‘The Archies’- the Zoya Akhtar disaster
After 4 incredible films Zoya Akhtar has finally broken her streak with The Archies. It shouldnt come as a surprise though, since it wasnt a particularly promising project as was evident from the teasers and the trailers. Unlike Zoya’s previous films Archies wasn’t her own project though, in several promotional interviews she has expressed her gratitude for stumbling upon this opportunity.
‘The Archies’ belong to a special genre of films called launchpad films. In such films the actors do not serve the narrative but the narrative is shaped around the comfort zones of the actors. If they are not good at expressing in emotional scenes, there wont be many such scenes. If they arent familiar with the Hindi language there will be more english language in the dialogues than hindi. There will be a lot of song and dance because stars learn song and dance before they learn acting. Glamorous makeups, costumes and glitter will be all around the production design. If there are three starkids getting launched as a bundle package, there will be a love triangle. The makers do not care about the box office returns because they make enough from under the table deals they make with the parents of the kids. Karan Johar has made his whole career out of this business strategy and after multiple anthology colabs I guess he has now taken Zoya under his wings.
Ok, lets get into the actual product now. Getting the good stuff out of the way first, the production design was implacable. The sets, the lighting, hair and makeup, these are all pitch perfect. The fictional world of a comic book takes you in from the very first animated exposition snippet. Yet the environment is not as plasticky as wes anderson films or the recent barbie movie. The Archies falls somewhere in between an entirely artificial looking set and a natural smalltown set like ‘a death in the gunj’, ‘bulbul’ or ‘dear zindagi’. The colour correction and the post production elevates the efforts put in by the art direction. The colours look really amazing without being flashy.
Alyy khan as Hiram lodge was the perfect casting choice and the highlight performance in the film. As an unconscientious businessman he is perfectly uptight and cunning. There is a scene where he genuinely appreciates another character for being opportunistic at his own cost, just loved that scene.
Also, there are little meta social commentries about press freedom, political lobbying, protecting the environment, the value of legecy, or sentiments vs ambitions that I could appreciate. These are all moderately well integrated into the narrative and do not come off as mendatory inclusions. And thats where the positives end.
The primary issue with the film is the acting and the fact the the camera never gives the lead actors any room to breath. The three main leads take up the centre stage in almost every scene which makes their terrible acting skills harder to hide. After the first 10 minutes its almost impossible to notice anything else in the film past the amount of bad acting getting shoved down your throat. I realize that these are just kids and I should sugarcoat my criticism of them. But here I am criticising Zoya more than the kids because her acting direction was unjustifyably poor. Actors merely say anything and then giggle as a reaction without the line even being remotely amusing. It appears very early as though these kids are not habituated to speaking hindi much. They cant pronouce many words properly, the intonation is way off. And thats the director’s job to correct voice modulation, I dont blame the inexperienced kids for that. Its not that hard Zoya, look at how Shakun Batra did it with Ananya Pandey in Gehrayiyaan and thats just a recent example.
The worst offender of all in the acting department is unfortunately the title character played by Agastya Nanda. His facial muscles refuse to move as he mumbles the mugged up lines. His delivery of the lines are muted down by the ever lurking camera consciousness visible on his face which makes it impossible to see him as the confident casinova rockstar musician his character is written as.
Suhana khan is no better but she atleast tries to hide her shortcomings behind a consistent bratty smile. She is confident and functional in several scenes but the rest are what you’d expect from a non actor. There is very little variation in her dialogue delivery. She is this excessively calm and ever smiling girl that always talks with her chin up as if she is throwing a punchline every time she speaks. The intention behind the character design is loud and clear but it still shoul’ve been toned down a lot.
Vedant Raina as Reggie is more promissing than the three leads. But tries a bit too hard to be the smug that Reggie is. His postures, his smirks and frowns all exude artificial smugness. In his attempts of sounding cool he eats up many words. The dubbing of his voice is done in such a low pitch throughout that a couple of times I couldnt understand what he said till I turned the subtitles on.
Khushi Kapoor’s betty shares all of the above qualities. She probably chews her words more than the others, naturally reminds me of her elder sister. However she makes up a little bit with a charming appearance that is the most comic book appropriate. She actually looks like a character from a whimsical fairy tale story. Light bounces off her face and her expressive eyes perfectly.
