ACCLAIMED filmmaker Zoya Akhtar said she hoped her adaption of the popular comic, The Archies, can lead to more Indians in the industry getting the opportunity to bring global stories to the screen.
The Archie comics, first produced in the 1940s, are a staple of American culture that have transcended generations.
Akhtar’s coming-of-age film is based in 1960s India and explores teenage themes of love, heartbreak and rebellion through the lens of the Anglo-Indian community.
The 51-year-old admitted to feeling a sense of “excitement and nervousness” when Netflix brought the project to her.
“Netflix made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Akhtar told Eastern Eye, quoting the iconic Marlon Brando line from The Godfather. “I was very excited because this was my favourite comic growing up. And my writing partner Reema’s (Kagti) favourite comic growing up.
“When this opportunity came to do something that is the first feature Archie has ever done, it’s going to come out of the Indian film industry, it’s going to be on a platform that goes to 190 countries, it was so exciting.”
She added: “The first thing we asked was how do we do this? How do we contextualise this? That was the fun and once we cracked that, it’s been a pure joy.”
The film follows the life of popular fictional teenagers – Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and Reggie Mantle – who navigate romance and friendship in the 1960s as they come together for the future of their town, Riverdale, when developers threaten to destroy a beloved park.
“I was like, ‘how can I take this, retain its essence and make it from India?’,” said Akhtar. “Since it’s a global IP, I need to be able to take something from here and do it in a language that retains its original essence and speaks to kids today. We were excited about that. We have done whatever we wanted to and now we are getting scared, as always,” she added.
The decade in which the story is set has come to be known for the anti-war protests, civil rights movement in America, the hippie culture and the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, among others.
“The 1960s were the time when there was a peace movement, a revolution that happened. There was an idealism that we will make the world a better place. That was the era where they believed that they could change the world. There was a bit of rebellion, peace and love. It was also the era of rock ‘n’ roll.
“So, the whole feeling of that era is what we wanted to bring in. It is a simple young-adult feel good story,” she said.
It was challenging to combine the “innocence” and “simplicity” of that era with a contemporary narrative, according to Akhtar. “We are the Archie generation and it resonates with us, and people who have read Archies will come in because they love the comic – but there are kids today who do not love the comic. We needed to have a strong story and package it in nostalgia and innocence,” she said.
Archie comics are thought to have arrived in the country in the 1970s, and began circulating widely in Indian cities in the 1980s and 1990s.
Director Karan Johar has admitted that his 1998 superhit film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was partly inspired by Archie comics.
Kagti said: “There are a lot of people who don’t know who Archie is or they don’t read Archies anymore. To our generation it was a different thing. At a time when there was no mobile or TV or OTT, Archie had a different meaning,” she said.
“We are fans (so) you don’t want to mess it up and do injustice to something that you have loved and revered. We had to do the film in a way that it is relevant to everybody,” she added.
Akhtar hoped the film adaptation gives audiences a glimpse of what her childhood was like.
“We wanted to do something that captured the nostalgia my generation had for Archie comics. When I read the comic as a kid, I was transported to this idyllic world, this fictional place called Riverdale where everything was pleasant and everything worked out very well at the end.
“I wanted to take reality of the AngloIndian community of a hill station in India, in the 1960s, and push it to a dreamy level, make a storybook version of it.”
She added: “My hopes are that my generation of Archie fans feel how I felt and accept it. I hope the Anglo-Indian community likes the representation on screen. And besides that, I hope the kids today can see it and get a sense of what our childhood was like, what our dreams were like and how less was more. We just had fewer things and somehow it seemed happier and simpler and more innocent,” said Akhtar.
The live-action musical movie marks the acting debut of superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan; late icon Sridevi and film producer Boney Kapoor’s daughter Khushi Kapoor; and the legendary Amitabh Bachchan’s grandson Agastya Nanda. The film also features Mihir Ahuja, Vedang Raina, Dot and Yuvraj Menda in key roles.
Unsurprisingly, it is the actors with family links to the industry who have garnered the most attention with Akhtar having to tackle accusations of nepotism.
“I did think about it. And I’m not the only one that thought about it,” admitted Akhtar. “The truth is, at the end of the day, I’m a filmmaker. I owe my film the best and nothing comes above that. I did what I thought was best for my film.
“I don’t think I would have been okay if I had not cast the people who I thought were best for the roles.”
Kagti was more bullish on the matter, saying: “I have had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘you have cast these three star kids’. But I say ‘there are seven kids. Do you know the other four’s names? Did you bother to look at them?’ Because we are very excited about them. What happened actually was quite sad for the other four, and for the three (Suhana, Agastya and Khushi).”
Akhtar added that while nepotism is often used as a derogatory term to criticise the children of famous actors, some of the best artists in the film industry have lineage in Indian cinema.
Akhtar herself and her multi-talented brother Farhan Akhtar, who is a producer, director and actor, are the children of celebrated screenwriters Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani.
“At the end of the day we all grow up wanting to follow our dreams. When you grow up in a house and you have parents you get on with or parents that you admire, you just end up doing things they do and it is as simple as that,” she said.
“Who is anyone to say you can’t do this or you can’t do that. You don’t (have any training), you have to roll with the punches. You have to get out there, you have to keep your head down and work hard. That’s it.”
With films such as Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Dhadakne Do and Gully Boy, Akhtar is one of the few female filmmakers to garner critical and commercial acclaim in Hindi cinema. While her other films have featured stars such as Hrithik Roshan, Ranveer Singh, Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Ali Bhatt, The Archies won’t be able to rely on superstar names to pull in audiences.
Akhtar said she had no interest in casting big-name stars for The Archies, but that working with newcomers put more responsibility on her shoulders.
“The biggest struggle was actually finding them (the actors) because we already have such iconic characters that we needed newcomers,” she said.
“We couldn’t take anybody established because they come with an image and sometimes with baggage, and we didn’t want to put that onto a character that’s already known. We wanted somebody new to come in and fill the shoes of these iconic characters.
“They are seven newcomers, but there’s wide-eyedness, hunger and as everything is new and fresh, so there’s enthusiasm that doesn’t come with big stars or actors who have worked for a while or experienced actors. That’s refreshing and contagious, that enthusiasm. So, you want to do the best for them as well.”
The Archies is set to be released next Thursday (7) on Netflix