Long before there was cable TV, cell phone, internet or OTT, Archie Comics acted as a rite of passage of sorts for a tween-going-on-teen eager to get a taste of cool.

Diving into the distinctly American dream and Western ethos inspired a sense of independence and individuality that wasn’t the desi way at all in the pre-globalisation era.

Reading these comics, I picked up lingo and slang like ‘gimme, wanna, gonna, duh, egad, sheesh, jeepers, yoohoo’ and ‘aw shucks’.

It’s where I developed a keen eye for fashion.

If besties Betty and Veronica’s sartorial supremacy in chic attire and evergreen ensembles made many a double digest covers a trendsetting treat, Jughead taught me the power of junk food.

I may have never laid eyes on a hot dog or hamburger in my less-than-a-decade-long life let alone eat it but Riverdale’s biggest foodie had this vegetarian convinced it must be the tastiest dish on this planet.

Archie Andrews and his adorable set of pals and gals introduced me to the concept of detention, cafeteria, lifeguards, dates, spring break, sleepovers, proms and concerts.

Teenage life was never more aspirational.

All fluff, fun and friendship, the irresistible coolth of the Archie brand of youth found a vivacious echo in unofficial takes like Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Ken Ghosh’s Ishq Vishk and Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

Generation X has made way for Generation Z since then and depiction of teenage life is rarely ever of the sunny kind.

Unlike the dark, twisty tone of Riverdale, the TV series which reimagined its beloved characters as dangerous teenagers and ended its seven season run earlier this year, Director Zoya Akhtar’s official Archie movie marks a return to innocence.

In her musical, based on the iconic comic-book characters, Zoya and co-writers Ayesha Devitre Dhillon and Reema Kagti carry forward its legacy in its most vintage avatar.

Although Akhtar retains much of its definitive attributes, the details of her nostalgia vary to accommodate her contemporary politics and harmonious vision.

Realising Archies can only be relevant in a world that recognises love is love and coexistence is the key to peace, Zoya turns its frothy premise into a ground for youthful activism. It’s like the time when Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe was on the brink of shutting down and his young friends rallied to his rescue.

Opting for the comic book’s more retro classic storyboard, The Archies is set in a 1960s Anglo-Indian community, centring on half-British, half-Indian folks who chose to stay back in India following the end of British Raj.

Inhabiting the fictional town of Riverdale, nestled in North Indian hills, are its star pack of 1947-borns — Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Dilton Doiley, Ethel Muggs, Moose Mason and Midge Klump.

Personifying the shiny, free-spirit of a newly independent India, they revel in song, dance and music.

But when the threat of encroachment hits Green Park, the heart, history and lungs of Riverdale, its famous carrot top and gang are compelled to revolt against greedy capitalists hellbent on changing the culture and character of their hometown on the pretext of progress.

Echoing the same sentiments as that of rankled Mumbaikars protesting against the razing down of Aarey Forest (in north west Mumbai) for urban development, Riverdale’s fight to save its green patch instils a sense of purpose in an otherwise happy-go-lucky scheme of The Archies.

Zoya is too perceptive a film-maker to treat things slightly.

I couldn’t help sensing smart allegories in her storytelling.

The park is India, the signatures to stop it from being torn apart are a cry to vote, the ‘Save The Green’ slogans are an appeal to stand up for the minority.

Hum minority hai but this is our mulk,’ Fred Andrews (and Farhan Akhtar’s dialogues) reminds Archie in a poignant moment.

Shouldering the dual responsibility of introducing Archies in an Indianised skin and live-action space as well as introducing a bunch of bright-eyed newcomers, including a few star kids already carrying the weight of expectations, Zoya’s creativity is having too much fun letting its hair down inside Riverdale’s candy-coloured paradise to show any signs of pressure.

Much of The Archies zeal stems from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Ankur Tewari and The Islanders and Aditi ‘Dot’ Saigal’s upbeat, infectious soundtrack expressed over energetically choreographed numbers against a production design (Suzanne Caplan Merwanji) that accurately illustrates the cosy charm of the comics.

Where the idyllic outdoors brim in Director Of Photography Nikos Andritsakis’ sun-kissed visuals of pretty pastel skies, flower beds and colonial grandeur, the indoors paint the lifestyle of both the moneyed and modest in Zoya’s trademark sophistication.

What’s missing in heaps is humour.

