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The pale pink world of milkshakes and first kisses

For those who grew up reading the comics, The Archies offers a nostalgic embrace with reminders of childhood

By Fouzia Nasir Ahmad |
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PUBLISHED December 24, 2023

It is the 1970s. We were in our teens, getting used to life with some confusion, limitations, and restrictions. Earlier in the decade, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the prime minister, basking in the glory of the Islamic Summit Conference in 1974.

We had gotten used to Pakistani cinema showing dances that could have qualified well for item numbers had the term been coined at the time. We watched women in shower in TV advertisements, women in our families wore saris to Saddar and walked around Bohri Bazaar, non-Muslim women wore dresses outdoors. The city was clean. There were discotheques. We sent requests by post and listened to western songs for half an hour on Radio Pakistan. People danced in parties that had proper dance floors.

That was the norm, the done thing, and nobody judged anyone. We were Pakistanis with hope, faith, and discipline, and we were not pretending to be Turkish or Arabs.

Later in the decade, Mr Bhutto was ousted, and soon martial law was declared in the country, which created a stunned, knocked-out, gloomy vibe. Or at least we felt that. Gradually, our confusion, limitations, and restrictions increased trifold at all levels.

TV became unwatchable and Pakistani cinema went into a coma. Everybody started piling on layers of clothing, societal concepts for everything were fast changing. We couldn’t really understand what was happening to our lives and the world around us.

But we had a window that showed us a fabulous way of life, far, far away in the US, in a place called Riverdale. Thankfully, we could still buy Archie Comics in bookshops and roadside booksellers or rent them for a few rupees from some shops They were the school currency, the foundation for a lot of friendships and the best way we knew to spend long hot summer afternoons, with our favourite munchies at hand.

Betty and Veronica wore swimsuits and bikinis on the colourful covers, nobody batted an eyelid. We didn’t quite understand Archie, but we loved Veronica for her riches, style, and vanity, and we loved Betty for being the girl next door. Reggie taught us what being a pain is, Moose told us what being dumb is, and Jughead introduced American fast food to us long before it even arrived in our country.

We knew what glazed, starry eyes meant, what a spattering of little hearts meant, we loved all the situations with POW, THUD, CRASH. Life with the Archie comics was indeed va va voom!

But it wasn’t just us who were influenced by the lively atmosphere of these comics and the unique characters, Archie Comics left a lasting impact on countless young people globally. Shows and films followed. According to a media report, Bollywood director Karan Johar once said that some elements of his 1998 superhit movie "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" were inspired from the Archie Comics.

Fast forward to 2023. An Indian teen musical comedy, “The Archies”, based on the American comic book series and directed by Zoya Akhtar, got 2.2 million views and 5.2 million hours of viewing as per the Netflix worldwide data in its opening weekend on Netflix in India. The Archies was the third most-watched direct to OTT release of the week and the 38th most watched movie in its opening week.

Since Zoya is obviously an Archie Comics fan, I imagine she must have felt a love, a loyalty, an ownership about the characters in Riverdale. Being part of the Archie fan club that transcends borders, did she feel as though she is revisiting her life as a teenager when she read the comics. And most importantly, by Bollywood-ising them, she dressed them up like Barbies and Kens, expressing in a joyous, vibrant manner her love for the characters, which many Archie comic fans would love to do but can’t because we are ordinary people not Zoya Akhtar. Or Reema Kagti and Farhan Akhtar, co-writers of “The Archies.”

So as ardent fans of Archie Comics, it doesn’t bother us if the film was a commercial flop, if the plot line was weak, if it looked like a remake of “Riverdale”, previously on Netflix, or if it was a cute plan to launch nepo-babies such as Suhana Khan, Khushi Kapoor and Agastye Nanda. Apart from a handful of actors, who isn’t a nepo-baby in Bollywood? Nepo-babies come and go, real talent stays.

Let’s look at “The Archies” from the dreamy eyes of an Archie comic fan from the subcontinent.

It is 1964, the skillfully created, charming fictional town of Riverdale with its enchanting cottages is a on a hill station. There is rock and roll, burgers, milk shakes, quaint streets and houses; girls in cute hairdos and freshly ironed clothes (grunge came much after Archie Comics) cycle around with freshly picked flowers in their bike-baskets; boys are slick; cakes are Lambeth style (people had more time to whip up yummy desserts before cell phones hit us); hearts are broken; songs are sung; kisses are stolen, just like on the pages of our comics from the fading past; Hiram Lodge and Pop Tates couldn’t have been better replicated, and the Chok’lit Shoppe was an incredible re-creation.

