The Archies: An anti-establishment call-to-arms, Zoya Akhtar’s politically-charged film will be triggering for the Animal army

the archies: an anti-establishment call-to-arms, zoya akhtar’s politically-charged film will be triggering for the animal army

the archies

The kids are alright in director Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies. (Photo: Netflix)

“Children don’t count,” spits a man who has clearly forgotten that he used to be a child himself. This man is Mr Dawson, a middle-aged politician who has been sweet-talked into corruption by a big businessman named Hiram Lodge. He’s the one effectively running things, while elected officials like Dawson serve as glorified stooges under his iron fist. Sounds familiar? In her new film, The Archies, director Zoya Akhtar disguises her political angst by unleashing a charm-offensive as irresistible as that memorable piece to camera in Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan.

Set in a semi-fantastical hill station in 1964, The Archies isn’t merely a superficial nostalgia trip (although Gold Spot and Bata make cameo appearances in several scenes). The movie’s bigger achievement is reminding a certain generation — the boomers, or, as we like to call them, the uncles — that before spending their afternoons fighting over parking spots and voting right-wing governments into power, they actually cared — about the environment, about free speech, about democracy. In its own good-natured way, The Archies is something that only Javed Akhtar’s daughter could’ve made, but more to the point, it’s a movie that will likely be about as triggering to fans of Animal as Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s blockbuster has been to his detractors.

Unlike so many of her Bollywood contemporaries, Akhtar actually seems to understand what it is like to be young and to rage against the machine, to push back against the generational divide while dealing with the traumas of childhood. Imtiaz Ali could barely hide his contempt for the millennials in his rancid 2020 film Love Aaj Kal, and Anurag Kashyap’s young protagonists in Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat essentially served as his own mouthpieces, but the seven central characters in The Archies each embody traits that are generally associated with the Gen Z. They just happen to be living in the swingin’ ’60s.

the archies: an anti-establishment call-to-arms, zoya akhtar’s politically-charged film will be triggering for the animal army

the archies

Khushi Kapoor as Betty Cooper, Suhana Khan as Veronica Lodge in The Archies. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Ethel, played by a feisty Dot., is an ambitious young girl who takes up a high-paying job when one is offered to her, but doesn’t think twice before walking out after being spoken to rudely. Dilton, played by a delightful Yuvraj Menda, is a fully fleshed out character who isn’t limited to his sexual identity. He gets an especially memorable scene midway through the film; in fact, they all do. Played by Vedang Raina, Reggie Mantle appears to be ahead of the curve when it comes to attitudes around the arts. After being told by his uptight father that respectable professions are limited to medicine, law and engineering, he shoots back, “You’ll understand the value of a comedian one day.” Somewhere at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Vir Das cracked a smile.

Reggie’s father reminds him of the important role that the news media played during India’s Independence struggle, in the face of censorship and oppression. And yet, he fails to understand that dissent can be expressed in different ways. But the endlessly optimistic movie doesn’t reduce Mr Mantle to a cross old man, out of touch with the changing times. If anything, the arc that he’s given proves that anybody can be converted if they’re shown kindness. Mr Mantle’s horizons broaden not because he’s yelled at, but with a song, a slice of cake, and a little joke. Is this Akhtar’s Paddington?

Khushi Kapoor, who brings wounded bird rizz to her performance as Betty, gets the film’s best arc. Her coming-of-age is more internal, as opposed to the rather outward evolution that the others experience. None more so than Archie Andrews, played by Agastya Nanda. Because of Nanda’s inherent rawness as a performer, Archie doesn’t immediately come across as an outright jerk for entering into situationships with both Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge, played by Suhana Khan. In the film’s most hilarious subversion of archaic teen tropes — although, make no mistake, The Archies is as pleasantly cliched as they come — the two BFFs discover over time that they needn’t fight each other to win his affections at all.

the archies: an anti-establishment call-to-arms, zoya akhtar’s politically-charged film will be triggering for the animal army

the archies

Khushi Kapoor as Betty Cooper, Agastya Nanda as Archie Andrews in The Archies. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

In addition to her moving personal journey — Kapoor, it must be said, is the standout among the cast — Betty also finds herself aligning with several anti-establishment causes. The closest to her heart is the closure of her father’s independent bookstore, which is just the kind of hyper-specific nostalgia that the movie occasionally finds itself evoking. Anybody who has ever browsed the shelves of the long-extinct Bookworm at CP would feel personally triggered by this subplot. But there’s more to it than the obvious commentary about capitalism. Betty’s father essentially represents the fence-sitters among the masses; innocent as they might admittedly be, these are the folks whose general apathy towards governance is just as responsible for the rise of the right-wing as the venomous insecurity of the middle-class.

In a turn of events nobody would’ve seen coming, The Archies can easily be added to the list of this year’s patriotic Bollywood movies. For crying out loud, Archie Andrews goes full Mohan Bhargav towards the end, when he decides to scuttle all plans of moving abroad — a nod to the mass exodus of our country’s youth — and build a life for himself in India. “The grass isn’t greener on the other side,” he tells his father. “The grass is green where you water it.” He goes from being a vocally apolitical ‘loafer’ to spearheading a Salim-Javed-style movement against the razing of everybody’s favourite local park — perhaps a reference to the controversial construction projects at Mumbai’s Aarey Forest, which in turn would make it a sneaky tip of the hat to the late Jawaharlal Nehru. As Akhtar makes clear in a musical sequence midway through the movie, “Everything is politics.”

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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