Mihir ahuja as jughead, Dot as Ethal and Yuvraj Manda as Dilton are much better additions. And this clear contrast between talent and privilege stands out like a sore thumb that pokes your eyes.
The actual storyline doesnt help but dig the hole a little deeper for the film. The aimless subplots take up the majority of the runtime and the crux of the story begins too late. And when it starts you are instantly reminded of the Vikas Behl film ‘Chillar party’ that ran the similar plotpoints and did that so much better. The battle for protecting a stray dog was so much more ardent and personal to the little kids in chillar party that you cant help but passionately root for them. And thats where a narrative wins, by strongly aligning you to the heroes journey. In The Archies we are told multiple times that protecting green park is important, but I personally couldnt feel the importance ever. The conflict is simply not challanging enough here, the characters just need to reach out to people, everybody is instantly ready to sign the petition. And the actual plan to get the bulk signatures is hillarious. How can cakes and clothes and jokes be sold for signatures? People who are visiting the fair must preserve their own signatures for stuff they will buy themselves. So, to buy a punchline for 5 signatures you must run off to home and get adults in the family and a couple of neighbours to sign and then be back again to listen to the punchline and by then you are not laughing at the joke anymore. You wish to have a cupcake to cheer yourself up but that costs 10 signatures and you ran out of family members and neighbours. What kind of a fair is this, its just Unfair…
The most unreasonable part of the film is the love triangle. the first student of the year film looks like an arthouse film infront of it. Betty sees Archie making excuses and forgetting her birthdays to go on a date with his ex girlfriend but she is instantly convinced that there is nothing there because ‘Archie-the womenizer’ casully says so. He takes a third chick to the ball but manages to woo back betty and veronica because he wrote a song for them. Then Betty finds Archie kissing Veronica and it breaks her heart. But even after two hours of this back and forth, none of them tries to have an honest conversation about the status of their relationship? Its like delibetare ambiguity for delaying the resolution so that a stupid conflict can live a little longer. Archie believes that veronica is an entitled selfish brat, he even says that to betty, yet he says he loves her. Veronica thinks Archie doesnt even know the meaning of love, yet she is scared of losing him to her best friend. Then they have a girl power moment and finally resolve the love triangle by suddenly deciding that they’ll all be just friends from now on. Brilliant. At the age when people take the most passionate deep dives in love, these kids seem indifferent enough to be in a Splitsvilla season.
Then there are the dialogues and the element of humour. At a school gathering the principle says “change in inevitable” to which Reggie replies “if change is inevitable then how come I didnt get mine back from jughead yesterday?”. The whole school breaks out laughing loudly at this.
Then Jughead answers “q k wo me kha gaya”,
and again the whole school starts clapping and laughing hysterically over the alleged humor of this. This is a brand new level of sense of humor that you cant suddenly develop. Most of the humor in this film is either not written well or not executed well. Sorry Farhan, you cant be the same person who wrote the dialogues for zindagi and Lakshya and dil chahta he…
Cant make a commentry about the Music because I skipped all 16 of them, the score is not bad though.
The rest are smaller elements that might sound like nitpicks but can really come as surprise if you have a higher expectation associated with the creative team in your mind. Like the disjointed lgbtq element. Dilton making a big scene at the truth or dare game establishes how sensetive he is about this secret of his. Yet he doesnt react at all when Reggie reveals that he knows how Dilton feels about him. Shouldnt that be the most embarrassing moment for a closeted gay teen?
Archie’s dscision to stay back in Riverdale was hurried, he couldve easily postponsed the travel for a few days if the fight for the park was his motivation. But his motive seems to be the values and attachments that his father instills in just one scene alone. Thats an awfully short span of time for making people change their whole value system.
There are more but I’ll stop my rant here. Its not a big deal to be disappointed by a bollywood film. But when it comes from someone who you thought would be the last dependable mainstream bollywood director, it just breaks your heart. The quality degradation feels even more exaggerated in your head than it really is and you lose all hope… Untill you come across unexpected little gems like Vijay Maurya’s debut film, “mast me rehne ka”… Review coming next…