The ensemble cast of Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Suhana Khan, Aditi Dot, Mihir Ahuja, Yuvraj Menda, and Vedang Raina performed well, bringing the spirited, exuberant energy that you need and feel in a nostalgic musical like “The Archies.” I did not have lofty expectations from any one of them because the roles didn’t really have scope for “Mother India” or “Mughal-e-Azam” type histrionics. Can you imagine Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan as Archie? Does Archie’s role call for that kind of epic talent? Did you want to see Aishwarya or Deepika as Veronica or Katrina or Kiara as Betty? The film was meant to be a light, frothy, and refreshing adaptation and nothing else. Who said it was contending for Oscars and Golden Globes?

The eleven songs are fresh, easy to listen to, singable, and the beat is foot-tapping. Dances are incredibly good considering it is a new and young cast. The Anglo-Indian premise made sense to me because my childhood house was surrounded by Anglo-Indian families in PECHS, Karachi, and so the names, the lifestyle, the clothes, and the characters didn’t feel unfamiliar to me.

The newcomers made fine debuts, because the real stars of the film were production, design, costumes, cinematography, art direction, choreography, and the breathtaking locations, from Ooty to Mauritius.

Just like we loved Archie Comics because they were comics and not novels, offering lots of pictorial content as opposed to just words, we feasted on what Jughead ate and had vicarious thrills with what Betty and Veronica wore. So we were on a roll, feasting our eyes on what the film offered visually.

Taking place in the 1960s, the narrative is adorned with an abundance of vintage printed dresses and pinafores. Surface ornamentation, inspired by upholstery, among other elements, is artistically reflected thorough research and dedication of Poornamrita Singh, the film’s costume designer who apparently discovered the most exquisite archival pieces from the streets of London to feed our sore eyes.

The fashionable, well-travelled and style-conscious Veronica wore the latest trends of 1960s fashion, while Ethel who looked way better in the film than in the comics, appeared to have an eclectic kind of taste and a quirky vibe to the variety of prints that she wore.

Dilton, nerd of the sixties, was stylish and dressed in blazers, checks and stripes, sleeveless sweaters, and his signature glasses. Betty, the average girl next door who borrowed stuff from her mother and friends, wore lots of knickerbockers as she cycled around.

Moving these iconic American teenagers to India works, as the film manages to make them fresh and original. Sugary, fluffy, super corny and absurd at times, but harmless fun. “The Archies” doesn’t delve into anything new, but if it did, would it really shut the critics down? And what exactly would they like to see in a film? Rape, incest, toxicity, drugs? Haven’t we had enough of all that in modern day shows, even in “Class”, an adaptation of “Elite”?

The LGBTQ element between Dilton and Reggie was unexpected and subtle, although a few critics feel that since it was Dilton’s coming out scene, the opportunity to explore his personality in greater depth was there, but the execution fell short, making it an uncomfortable and awkward moment. On the other hand, some critics thought the scene was powerful in its sensitive handling of the complex emotion of a teenager struggling with his sexual identity. The subsequent interaction with Reggie, intended to convey acceptance, did not come across as forced or superficial to me because I believe it isn’t necessary to delve deeply into the subject every time being gay is brought up or touched upon. The profoundness and sincerity of Reggie and Dilton's friendship was reduced to barely two lines, but they sufficed instead of a long-drawn explanation or declaration of Dilton being a certain way and Reggie offering solace verbally or physically to make him comfortable.

Sometimes, the screenplay of “The Archies” feels weak, particularly when there are long gaps and short lines. The editing could have been tighter and the runtime perhaps half hour less.

Despite some minor flaws, the students of the Riverdale High have made a mark that will resonate for generations as the film sends out a heartwarming message to its younger audience about activism. “The Archies” emphasise that their individual voices matter and standing up for one's beliefs and values is crucial. Collectively, they can effect a change. This message is particularly relevant at the time when protests against a genocidal war are happening across the world today. The teenagers in the movie used the radio, today’s young people have social media.

For those who grew up reading the Archie Comics like me, the film offers a nostalgic embrace with its familiar setting, references, and reminders of childhood. This reiteration also reminds us of the intellect and ambition prevalent post-partition with literature, art, and theatre, much before intolerance, hypersensitivity, polarisation, and irrational political consciousness took over the world.