A still from The Archies. (courtesy: netflix_in)
A vibrant colour palette, an array of wonderful musical tracks, the infectious verve of young actors, and a period story imbued with concerns of contemporary relevance propel The Archies into a zone where even the palpably facile is a whole lot of fun and marked by stylistic flair.
The live-action musical coming-of-age comedy transplants the abiding Archie comics to a mid-1960s Anglo-Indian hill town setting. It conjures up a largely believable universe within a bubble of mirth and music in which a group of thick-as-thieves high schoolers navigate love, friendship and heartbreak.
While they are at it, the free-spirited youngsters also learn that there is much more to life than dates and parties, banter and bonhomie and figure out that one is never too young to spark a revolution.
Pat and predictable as that may be, The Archies has an easy-flowing rhythm thanks to a gallery of vivid characters that are never archetypal even though they possess clear-cut characteristics. The film flows without a hitch and articulates its points with a refreshing lightness of touch while literally making a song and dance about it.
Archie Andrews (Agastya Nanda) is in a dilemma of his own making. He is caught between the vivacious Veronica Lodge (Suhana Khan), who has just returned to Riverdale after being away from her hometown for two years, and the sedate Betty Cooper (Khushi Kapoor). He has feelings for both.
Archie, son of the owner of Riverdale's only travel agency, has such faith in his own aura that he presumes that neither of the two girls will have any problem with his habitual two-timing. This may be 1964 but Veronica and Betty are 'modern' and tough young women who value their friendship more than anything else.
The duo knows when and how to assert their agency despite their hearts being expectedly prone to possessiveness, envy and sorrow. Their strong bonding faces its share of up and downs. How they deal with the reverses forms an important part of The Archies.
The other girl in their gang, Ethel Muggs (Dot.), is the very best at what she does - she is a much sought-after hairstylist. Her allegiance to her employer, Pam (Delnaaz Irani), is tested when a new salon with imported, state-of-the-art equipment opens in town.
Not for a moment do the three leads seem to be raw as actors. They deliver the goods with remarkable elan. No less impressive are the actors who complete the young cast that fleshes out Archie Comics characters with distinct individual traits without letting any of them sink into predictability.
Vedang Raina as Reggie Mantle, Mihir Ahuja as Jughead and Yuvraj Menda as the nerdy, self-effacing Dilton Doiley (who proves his worth when it really matters) sail through their roles with utmost ease. The script is their ally.
It mixes spoken dialogues with a slew of songs that provide clear glimpses into volatile minds as the bubbly teenagers make their ways through a crucial phase of their lives that sees them transition to adulthood.
The names of the characters and their city remain unchanged in The Archies but everything else in the Netflix film directed by Zoya Akhtar and written by her with Reema Kagti and Ayesha DeVitre Dhillon is given lively new trappings.
There is no glaring disconnect between what the comics are - an American pop culture phenomenon (that had huge currency on the subcontinent especially in the 1960s and 1970s) - and the delightfully cheerful fable about a community with deep roots in India's colonial past and yet wholly committed, post-Independence, to the land of their birth.
The freshness of the brew that The Archies rustles up rests primarily on the flamboyant and fastidious visual design and the flourish that the principal actors impart to the film, which addresses the pangs of growing up and standing up for a cause while it tackles the larger themes of corporate greed, media freedom and the scourge of unsustainable development.
The most striking aspect of The Archies is the manner in which blends the flip (not flimsy) with the solemn (not self-conscious) as a group of teenagers deal with each other's angularities, their parents' desires, and the impositions of powerful people bent upon robbing their city of something its denizens hold dear.
The film celebrates the restless, kinetic spirit of the young even as it skewers the skullduggery that is afoot in the name of redevelopment of the town square with the construction of a shopping plaza and a grand hotel aimed at boosting Riverdale's tourism potential.
The city council head Dawson (Vinay Pathak) is in cahoots with entrepreneur Hiram Lodge (Ally Khan), Veronica's ever-busy, profit-obsessed father. The two men manipulate the council members to vote in favour of Green Park, a space where the city's roots literally lie, being turned into a construction site.
"Everything is politics" and "you can't just live your life for kicks", the Riverdale High students croon when Archie says he has no interest in politics. He plans to fly away to London to study even though his parents aren't in favour of the idea. Betty, Reggie, Jughead, Ethel and Dilton have no such escape route. They have far too much at stake to turn their backs on the fate of Riverdale.
Betty's father stands to lose his book shop and Reggie'e editor-dad is determined to protect his newspaper's freedom. Riverdale's best-loved spots - Suzie's flower shop, Pop Tate's cafe and Pam's beauty salon are among them - face closure as Hiram Lodge proposes to buy them out.
Veronica's dad is the man responsible for the threat looming over the small businesses - a fact that causes frictions serious enough to nearly drive a wedge between her and the rest of the Riverdale High gang.
But there is nothing more precious in Riverdale than the park and its trees - each one of them has a story to tell because they are an integral part of the city's landscape and history. They are worth fighting for. Once that realisation dawns on Archie and his friends, they are forced to close ranks and start a movement.
By setting the story in a community that chose India and by opting for the years 1947 and 1964 as the two chronological bookends of the narrative, The Archies is clearly seeking to convey much more than what the encounters that shape a crucial year in the lives of the Riverdale youngsters do.
India's attainment of Independence and the death of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru - neither of the two signposts of Indian history is specifically mentioned - were separated by 17 years. And that is the age of the younger characters in the film. They are as old as the free nation that they are ready to fight for.
Everything is indeed politics. Even when life is awash with colours, songs, dances and the elixir of youth the way it is in The Archies. A beguiling oddity. In style, substance and spirit.
Agastya Nanda, Suhana Khan, Khushi Kapoor, Dot, Mihir Ahuja, Vedang Raina and Yuvraj Menda