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Zoya Akhtar’s films on rich people appealed to the masses. ‘The Archies’ does not

Zoya Akhtar's 'The Archies' is just a desperate imitation of White West with Bollywood's 'little ones'.

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Indian fans of The Archies had been sitting quietly — the heyday of Betty, Veronica, and Archie etched in memory — until 14 May, when Bollywood producer-director Zoya Akhtar decided to charge up social media with the first look of the comic’s Indian adaptation. “Why does Zoya Akhtar need to make movies about India’s poor? Aren’t enough people doing that already? She writes and visualises the life she knows well, and people love her for it. India isn’t only poverty. Someone needs to bring out its elite life”: Words of my film appreciation teacher were ringing in my head as I scrolled through tweets that made fun of the cast reveal video.

The teaser had the typical Zoya Akhtar formula: Good-looking rich people enjoying life under the sun. There will be some conflict, one we haven’t been apprised of yet, dancing, exotic activities, and perhaps more dancing. Isn’t this largely what Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) were about too?

Even her short film directed in the Lust Stories (2018) anthology looked at the struggles of a domestic worker involved in an affair with her employer from a largely elite lens.

So, if there’s nothing new, why are people annoyed?

Precisely because there’s a difference in the latest teaser when compared to Akhtar’s previous work. While her stories were about a certain class, they, somewhere, appealed to the masses. You related to the family fights, the sibling relationships, how friendships can get awkward and how love isn’t easy. Imran (Farhan Akhtar) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was a middle-class everyman making his pennies in an ad agency. Farah Ali (Anushka Sharma) in Dil Dhadakne Do was trying to survive a stigmatised profession. This teaser, however, looked too alien. Too Western in its aesthetic, dressing sense, background music, and — no surprise there — too nepotistic, and hence, a turn-off. You have Suhana Khan playing Veronica, an awkward plain Jane Khushi Kapoor, and a trying-hard-to-fit-in Agastya Nanda in retro India.

Nepotism and pandering to a Western aesthetic make the star announcement teaser of The Archies disappointing. And this movie is coming from the sets of Zoya Akhtar, the director of Luck By Chance (2009), which mocked these very tendencies of the Hindi film industry.

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Archies not alien to India

The Archies might be an American comic about an American boy, but it’s not a story alien to India.

There was a time when there were magazines on our bedroom tables and The Archies usually ruled them – or was a close competition with Tinkle. It’s a universe that comic readers are intimately familiar with, especially English readers.

Now if you ask them, they say: What’s the point of telling the adventures of Archie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead, from an Indian point of view if everyone looks like they’re American-Indians?

This pop, retro look and feel of the teaser is a desperate imitation of the ’60s West — there’s nothing ‘Indian’ about it. If we wanted to see the Archies’ gang in a Western set-up, we have enough content — we don’t need Zoya Akhtar to add to it.

This is not to say that Archie should be dressed in a kurta, Veronica in a saree and samosas be given to Jughead instead of hamburgers. Nobody wants the stereotypical depiction of Indians like that. But the urban Indian youth doesn’t look like what Zoya Akhtar showed in her teaser. What’s more, they don’t look like the original characters either.

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The ‘N’ word

Many have joked that The Archies teaser reveals how Zoya Akhtar wrote this film as the one-stop platform to launch star kids. Bollywood, too, is celebrating the film as the achievement of their ‘little ones’. Appreciation from Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan flowed in on social media.

What had been categorically seen as Karan Johar’s brand of film casting in Bollywood seems to have spread — nepotism is here with no apologies.

All the newbies in the industry are the Richie Riches of the industry with big names behind them — Anil Kapoor, Sridevi, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan. For some of the older ones like Rishi Kapoor, Mahesh Bhatt, Jackie Shroff, and Saif Ali Khan, the industry is more of an extended family — cousins, in-laws, and relatives have their feet firmly on the ground.

Perhaps this is a big reason why we’ll never have stars as big as SRK or Amitabh Bachchan ever again. Indians are tired of watching the sons and daughters of film stars monopolise all the opportunities. It looks like you may be the finest actors to have ever walked on this planet, but if you don’t have a connection in the industry, you’ll most likely never get a fair chance.

The criticism invited by this teaser essentially reminds Zoya Akhtar and the rest of the filmy parivar: Ye filmein tumhare baap ki thodi hain.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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