‘The Archies’ Review: The Superficiality Of Zoya Akhtar’s Netflix Film Is At Odds With Its “Cute” Political Stance


When The Archies was announced, social media was buzzing with different kinds of opinions. There was the usual “nepotism” debate, which feels so redundant nowadays because it has been established that nobody really hates a star kid if they are talented; it’s an issue when they aren’t talented. Talking about talented “nepo-babies,” folks were excited about a new Zoya Akhtar movie, as this was her first feature-length film since the hugely successful Gully Boy. And then there were some people who were asking, “Who was this movie for?” This sentiment stemmed from the fact that Archie Comics was rooted in American culture—American culture in the 1940s and 1960s, to be specific—and only those Indians who lived in cities with libraries or bookstores that got those comics were somewhat aware of it. The rest were probably reading Diamond Comics, Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle. So, by catering to a niche group of people, it seemed like Netflix India was setting itself up for failure. Having watched the film, I can say that those apprehensions weren’t entirely wrong.

Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies, which she has co-written with Ayesha DeVitre and Reema Kagti, with dialogue by Farhan Akhtar, is set in the fictional town of Riverdale. A well-animated, expository sequence informs the audience how it came to be in the first place after India gained independence from the British and why it is populated by Anglo-Indians. And while all that is integral to the plot of the movie, the main focus is on the trees that have been planted in a park by every kid who is born there. Since this custom uniquely ties the identity of Riverdale to its people, the park is treated like the heart of the town. However, its destruction seems to be imminent because Mr. and Mrs. Lodge want to build a hotel there. Their daughter, Veronica, is apparently oblivious about all this, as she rejoins her group of friends—which is made of Archie, Betty, Dilton, Ethel, Jughead, and Reggie—after a long time. They start going about their lives; drama ensues; hearts are broken; you know, the usual stuff. But the long and insidious arms of capitalism pop that bubble, thereby prompting the kids to do what they can to save the park and the future of Riverdale, even if it costs them their friendship.

As someone who has vaguely read the Archie comics (I stopped reading them because the love triangle between Archie, Betty, and Veronica really annoyed me), The Archies didn’t trigger my nostalgia with the Indian version of the iconic characters. I am aware that the comics made waves when they introduced a gay character and addressed the Occupy movement pretty explicitly. So, I can see Akhtar, Kagti, and DeVitre kind of mirroring these updates to the lore with the characterization of Dilton and the “Save Green” movement while trying to preserve the light-hearted tone that the comic strip has been synonymous with. But the issue is that none of it comes together in a cohesive and interesting fashion. The world-building is too superficial to be enjoyable and immersive. The politics of the movie is too cute and convenient to make an impact. The characters are too bland and too derivative to be memorable in any significant way. Hence, the viewing experience is boring and frustrating at the same time. I am totally okay with Student of the Year levels of dumbness. But if you’re trying to be political, complete with slogans about environmentalism and barely noticeable commentary on minorities, you have to go all in or avoid it completely. It can’t be limited to a half-hearted protest and an anti-apolitical song. Why is the conflict resolved so easily? Where’s the struggle? What is the point? Is it all just a silly experiment, or is it about sending a message? Because the film doesn’t succeed at being either of them.

As a director, Zoya Akhtar has always played it safe. With Luck by Chance, she did show the uphill battle of a struggling actor in Bollywood. But she is the daughter of Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani. She knows the ins and outs of the Hindi film industry, and she put that on the big screen. That is not a very big deal. It’s a good movie, no doubt. But it’s not a big deal. She made Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do, and even though they were largely enjoyable, it indicated that she probably had no idea of the world that existed beyond the class that she was born into. She tried to change that with Gully Boy, but the stereotypical portrayal of Murad and the omission of the anti-caste lyrics from the song “Azadi” showed that she wasn’t comfortable with being too political about the class and caste conflicts that exist in India. That said, it was a welcome move because it meant that she was ready to challenge herself. However, with The Archies, it seems like she has regressed into a zone where she can abandon all class consciousness. To be clear, I would’ve been okay with a superfluous Zoya Akhtar movie that was as far removed from reality as humanly possible. But when you’re saying, “Let’s talk about capitalism,” while your overproduced film looks like the A.I. prompt “Archies, but in India,” then I have a problem. Oh yes, the production design, the color schemes, the costumes, the visuals, the editing, the songs—it’s all atrocious. I don’t know if there’s some kind of mandate that Netflix has put out there that’s making their Indian releases look so bad. So far, only Monica, O My Darling, has managed to avert this plague.

The performances in The Archies are not good, and I am trying to not be harsh here. I know that most of the young cast is made up of debutants. They can dance well. They are all good-looking. Hence, the songs work more as music videos that are meant to go viral on social media and YouTube and less as part of a musical with a narrative. Much like the politics and the dramatic aspects of the narrative, the flexibility and energy of the actors during the song-and-dance sequences don’t match with the dialogue-heavy sequences. The only actor in the lead cast that gets to walk away unscathed is Mihir Ahuja, especially since he has already showcased his caliber in Made in Heaven Season 2. The rest need to work on their acting chops a lot. The adults are fine. They don’t really get to flex their skills. That is why uber-talented actors like Vinay Pathak, Alyy Khan, Tara Sharma, Koel Purie, Luke Kenny, Delnaaz Irani, and more just fade into this off-putting reimagining of Riverdale. All of them definitely deserved something better than this.

At some point during The Archies’ tediously paced 141-minute-long running time, it started to feel like Zoya Akhtar’s heart wasn’t in it. If you go through all of her previous work, you’ll notice the finesse in her filmmaking. That finesse is missing in this made-for-Netflix film. Regardless of the criticisms leveled against her stories, you can see that her storytelling is brimming with passion and innovation. None of that is palpable in this straight-to-OTT release. By the way, why is she getting a straight-to-OTT release after delivering one of the most influential theatrically released movies of the decade? I don’t know. Look, it’s perfectly fine to belt out a light-hearted, low-stakes film while oscillating between various web series (she has been overseeing Dahaad and Made in Heaven Season 2 this year). But it needs to have something to make me say, “I’m watching a Zoya Akhtar film.” If you can’t elicit such a reaction, then maybe you aren’t the right person to tell this story. Well, I hope she finds a story worth telling really soon—something that appeals to her sensibilities and politics—because we need more of Zoya Akhtar on the big screen.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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