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Comic relief: The makers of ‘The Archies’ on their new film

Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti on adapting the Archie comics for India and the big screen, and why kids are a tough audience

Zoya Akhtar (left) and Reema Kagti. Photo courtesy Netflix/Abheet Gidwani
Zoya Akhtar (left) and Reema Kagti. Photo courtesy Netflix/Abheet Gidwani

Zoya Akhtar knows the value of a double digest. The director of films like Luck By Chance and Gully Boy used to cycle in the early 1980s to lending libraries on Hill Road, Bandra, Mumbai, to unearth issues of Archie Comics. Sometimes, however, she would get to buy one. “If you got a new one from the bookstore,” she gushes, “that was a real treat. The double digest, the big 500-pagers, those were big treats that you shared and exchanged. You opened that comic and you were transported to this fictional, magical place.”

Akhtar’s latest film The Archies comes out on Netflix on 7 December, and the day after I watched the film, I sat with her and co-writer Reema Kagti to talk about Reggie Mantle, Archie Andrews and that Riverdale crew those of a certain vintage know so well. The film stars Agastya Nanda as Archie Andrews, Suhana Khan as Veronica Lodge, Khushi Kapoor as Betty Cooper, Mihir Ahuja as Jughead Jones, Vedang Raina as Reggie Mantle, Yuvraj Menda as Dilton Doiley, and Dot as Ethel Muggs.

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The character names stay the same and have not been Indian-ised—unlike, say, Peter Parker and Mary Jane becoming Pavitr Prabhakar and Meera Jain in the mercifully shortlived Spider-Man: India comic series—therefore Akhtar was sure to set her film within the Christian community. Instead of opting for a city, they chose to set the film in an idyllic hill station in the 1960s. “You had that kind of space, that colonial architecture and that community base, like Landour or Mccluskieganj, those places existed,” says Akhtar. “The culture of country clubs, the culture of fashion. They are Westernised in a sense, music is big with Anglo-Indians, food is big with Anglo-Indians, and they were liberal in the sense of dating and stuff.”

This “Riverdale” is a snowglobe of a town, quaint but lavish, an unreal storybook place. That, Kagti says, is by design. “You have to understand that we are trying to recreate Riverdale. It is not a real place anyway. We are not trying to recreate India in the 1960s.”

The Archies is set in 1964, which gives 17-year-old Archie a rather special year of birth. Archie Andrews, midnight’s child? I ask Akhtar and Kagti if they sensed an opportunity to slip in any sociopolitical commentary into their freewheeling adventure.

“No, because it’s a children’s film,” says Akhtar, clear that The Archies has not been made for our demographic but for pre-teens who can look up to this idealised version of the teenage years, full of shenanigans, milkshakes and making out.

I remind Akhtar that kids are a tough audience. “Yeah,” she agrees. “And an honest audience.” Keeping stories this simple is risky given the edgier content youngsters watch nowadays. Netflix serves up Sex Education, Derry Girls, 13 Reasons Why and even the bizarre, adults-only Archie adaptation Riverdale —where, in the first episode, we see Archie sleeping with his teacher Miss Grundy.

That was exactly what Netflix did not want, as they specified while briefing Akhtar and Kagti’s production company, Tiger Baby. “They wanted to retain the original characters and not give a Riverdale twist to it, not contemporarise it to that point,” says Kagti. As a result, Akhtar asked for older comics. “Now the comics that are available are obviously geared to today’s generation, so it’s very different and way more inclusive, way more diverse.” She wanted to go back to the comics she grew up reading.

'The Archies'
'The Archies'

“Actually,” Kagti says with a smile, “we used lines from the comics.” I suspect many lines said by Hiram Lodge—played by a supercilious Alyy Khan—could make that list. When Veronica asks her father why he’s always throwing Archie out of the house, he replies, “Everyone’s entitled to a hobby.”

Archie was hard to find. “The look and the tone had to be right,” says Akhtar. “Because he can come off as a cad, you know. He can very easily come off as something that, today, is not very nice.” Archie Andrews, a red-headed boy forever torn between blonde and brunette. Girls in high schools today might well cancel him. “He has to come off as genuine and sincere, heart on his sleeve, and you have to believe him. It’s true blue, and it’s genuine adolescent confusion.”

It was therefore important to get a new actor. “You needed someone to fill Archie’s image and not bring some other personality onto Archie,” says Akhtar. “It should be Archie’s personality.” This meant that Akhtar and Kagti, who have only worked with experienced actors in their projects so far, had to work doubly hard to get these young actors—many of whom were debuting with this film, including Nanda, who plays Archie, and Kapoor and Khan, who play Betty and Veronica—ready for Riverdale. Akhtar always workshops with actors ahead of shooting but this time it was, as Kagti describes, a proper boot-camp.

“We did about three acting workshops,” says Akhtar. “We did a dance class, so they had to study it. They had never sung. It’s a musical, and you have to believe that they are singing. So you can get very self-conscious if you are a first time actor, because you have to sing loudly on set so that it looks like you are singing. Agastya had to learn to play the guitar. Mihir had to learn to play the drums. All the girls had to learn to skate.”

“We prepped them so much and they were so trained that by the time they came to set, honestly it just went,” Akhtar sweeps a hand from left to right, as if clearing an imaginary table, “like they were flowing.”

Created in 1941, the Archie Comics characters have come to stand for character archetypes—archie-types, if you will—who have filtered through pop-culture over the years. Rachel Green from Friends, for instance, is definitely a Veronica. Even those who haven’t read Archie Comics have encountered The Archies in some shape. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar is an Archie comic. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is an Archie comic. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is an Archie comic.

The film rests on the 23-year-old shoulders of Agastya Nanda, who impressed Akhtar with his mix of charm and innocence. His Archie goes through the film befuddled and unaware of himself, even as his friends have been given a touch more depth.

The film's Reggie Mantle—ever ready with a snarky put-down in the comics—harbours ambitions of being a stand-up comedian. “Reggie Mantle is cocky in the comic, we all know that,” says Akhtar. “He’s a little more well-to-do than Archie Andrews, but not Veronica Lodge. I thought it was an interesting space to use the stand-up comic. So there’s a peacock-ness to him, and there’s a flashy vanity to him that comes out. And we also kind of styled him on James Dean, and Johnny Nogerelli from Grease.”

Akhtar considers Veronica a brat, but not just that. “She’s the one that will be wearing a miniskirt when it’s just come out in London, but also, she is the only child of very busy parents. And there is a loneliness inherently in her, which is touched upon in the comic, but not in the way that a movie can.”

At one point, Archie’s friends break into a song called Everything Is Political, and I tell Akhtar how delightfully this contrasts with her Gully Boy actors Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh proudly—and infamously—declaring themselves “apolitical” in interviews promoting that 2019 film. Were they at all tempted to delve a bit more into politics, or subtext, I persist, conditioned to expect depth from the Tiger Baby team.

“At the end of the day, it’s a coming-of-age movie,” says Akhtar. “it just came from a thought of also building Archie Andrews’ arc on a level. And it was just a fun classroom song to do.”

Akhtar has, therefore, made a film designed to make pre-teens feel the way she did when she read Archie. “It was slightly aspirational when you’re like a tween, and you want to be older and be like these girls. The friendships were great. The spaces were always green and pretty. The dresses were nice. The jokes were funny. Everything worked out. And the family values were nice.”

More Baby less Tiger, then. This time.

Raja Sen is a Lounge columnist. He posts @rajasen.

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