Son of Mary (Tara Sharma) and Fred Andrews (Suhaas Ahuja), Archibald aka Archie, Arch or Archiekins (Agastya Nanda) juggles between music, Betty and Veronica.

Unlike the loveable klutz disposed to getting in trouble with his high school principal Mr Weatherbee, desi Archie is a bit of a bore.

His low-key energy and wimpy kid vibe doesn’t have the bearing of a leader at all.

Reggie Mantle (Vedang Raina) swaps his poster boy of arrogance imagery for a rebel with a cause much to his daddy’s (Luke Kenny) disbelief and dismay.

Gone are the days when Veronica ‘Ronnie/Ron’ Lodge’s (Suhana Khan) skyrocketing bills and shopping sprees would give her disciplinarian daddykins a heart attack. For the sneaky, sly Hiram Lodge (Alyy Khan), nothing’s personal, it’s all business.

Ronnie, thankfully, maintains some of her sass if not selfish streak.

Betty Cooper (Khushi) is, literally, the girl-next-door.

Riverdale geek Dilton Doiley (Yuvraj Menda) quotes Godard and spends more time in cafes than chemistry labs.

Moose (Rudra Mahuvarkar) and Midge (Santana Roach) are joined at the hip and sitting in a corner, looking dumb and doe-eyed respectively.

Ethel (Dot)’s spirited young woman coming into her own makes for a welcome change from the gawky, buck-toothed Jughead chaser. Except, sans his whoopee cap, wry sense of humour and voracious appetite, Jughead Jones (Mihir Ahuja) is hardly Jughead Jones.

For those well-versed with the comics, these personality tweaks may require some warming up to.

As much as I missed the hijinks, Archie’s jalopy adventures and run-ins with Mr Svenson and Professor Flutesnoot, Jughead scoffing at Miss Beazley’s nasty cooking and Betty and Veronica in claws-out mode, the young cast’s efforts to make these characters their own comes through in their eager-to-please enthusiasm and rookie charisma.

Of the newcomers, Suhana Khan and Vedang Raina emerge as ready-to-ship star material.

Suhana’s screen presence has Veronica’s coquettish diva down pat. In a crowd of goody-two shoes, she’s the only one exuding cheek and spunk.

Full of smouldering confidence and swaggering looks, Vedang Raina and his passing resemblance to Ranveer Singh is a promising sign of things to come.

Dot’s pluck and songstress skills endear as easily as Yuvraj Menda’s poise and clarity.

Both Agastya Nanda and Khushi Kapoor appear cute in their sunshine smiles and groomed-in glow but need to loosen up and give that extra something to the camera.

Mihir Ahuja knows his way around it sure enough, we already noticed him in Made in Heaven Season 2. It’s the writing that lets him and Jughead down.

The oldies have played the game far too long to get it wrong but it’s such a scream to see the poster girl of the MTV generation, Kamal Sidhu, as the slinky siren, Hermione Lodge.

What an imaginative piece of casting!

Speaking of wow factor, costume designer Poornamrita Singh deserves a pat on her back for the delightful nostalgia sported by The Archies.

Archie’s R logo sweater, Betty’s love for patterns (stripes, dots and checks in collared shirts and knee length shorts), Veronica’s staple of teeny-weeny dresses and fancy fur coats, Reggie’s hip leather jacket, the kids look dapper under Singh’s supervision.

Subverting some of its cliched romance for a more healthy narrative where the girls decide and the guy is called out for his two-timing — Woh kaun hota hai choose karne wala? — The Archies get a fair bit right too.

Matters of sexual identity are smoothly slipped in its genteel, conscientious interactions where books matter, trees matter, marginalised matter.

At its heart though is a peppy, pulsating soundtrack arguing Everything Is Politics, capturing candid romantic confessions in their Dear Diary and everything in between.

The Archies is a paean to simpler, softer times. Zoya never loses sight of that.

When it’s time to stir people out of their apathy, it’s not an adrenalin-pumping rock and roll anthem but a serene ballad of hope dipped in her poet dad Javed Akhtar’s optimism — Yeh Saari Awaazein Kirney Ban Jayengi. Kirnein Jo Duniya Mein Nayi Roshni Layengi that draws people to do the right thing.

It’s an evergreen thought passed on from generation to generation. And so are The Archies.

Only wish it had some of the comic’s tee-hee humour and hyuk hyuk too.

The Archies streams on Netflix.


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