Somewhere in the middle of The Archies, a conversation takes place between three high-schoolers where one of them explains to the other two who Hedy Lamarr was. Well known for being a Hollywood star, Lamarr was also an inventor. She came up with the blueprint for what evolved into the modern Wi-Fi. When the others utter disbelief at this new information, the first character questions, “Why can’t a person be both?” This ethos makes up the heart of this high school drama that ultimate evolves into something more.
The Archies, Zoya’s Akhtar’s latest, is a musical adaptation of the famous comic series, Archie. Set in the picturesque and fictional hill town of Riverdale, it tells the story of a few teenagers who staged a mini mutiny back in 1964. To be honest, I went into the film, rather wary of Akhtar’s choice of setting and genre. A high school musical? I was expecting something around the lines of Karan Johar’s Student of the Year series, but with a smattering of jazz.
Initially, it seemed to be going down that route. A picturesque town with curated houses and people, teeming with beautifully dressed teenagers breaking into song and dance at an alarming frequency. For the first few musical numbers the choice of going the Hollywood musical route struck a discordant note; the forsaking of a long tradition of homespun filmy geet felt unnecessary. Then there was the matter of the cast, most of whom are debutantes. It didn’t help their performances started off on a shaky note. The first half meandered at a leisurely pace, as Akhtar took her time building the world of Riverdale. But just as my attention started to wane off, the film made a sharp pivot.
As we begin delving into the larger community of the small-town Akhtar brings in a wholesome nostalgia that well-baked period films tend to possess. There are numerous references to the golden era of the sixties. From Shammi Kapoor to Ruskin Bond, there’s something for everyone. Conversely, the audience is also reminded of the conservative mores of that time. The class divides were much more pronounced with elite clubs having strict dress codes. A journalist father (Luke Kenny) looks down upon his son’s dreams of pursuing comedy professionally.
Simultaneously, through the interaction of her high-schoolers Akhtar brings in a touch of tongue-in-cheek contemporariness. However, it goes beyond the surface level references to Gen Z culture—the ‘thank ews’ and beatboxing were hard to miss. The film sets up the audience to expect a love triangle between three teenagers, and takes us on a wide detour. This detour comes in the form of a community space, “Green Park”, that is being eyed by a business tycoon to develop a snazzy hotel. The Archies gang rallies together to save their park.
This subplot allows for very interesting commentary around contemporary issues. The film becomes an explainer about the workings of capitalism and privatization. It openly explores what happens when corporate interest is juxtaposed with public interest—and how the former overrides the latter. It goes into the underbelly of ‘corporate culture’ and shows how bigger businesses can buy out smaller ones. How corporate lobbies can buy off political spaces, rendering ‘democratic processes’ meaningless; or how the freedom of press becomes a myth when it has to take into account vested interests of the corporation that owns the media spaces.
The film questions the amoral stance of capitalism through Hiram Lodge’s (the business tycoon) refrain, “It’s business. It’s not personal.” The film seems to question how far is this detachment tenable. The musical finally embraces its own Hedy Lamarr-ness with a number that explains to an ignorant Archie (Agastya Nanda)—who claims no interest in politics—that everything is political.
The Archie comics are known for the tension between the characters of Veronica and Betty, both of whose hearts are set on Archie. Akhtar puts a refreshing feminist spin to this stale ploy of girls fighting over a boy. Here Betty (Khushi Kapoor) and ‘Ronnie’ (Suhana Khan) volubly choose their friendship over a boy. Instead, Akhtar takes a song or two to explore the rather fuckboi-ish tendencies of Archie’s character. Though in the end his behaviour is excused with a filmy justification of being ‘dil phenk’ (passionate).
But where the film most shines is with the character of the sweet nerd Dilton (Yuvraj Menda). With the casting of Dilton, a closeted queer person in a small town in 1960s, the film ticks the box of authentic representation. Towards the end of the film, Dilton’s character comes close to being accidentally outed. The following scenes—mainly interactions between him and his crush Reggie (Vedang Raina)—are a great example of how to be supportive allies, and allow queer people their own agency regarding their stories.
The film picks up pace in the second half, when the scattered teenagers become a team in their effort to save their park. That is when the small town of Riverdale becomes a microcosm of the current world around us. Akhtar uses the ‘minority’ trope—first with its Anglo-Indian milieu and then with the protesting teens being ‘minors’ whose opinions don’t count—to posit her worldview.
Riverdale doesn’t ‘look’ like India, but then there are pockets in our country (like Darjeeling or Mussoorie) which do. There are many small ‘indias’ within the Big India, and they all deserve to exist. Archie, born in 1947—the year India won its Independence—becomes the seed of possibility for new India, when he sees he belongs with the bigger India. And he decides to root for his gang and participate in the protest against the park’s decimation.
Ultimately, when the ‘children’ succeed to save their beloved park, Akhtar leaves us with the hopeful feeling that perceived minorities can wield the power of community to bring about constructive change. As the enlightened Archie says, “The grass is greener where you water it.”