‘The Archies’ is a prisoner of its politics

Zoya Akhtar’s new film is underwhelming enough for you to want more style and less substance. 

Published : Dec 08, 2023 13:48 IST - 3 MINS READ

A still from The Archies.

A still from The Archies. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda) whimsically remarks in Zoya Akhtar’s latest Netflix film, The Archies, “I wish I had two hearts.” I echoed a similar sentiment after immersing myself in the Indian film adaptation of those much-loved Archie Comics. One heart admired the charming production design and cultural resonance, but the other one ached, yearning for Akhtar’s magic touch. I am torn between appreciation and longing, much like the Archies themselves.

I had high hopes for this film. I anticipated a narrative that would resonate with audiences—a refreshing departure from the prevalent themes of violence, masculinity, and gore that define contemporary cinema. The production, however, fell short, not because of its superficiality or niche appeal, but because it lacks the unapologetic exuberance that Zoya Akhtar is known for. Akhtar’s brilliance lies in her capacity to deliver unabashed fun, but, unfortunately, The Archies delivers only shallow rewards that masquerade as substance.

Director Zoya Akhtar tells stories with genuine depth, but the politics of her latest film, The Archies, feel half-baked.

Director Zoya Akhtar tells stories with genuine depth, but the politics of her latest film, The Archies, feel half-baked. | Photo Credit: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Akhtar has a distinct aesthetic and filmmaking signature—her ability to pierce the layers of concealer and designer clothes, to tell stories with genuine depth. Whether exploring broken marriages (Dil Dhadakne Do), existential crises (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Gully Boy), or matters of the heart (Luck by Chance), she skillfully makes authentic all that is otherwise glossy. It is this boldness that is missing from The Archies. Revolving around a group of Anglo-Indian adolescents, Akhtar has created an aesthetically pleasing world where villains pose no threats, and where problems can be resolved with a hug, a slice of cake, or a light-hearted apology.

Though The Archies exudes a superficial charm, it fails when it is political. It seems to want audiences to delve beyond the surface, but the film’s half-hearted efforts to assert depth seem gratuitous. The film offers neither enough substance nor nostalgia. We, as audiences, are not left with enough to weep, worry or wonder about. Akhtar tries forging a balance between capitalism and environmental concerns, but the politics of her film never feel sufficiently baked.

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Falling off the soap box

The film starts with Archie Andrews giving a tour of Green Park, a beloved green haven in the heart of a picturesque hill station in India, Riverdale. Here, quaint bookshops are managed by Parsi gentlemen and charming salons are run by kind aunties. Veronica Lodge (Suhana Khan) returns from London with her parents who want to dismantle Riverdale for personal gain. Their cold-hearted capitalism gives the town’s youngsters a reason to protest. Together, they initiate a spirited campaign to save Green Park and preserve the charm and traditions of Riverdale. Dilton Doiley (Yuvraj Menda), a member of the Archies gang, articulates the central conflict of the film—it is all about “public versus corporate interests”.

A still from The Archies.

A still from The Archies. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

This cause is rendered fickle by Akhtar’s handling and the inexperienced performances of her newbie cast. The film, one feels, could have done without its insistence on being political. Even the song “Everything Is Politics” seems frothy and one-dimensional. It is only in its portrayal of the Anglo-Indian community that the film somewhat succeeds. Challenging our tendency to disregard their vital role and contributions, The Archies emphasises that Anglo-Indians go beyond the stereotypes of their Western habits and aesthetics. It reminds us that viewing communities through such a reductionist lens often makes us miss the bigger diversity picture.

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Akhtar, sadly, brushes past this narrative. She does not stay with it long enough for it to feel important. Anglo-Indians may be pivotal to the setting, but some of the film’s humour comes at their expense. The film lacks depth and a solid storyline. Archies would have worked as a plain love triangle, but by trying to make it about more, Akhtar ends up with a lot less. The film’s attempt to intertwine politics and romance feels disconnected and inconsequential. You immerse yourself in the nostalgia of the 1960s for a while, but your yearning for true escape remains unsatisfied. Watch Archies for its superficial delights. The film’s politics feel like an apology.

Takshi Mehta is a freelance culture and entertainment journalist.

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