‘There is something universal about The Archies’, says director Zoya Akhtar

Zoya Akhtar, along with Reema Kagti, talks about adapting The Archies for India, casting debutantes, and making coming-of-age stories.
Filmmakers Zoya Akhtar (L) and Reema Kagti  talk about adapting the comics to India.
Filmmakers Zoya Akhtar (L) and Reema Kagti talk about adapting the comics to India.

Peter Pan Syndrome. The refusal to grow up or in other words, how one keeps coming of age... time and again. While it does sound fascinating because who does not want to savour the freshness of innocence again, if there is one filmmaker who thrives on this concept, it would be Zoya Akhtar. Right from a bachelor trip becoming a soul-searching discovery in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara to an aspiring rapper from Mumbai streets becoming a nationwide phenomenon in Gully Boy, the filmmaker has frequently dabbled with this concept. It is refreshing to see how the filmmaker tries to set up each story in a different milieu.

Zoya Akhtar
Zoya Akhtar

“It took me a while to realise that I keep going back to the same theme as most directors do, like how they resonate somehow with one theme and keep making stories around that. And for me, it has weirdly been coming of age and I have not yet seemed to break out of that. Of course, the worlds are different and so are the characters,” Zoya says.

This time, The Archies (an adaptation of Archie Comics), a story that talks about seven teenagers, is set in a hill station in Riverdale. The principal characters of Archies, from Archie to Veronica, and Betty, are recreated for this adaptation. The film is billed to be a mixed bag of emotions of surprise, eagerness, and delight, especially with a bunch of newcomers portraying these iconic characters. 

The Archies is lead by Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Suhana Khan, Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja, Yuvraj Menda, and Aditi Saigal. When asked about the casting, Zoya says, “Reema Kagti, Ayesha Devitre Dhillon, and I worked on the script. We wanted fresh faces because the characters are iconic and had we cast known faces, they would come with their image, certain baggage, and the understanding they have with the public already. Also, they must be 17 years old. We did extensive tests and took the talented bunch. We also saw how the essence of their personality matched the character traits to cast them.”

Talking about adapting the comics, Reema and Zoya admit that the first question was how. “It is an American IP, but there is also something universal and timeless about The Archies. Both of us grew up reading and loving it. There was a kind of nostalgia and a throwback to a time when less was more. Initially, before knowing what we were doing, it almost felt like a difficult task, but later, we knew how we were pitching and placing the film,” adds Reema.

It was also a task for the makers to build a feature film narrative at a time when one may think condensing Archie Comics into a series would be a task. Zoya says, “Archie stories run for about 2-3 pages each, like small skits. So, the challenge was to build a narrative and hold it for two hours. Like how the trailer should encapsulate the essence of the film and show enough to entice the audience but not so much that they know everything. Also, when it is an ensemble, you also have to feature everyone. It is a tricky balancing act.”

While the writing aspect was getting sorted, The Archies also had the challenge of creating a visual world that is rarely seen in Indian cinema. With the trailer emanating a Wes Anderson-style of aesthetics, and set in the Rock N Roll and Swingin’ Sixties era, Zoya talks about working with her regular collaborator and production designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji.

“We get along very well and have an understanding of how the fantastical, magical world of Riverdale should look like. When you read the comics, you step into that world and are transported through a visual storybook. We took hill stations like McCluskieganj, which has an Anglo-Indian community, Lansdowne, and mixed with Archie Comics to build the world.”

For Reema, who is certain the film will offer something even for a non-Archie reader, the success of The Archies would be when people who like the film, and find it relatable, can take home a part of this fantastical world. “I can see the enthusiasm in the young kids and at this age and stage of my career, if I could have half of that I would be happy,” says Reema.

Signing off by explaining her takeaway from adapting The Archies, Zoya concludes, “I shot the film in Ooty for four months. And though we were shooting for 12 hours a day, we never felt tired. I live in a city and miss nature. My takeaway is that I should keep going back to nature.”

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The New Indian Express