The opening shot of The Archies carries us through fairy-tale clouds and deposits us in Riverdale, a fantasy land filled with Anglo-Indians. It’s the 1960s, and the world – at least this world – has not yet been curdled into cynicism. Bookstore owners set aside time to encourage children to read. Ice-cream store owners remember exactly how a customer likes his milkshake. Girls manage to remain best friends even when they like the same boy. Gay boys unable to verbalise their emotions find love and understanding in friends. Teenage girls write down their feelings in their dear diaries. And even greedy corporate heads know when they are beaten, and accept defeat with grace. It’s practically heaven, which may explain that opening shot through the clouds. The only hellish business is that Green Park – the town’s beating heart of memories and greenery – is going to be converted into a concrete complex.
Zoya Akhtar’s film is about Big Issues: eco-conservation, respecting one’s roots, navigating adolescent love and sexuality, sacrificing your soul for ambition, civic duty, youth power, and so forth. We just got a heavy dose of Big Issues from Zoya and Reema Kagti’s production house: Made in Heaven Season 2. And a lot of it was very long-drawn-out and heavy-handed. That’s not the case here, because Zoya directs the film with a feather-light touch and her co-writers (Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, Reema Kagti) manage to capture the concise essence of the Archies comics. I can’t say how The Archies will play for those who haven’t read the comics, but the character-writing is pitch-perfect and so is the cast. Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Suhana Khan, Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja, Aditi Saigal, Yuvraj Menda – everyone aces their (deliberately) thin arcs. If there’s a complaint, it’s that Archie’s beloved “jalopy” is nowhere in sight. It’s such an integral part of his life, and besides, this is where I learnt that word.
When Betty and Veronica decide to confront Archie about his two-timing, there’s no drama. The whole thing is handled with such finesse that we almost feel it’s a “fun” scene. And just a little earlier, we get the scene where Veronica thinks Archie is playing them both, while sweet-natured Betty thinks maybe he’s just confused. The real world – that is, today’s world – peeks in, but just a little bit, and it’s just enough. Among the many other lovely short scenes that pack a wallop: the beautiful friendship between Dilton and Reggie, Archie wondering why we should love only one person, Betty and Archie making up after a small Cold War, Archie’s father saying that they are a minority but they still belong to this “mulk”, Jughead’s food torture, Moose becoming a genius…
I was reminded of two films. One is Warren Beatty’s deliberately two-dimensional Dick Tracy, which had just slivers of the characters’ core personality. The second is the 1950s-set John Travolta-Olivia Newton John musical, Grease. In a “three-dimensional” drama, the arc of the apolitical Archie Andrews becoming politically aware might have taken quite a few scenes, but here, it happens over one joyous musical number. The first hour of The Archies uses its songs to terrific effect. They are superbly choreographed, and they all carry the story forward. The first song, ‘Sunoh’, is essentially Archie telling us to “listen” to his story. And my favourite use of music was in Betty’s small “voice-overs”. In Indian terms, Zoya and team manage to recreate the feel of the hill-station comedy-dramas of the 1960s, where Shammi Kapoor or Joy Mukherjee or Biswajit held our hand through films that were virtually plotless but bursting with joy and scene-to-scene invention.
Every scene (or every time an issue comes up) lasts just about the length of three or four panels in the comics. So we move along very quickly between Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, Ethel, Dilton, and Moose. (I am naming just the main characters). No one (and no issue) is allowed to become a pain. THe biggest issue of all, the efforts to save Green Park, is also handled lightly, but I felt it could have used a couple of high-energy musical numbers. The songs, here, become more serious and sentimental, and the film’s energy deflates a little. But all said, the only real “issue” with The Archies is overlength. At some two hours and twenty minutes, the film qualifies as a… Double Digest, and the second hour suffers a little because of the pacing and the ending we see coming from a mile away. But the old-world charm works big-time, especially with cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis’s bright, butter-soft frames. I would have loved to see The Archies on a big screen.