Film, Film Review

REVIEW: THE ARCHIES (2023) dir. Zoya Akhtar

Zoya Akhtar examines the loveliness of loving you


Zoya Akhtar is one of my favorite working directors. Along with her brother Farhan Akhtar, an actor-writer-director mostly known for his work as a leading man, she has made a series of effectual, transcendental films. This is both her greatest asset and her biggest criticism: the films of Zoya Akhtar reach for the good, the true, and the beautiful, sometimes to an excess. I like to think of her as the antithesis of The Wolf of Wall Street’s cinema of indulgence. The characters that populate her worlds are, at heart, good people (even when those people are disgustingly rich). The main characters don’t have small journeys of self-discovery, but alter the trajectory of their lives and communities in imitation of almost religiously infused dreams of better worlds and better lives. Naturally, for me, the release of a new Akhtar film is something of a household event bookmarked in advance and with the usual distractions sidelined. Even though Archie Comics and Riverdale aren’t really my thing, it didn’t matter to me. The Archies, a Netflix Original featuring the acting debut of Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan, was appointment viewing.

Maybe the new trajectory should have mattered, though. In many ways, her latest film departs from the rest of her filmography marked mostly by modern (b)romances aimed at adults: Luck By Chance (2009), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), and, the film that endeared her to many of her most adamant admirers, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011). The Archies is aimed at a much younger and more immature audience, amplifying the always over-dramatized and cheese-abundant aspects of Farhan’s dialogue writing. Set in the 1960s in a fictional majority Anglo-Indian community in India, a group of friends learn about love through one another and fight the development of a new hotel that will destroy Green Park, the center of city life. It’s not just a usual city center, though; it’s where the townspeople stood upon hearing the announcement of national independence, and every townsperson plants a tree as a right of passage. By literalizing the community’s roots in a physical space, Akhtar elevates the importance to something whose destruction becomes irredeemable. Not set against the backdrop of modern life, the warm charm of her camera, operated by cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis, struggles to remove itself from simplified period-pic nostalgia. Importantly, for the first time in one of her feature films, Zoya is not a credited writer. In her tonally-straight Gully Boy, her 2019 feature about a boy from the slums who dreams of being a rapper, Farhan is not credited as a writer for only the second time in their five features together. Without her more serious touch, the incessant glee of Riverdale rubs irritatingly, as does the obvious emotional pandering of the screenplay. 

Of course, I’m just not the audience. I’ve never read or even opened an Archie comic and I haven’t seen an episode of Riverdale, although I always had the impression that the show was aimed at a slightly older audience than the usual Netflix teen romance. That doesn’t make it a bad film. The limitations come not from the younger target audience but from the splittingly sentimental writing. “Some moments are so special that you know when it’s over, your heart will break,” Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda) says to one of his two love interests, Betty Cooper (the ineffable Khushi Kapoor), in what is honestly not that abnormal a representation of the dialogue. Oooof. In this sappy profession of love, I realized one of my favorite directors was essentially working with a Kissing Booth-quality script and that’s just a difficult realization for any cinephile. 

Kapoor is a standout. Despite being her debut, the young actress commands the camera’s attention—as well as Archie’s—in her every scene. She’s the younger sister of Janhvi Kapoor, who starred in Mili (2022) and also came to fame (somewhat) through Zoya Akhtar in her short segment in Ghost Stories, so her success as Betty comes as no surprise. (Her parents were also bigwigs in Bollywood.) Of course, nepotism and beauty can only take one so far. Both Nanda and Khan (playing Veronica “Ronnie” Lodge) have more on-screen chemistry with her than they do with each other, and she gives an under-the-radar emotionally diverse performance that the film stands on. The initial mean-spirited online attacks on her performance are as thin as Twitter (now X) is deep.

One bright side to the younger audience of The Archies is the payoff of being the most musical-friendly of her five features. The soundtrack, especially the songs by Dot (or Aditi Dot), who plays Ethel Muggs, have a radio quality to them that most soundtracks would envy. For the first time in her feature career, Zoya demonstrates a powerful command of bodily movement. Bodies delight in the play of pleasing one another and each movement of the dances appears designed to maximize desire. In one fantasy dance number featuring a dozen or so women and Archie, the lone male, the women rollerblade in dreamy seduction around Archie as they warn him against two-timing between Betty and Ronnie. Dance props come and go like magic without care for continuity; all that matters is the marvelous movement of bodies. The number concludes with a manipulated frame rate that brings the bodies of the women closer together for one last group shot: the women stand together, a foreshadowing of what’s to come. 

Another positive movement is the inclusion of her first major queer character, Dilly (Yuvraj Menda). Farhan’s script denies the quintessential “coming out” scene so common to these sorts of modern teen movies, setting that moment aside for a later date and allowing the character to retain agency over his story rather than feeding an entitled audience. Dilly doesn’t owe anyone, the viewer included, a sexual coming out. The most moving scene in the entire film comes from “Reggie” (the incredibly attractive Vedang Raina), Dilly’s straight crush and close friend. After a difficult time at the lake, Reggie senses something is off with his friend and comforts him before going to bed. He tells him he knows about Dilly’s feelings and tenderly acknowledges the pain he must feel to not have them reflected back. In a stand-in for Farhan (and Zoya), Reggie tells Dilly it’s his “story to tell.” The secret is safe. The moment is small and not even that remarkable of an act of love. Perhaps it’s exactly that commonness that makes it so moving. 

The Archies
dir. Zoya Akhtar
142 min.

Now streaming on Netflix

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