Sometimes, I think about how Zoya Akhtar’s career would have turned out if her directorial debut, Luck By Chance (2009), had done well at the box office. A film that Akhtar wrote and dreamt about making for nearly a decade, was so assured even in its silences that it probably became an unfair yardstick for each of her successive films. After Luck By Chance, most of her films have had glimpses of the nifty touch but it’s also been easy to spot the compromises she’s made to make sure the film doesn’t ‘flop’ like her debut. Whether it’s the obvious casting of Katrina Kaif sounding like a self-help book in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), the drawn-out, insipid climax of the otherwise observant Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), or even the feel-good, corporate-tested journey afforded to a Muslim hip-hop sensation from the wrong side of the tracks in Gully Boy (2019), each Akhtar film has felt more accommodating than the last.
From being someone who trusted the audience to read between the lines in her debut, like that astoundingly-performed first scene between Alyy Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma – which goes from parody to somewhere dark in less than a minute – Akhtar, in her latest film called The Archies (based on the famous American comics of the same name), has included a song called ‘Everything is Politics’. Written probably to wake a South Bombay brat out of their slumber to become socially conscious, the song pretty much distils the problems with Akhtar’s latest film. The intentions are pure and there’s an idealism permeating through it, but the song (like the film) takes place in such a cocoon of privilege that it’s hard to take seriously beyond a point.
Akhtar’s adaptation is set in a fictitious British-Indian hill station (presumably in Northern India) called Riverdale, in 1964. Just like the comics, the tone of the film feels Utopian, where everyone acts in good faith, including the antagonist. The performances seem deliberately high-pitched, drawing attention to their theatricality. Most characters embody one-note tropes, which is the cornerstone for writing about groups (like the sitcom Friends) to love triangles (like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai).
17-year-old Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda), apart from being in high school, works in his father’s travel agency and is the lead singer for his band, The Archies. Betty Cooper (Khushi Kapoor) is the girl next door who is overly caring and generous to people around her. Veronica Lodge (Suhana Khan) is Riverdale’s vivacious prom queen, daughter of the industrialist Mr Lodge (Alyy Khan) – the man behind the plan to tear down the town’s centrally located park to build a hotel. The screenplay (written by Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Reema Kagti and Akhtar) introduces obstacles in every other scene, only to resolve them swiftly. It’s a death knell for any film, when the ‘rules’ of the world suggest that anything goes, or nothing matters. It doesn’t matter what anyone does after this, we’re headed towards the rainbow of ‘happily ever after’ soon enough.
Suzanne Caplan Merwanji’s immaculate production design and Dhara Jain’s precise set decoration reminded me of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. There’s a deliberate falseness to the surroundings, to make it look like we’re inside a comic strip. However, while Gerwig used the world of the film to ask more pressing questions of it, Akhtar is relatively less successful. There are flourishes of ‘revisionism’ – where Veronica and Betty confront Archie about his ‘confusion’, or how Reggie (Vedang Raina), the jock of the group, is shown to be the most sensitive. There are real-world allusions to the free press, the independence struggle in 1947, and capitalism trumping all-round development, but they all feel mostly incidental by the end.
There also seems to be an overwhelming naivete that seems to be drilled into most of the characters, including the elders in the town. When bookseller Hal Cooper’s (Satyajit Sharma) shop is overrun so that the town can have its plaza – he’s tensed about it in one moment, and joyous about landing a job as an assistant manager at the store of his corporate rival in the next. Later, he refuses to sign a petition against the razing down of the park for Mr Lodge’s hotel – because he considers it would not be gracious on his part. I realise what Akhtar is trying to do here, but it works more in theory. In a different scene between Veronica and Mr Lodge – he questions her about her convenient activism to not lose face in front of friends, even though she’s never had a question about how her father earns the riches she’s happy to splurge otherwise. It’s a fine moment that could’ve prompted introspection in Veronica, which could’ve also doubled up as a meta-commentary on Suhana Khan being forced to introspect about being the daughter of the most famous film star in the world. Alas, the moment is left hanging in the air.
Out of the cast, only Vedang Raina and Aditi Saigal (Dot) seem to exhibit sparks of spontaneity. Khushi Kapoor as Betty is adorable as someone who spends a large part of her screen time looking longingly at Archie, but that’s about it. Mihir Ahuja plays ‘Jughead’ Jones with an exaggerated awkwardness, as the ever-hungry chap, with a firm grip on right and wrong. Nanda and Khan, both, seem too aware of the camera to treat their performances as anything other than an extension of their real-life personas around mobile phones or the paparazzi. Everything is too groomed, and every word (dialogues by Farhan Akhtar) coming out of their mouth feels air-brushed. These young actors are earnest, but they also seem too boot-camped, though it might not be fair to fully judge their acting potential on this one film alone. Among the supporting cast, Puja Sarup – a member of the Riverdale council, who pilfers the biscuits in a tissue at the end of every council meeting – is the only one who makes an impression.
The Archies is surely not Zoya Akhtar’s finest hour. It’s a mollycoddled ode to a bygone era, a frothy concoction pandering to its audience. The world-building, the songs and the set-pieces are nicely done, but not enough to make this 143-minute film feel any tighter and shorter. It’s also a sign of our times that something even slightly topical or rebellious needs to be buried so deep into a world, surrounded by distractions that it makes the commentary almost ineffective. As any Luck By Chance fan would attest to – this is the most pliant Akhtar has ever been. So, looking at the bright side, the only way from here is up.
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