Zoya Akhtar’s nepo baby-riddled imagining of Riverdale has the desire but little else.
Deep into The Archies—Zoya Akhtar’s sixties Anglo-Indian take on the eponymous comics and its slate of characters—Betty Cooper (débutante Khushi Kapoor) visits her best friend Veronica Lodge (fellow débutante Suhana Khan) at her palatial house, to offer an apology in the form of her favourite cake. A frowning Veronica gets up off her sun lounger, smiles at the sight of the dessert, grabs a cherry off the top, and swipes her finger through the frosting. She’s content and friends with Betty again. But crucially, Veronica doesn’t even taste the cake. That is essentially the case with the new Netflix movie, too. Akhtar—the director and co-writer, alongside frequent collaborator Reema Kagti (Made in Heaven), and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon (Gehraiyaan)—gives us the cherry and cream version. There’s no cake.
An exercise in brand management
That is to say, The Archies is sugary and fluffy, just like cotton candy. Sure, it has a few bones to pick and some topics to tackle, but it has little interest in scratching below the surface. No wonder then that it loves pivoting to songs—there are 11 (!!) of them, three in the first 20 minutes and seven in the first hour. It’s maddening. Worse, it’s only a “musical” in the sense that it features singing and dancing, as it communicates very little through those songs. At times, The Archies feels less like a movie and more like a 143-minute package to promote the existence of said songs.
Of course, the new Netflix movie also serves as an IP extension, just like Barbie earlier this year, except it doesn’t challenge or spark any tough conversations. There are brief attempts—it seemingly takes India’s boomers to task and notes the young must push for change—but, largely, it’s honey poured down your throat, floating in a silver spoon. It’s everything a brand could want.
It’s also a brand exercise for Bollywood’s firmly entrenched families. The two aforementioned actors—Khushi Kapoor and Suhana Khan—are daughters of Sridevi and Shah Rukh Khan, respectively. The film’s third central character, Archie Andrews, is taken up by Amitabh Bachchan’s grandson, Agastya Nanda. Akhtar has claimed that the casting process took a year, so it’s funny she’s ended up with the sons and daughters of some very famous people. And yes, other actors are making their debuts on The Archies, but the three nepo babies have the most screen time. There’s nepo baby stuff behind the scene, too—Ritesh Sidhwani’s son Arav is a production intern, and composer Shankar Mahadevan’s son Shivam has lent his voice.
The Archies: the plot
Set in 1964 India—all of the film’s central teenagers were born in the year of our independence—The Archies is set in the fictional town of Riverdale, founded by an Englishman and populated largely by Anglo-Indians since the British left, as an opening voiceover notes. Archie and Co. are in the final year of school, with Veronica having returned to Riverdale after being away for two years in London. Archie is instantly drawn into Ronnie’s circle (they used to date, we’re told), and it’s clear that Betty is jealous of the two (the childhood friends grew close while V was away). But all Archie really wants is to leave Riverdale—he believes there’s no future for him here and is eager to pursue a future in England.
And there may not be much of a town to return to. Veronica’s father, Mr. Lodge (Alyy Khan), is set on eroding the very heart of Riverdale—Green Park, a large public space—by putting in a new hotel. You know where this is going, right? The kids are no doubt going to save the park and the day, imbuing the Netflix teen comedy with dramatic stakes.
Earnest but not enough
The Archies is earnest, but it doesn’t work. To fend off the nepo baby criticisms, Akhtar has attempted to claim that there are seven leads—Jughead (Mihir Ahuja), Reggie Mantle (Vedang Raina), Ethel Muggs (Aditi “Dot.” Saigal), and Dilton (Yuvraj Menda) being the other four—but the film doesn’t give its “leads” enough characterisation beyond a line or two. Jughead always prioritises food, Reggie competes with Archie for Veronica’s affection, Ethel pines for Jughead, and Dilly is super-smart and says “thank you” in a weird accent. If you’ve ever read a single Archies comic strip, you likely already knew half of those.
While the production values are good and the world feels lived in—it’s clear they’ve shot on location and spent some effort creating Riverdale—The Archies has a bit of baffling trouble with its subtitles. On more than one occasion, lines exist for dialogues that are never spoken. And in one instance, Mussoorie is spelt as Missouri in the subtitles.
Fluffy and cursory
Despite women playing two of the three central characters, the new Netflix film completely fails the Bechdel test. In that regard, it feels as regressive as the decades-old Archie comics. (Though I suppose blame me for expecting more from a 2023 adaptation of a comic where a teenager toys with the affection of two girls.) Still, it’s nice to see that Akhtar and her co-writers don’t fully succumb to rom-com love triangle tropes and attempt to subvert them as best they can. For what it’s worth, it handles itself better elsewhere, with Dilton’s queer arc afforded room and acknowledgement.
Similarly, The Archies is political in the amount a fluffy teen comedy can be, touching upon gentrification, free press, and big business. These are all righteous causes, but they all receive cursory explorations—yes, it’s a children’s movie at its heart, but it feels like box-checking. The most pointed remark Akhtar makes is drawing a parallel to the eroding public visibility of religious minorities in India’s global presence today.
The Archies is too lightweight
But otherwise, there’s very little of import or little that lands. It’s all so lightweight that nothing feels real. Emotions and truth are handwaved away in preference for a vibe and mood. None of the debutantes seem to have a tight grip—Nanda seems vain and unrelatable, Khan comes across as artificial at times, and the film asks the most of Kapoor, who lacks the range—though, to be fair, it’s also a case of the writing not serving them well.
Ultimately, it’s a film made by a nepo baby and led by three nepo babies. The Archies is not serving anyone except the ones involved in it. Surprisingly, this is the first live-action feature appearance for Archie and Co. (Hollywood has never given the comics a big-screen treatment, though we did have the edgy, soapy Riverdale, which ended after a seven-season run earlier in 2023.) It’s also a rare Indian addition to the Christmas film collection—the story unfolds over six months, going through Christmas and ending at New Year’s—but sadly, it’s not a classic you’d like to rewatch every year. Far from it.
The Archies released on Thursday, December 7 on Netflix worldwide.