The Archies

The Archies
The Archies
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Try to think of another American comic book film that is as proudly innocent and nostalgic as a fizzy Bollywood musical, “The Archies”, which moves the familiar stock characters from the comics of “Archie” into an imagined India of the mid-‘60s. It is also inconceivable for this kind of movie not to slavishly duplicate its source material’s simple graphic design while remaining deeply sincere and light-hearted at the same time. Fortunately, “The Archies” doesn’t overthink its reason for being.

“The Archies” takes place in Riverdale, a fictional town in Northern India that was influenced by Indian hill station towns such as McCluskieganj and Landour. In 1914 Sir John Riverdale established a version of Riverdale that has become symbolic of post-independence India for its middle class Anglo Indian residents who are still sexually aroused.

At least Riverdale’s teenagers sing songs together, court each other in all sorts of chaste ways you remember from Archie comics. They worry about whether Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda) will end up with rich girl Veronica (Suhana Khan) or soulful wallflower Betty (Khushi Kapoor), and they unite to save their town from modernizing itself into a hotel. Will he follow his heart and go to London even if his poor dad Fred (Suhaas Ahuja) mildly objects? The answers may be shocking even though they are largely irrelevant as well.

Riverdale’s teenagers sing about how “everything is politics,” but the tepid issues they raise—“Can girls wear mini-skirts and gad-about,” and, “Are co-ed schools allowed?”—are hardly peripheral concerns for Archie or his friends. Instead, he learns along with them through solid but trite set pieces that life goes beyond mango milkshakes and British Invasion-inspired pop tunes. By allowing its central figures to remain cute, goofy, and largely self-centered adolescents, “The Archies” pays tribute to their teen years as a time of self-discovery.

Is that enough, one might wonder, especially given how a song like “Everything is Politics” plays out in a movie that’s only vaguely about its period setting? Mostly, yeah. Because of an infectious simplicity in terms of both song and dance choreography and filmmaking itself, lack of fussiness seems more like the right thing than a flaw. There is also something to be said for any film that doesn’t pathologize wispy characters such as Jughead (Mihir Ahuja) or Moose (Rudra Mahuvarkar) but embraces their sketchy nature as an advantage rather than seeing it as a problem to be solved. Although Khan stands head and shoulders above other members of the overall strong ensemble cast she’s great for the same reason they’re (mostly) quite good—because their roles are as straightforward as they are wearable.

It would have been interesting to see director Zoya Akhtar be bolder in terms of the look of her movie or even as far as its sentimental concern with abiding by one’s community. But originality has never been among the strong suits of Akhtar, whose “Gully Boy,” a 2019 rap drama styled after “8 Mile” also serves as an actors’ showcase for Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Not every genre movie must be nonconformist; this is an apt lesson given the cheesy materials and characters that lovingly parody “The Archies”. Sometimes, all it takes to construct a good song-and-dance number is to let a constantly hungry teenager watch a team of roller-skating babes—in high-waisted shorts, polka dot blouses, and red bowties—as they sexually harass him in (very) subtle ways.

If anything, it is almost satisfying to observe just how lightly the host director and his or her supporting creative team employ influences from other movies with respect to ideological content or stylistic approach. Sometimes while watching these characters move about or sing, you may notice that there are certain elements which remind you perhaps for instance, what Jessica Paré did was some kind of dance step similar to her slinky “Zou Bisou Bisou” in Mad Men just like Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey and Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders. Luckily, these inspirations are not relevant when considering music for such scenes which appear readily apparent enough on their face with lyrics about men against women including phrases like: “Don’t you know that he’s just a flirt with a smile like dessert made for you,” followed by “Don’t you know that the flick in her eye is to trick every guy in her queue?”

It could have been interesting had Archie’s band which gives this film its title tried playing tunes more influenced by Bollywood pop standards. There is something to be said for Anglicized songs that occasionally mix in Hindi language lyrics with English hooks such as “You say I’m young and I’ve got nowhere to be/I say there’s so much I can do.” That line is also striking since it, and a lot else about “The Archies,” urges viewers to not only accept but cherish simple pleasures. Or, as one character observes—summarizing Jean-Luc Godard, of all people—“It’s not important how you look, it’s how you feel.”

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