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It’s hard to imagine an American comic book movie that’s as proudly naïve and nostalgic as the fizzy Bollywood musical “The Archies,” which relocates the happy stock characters of “Archie” comics to a fantasy version of mid-‘60s India. It’s harder still to imagine another achingly sincere and light-hearted comic book adaptation that doesn’t also slavishly reproduce its source material’s simple graphic design. Thankfully, “The Archies” succeeds by not overthinking its very existence.
“The Archies” takes place in the fictional Northern Indian town of Riverdale, which was modeled after “hill station” villages like McCluskieganj and Landour. This movie’s version of Riverdale was established by Sir John Riverdale in 1914 and has become a symbol of post-Independence India for its affluent, hormonal Anglo-Indian residents.
Riverdale’s kids sing, dance, and court each other in all the innocent ways that you might remember from the original “Archie” comics. They worry about who Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda) will end up cuffing, rich girl Veronica (Suhana Khan) or soulful wallflower Betty (Khushi Kapoor), and rally to save Riverdale from encroaching modernization (i.e. a hotel). Who does Archie really like, and will he ultimately move to London, despite the mild protests of his poor dad Fred (Suhaas Ahuja)? The answers may surprise you, even if they’re also very unimportant.
Riverdale’s kids sing about how “everything is politics,” but the lukewarm topics of discussion that they raise—“Can girls wear mini-skirts and gad-about,” and, "Are co-ed schools allowed?”—aren’t even tangential concerns for Archie and his pals. Rather, he and his friends learn, gradually and through sturdy, but unoriginal set pieces, that there’s more to life than mango milkshakes and British Invasion-inspired pop music. “The Archies” celebrates its protagonists’ character-defining youth by letting them be cute, doofy, and mostly self-absorbed.
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. There’s an infectious simplicity, both in terms of song and dance choreography and filmmaking, that makes a lack of fussiness seem more like a virtue than a shortcoming. There’s also something to be said for a movie that doesn’t pathologize wispy supporting characters like Jughead (Mihir Ahuja) or Moose (Rudra Mahuvarkar), but rather treats their sketchy nature as a virtue instead of a problem that must be solved. Khan’s the clear standout among a generally strong ensemble cast, but she’s great for the same reason that they’re (mostly) very good—because their characters are as basic as they are ready to wear.
It might have been nice to see director Zoya Akhtar take bigger swings, both in terms of her movie’s look as well as its sentimental concern with re-investing in one’s own community. But originality was never an essential strength for Akhtar, whose “8 Mile”-style 2019 rap drama “Gully Boy” also succeeds as an actor’s showcase for co-stars Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh. Not every genre movie needs to be unconventional, a fitting lesson given the corny material and characters that “The Archies” so lovingly riffs on. Sometimes, all you need to make a good song and dance number is to let a perpetually hungry teenager gawk at a team of rollerskating babes—in high-waisted shorts, polka dot blouses, and red bowties—as they gang up on him in a (very) mildly suggestive way.
If anything, it’s sort of a relief to see how lightly Akhtar and her collaborators wear their influences, both ideologically and stylistically. Sometimes the characters move or song in ways that recall, say, Jessica Paré’s slinky “Zou Bisou Bisou” dance number in “Mad Men,” or Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, and Anna Karina’s hip French New Wave strut from “Band of Outsiders.” Thankfully, these acknowledged influences aren’t the focus of musical numbers whose look, design, and pace are about as on its face as song lyrics about the battle of the sexes, with representative lyrics like, “Don't you know that he's just a flirt with a smile like dessert made for you,” and its matching clapback, "Don't you know that the flick in her eye is to trick every guy in her queue?”
It might have been interesting to hear Archie’s band, from whom the movie gets its name, try to play something that’s more inspired by Bollywood pop standards. There’s also something to be said for anglicized songs that periodically break up Hindi language lyrics with English hooks like, “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.”
On Netflix now.
Agastya Nanda as Archie Andrews
Dot. as Ethel Muggs
Khushi Kapoor as Betty Cooper
Suhana Khan as Veronica Lodge
Mihir Ahuja as Jughead Jones
Vedang Raina as Reggie Mantle
Yuvraj Menda as Dilton Doiley