When Zoya Akhtar was approached some years ago by Graphic India to see if she was interested in adapting American comic The Phantom, her first question was whether the Archies comics were available for adaptation.
Like many Indians of her generation, she had been an avid reader of the comics as a child: “I remember cycling to the library to get the double digest, then would come back home and nobody could get a word out of me, I was just reading that comic,” Akhtar tells Deadline.
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She says the appeal of the comics is that they were a portal into the West at a time when India was still not totally liberalized and there was no cable and satellite TV to provide a window into the wider world. “It showed us everything about Western culture – how people dressed, what they were listening to, what food they were eating, so we all wanted burgers and milkshakes. But it was also wholesome and family-oriented, so nobody had a problem with children in India reading it.”
When Graphic India called Akhtar, they’d already sold the Indian adaptation rights for the Archies comics to Netflix, who in turn asked her if she wanted to produce a film version. After working on a script and scouting around for a director, Akhtar decided the material was too precious and would direct herself.
Akhtar co-wrote the adaptation with her partner in Tiger Baby, Reema Kagti, and Ayesha Devitre. Seven teenage characters from the original comic are portrayed in the film, including Archie, Betty and Veronica – played by young actors Dot (who is also a musician), Agastya Nanda, Khushi Kapoor, Mihir Ahuja, Suhana Khan, Vedang Raina and Yuvraj Menda.
When it came to adapting the material, Akhtar felt there was no point making it contemporary, because that has already been done with the much darker Riverdale series produced by Warner Bros Television and CBS Studios, and the themes of the comics have already been used many times in Bollywood films. It’s widely known in the industry that the love triangle in Karan Johar’s 90s cult classic Kuch Kuch Hota Hai drew inspiration from the Archies comics.
“I figured I wanted to take it back to that original naivety and innocence, so it had to be period, but it also had to resonate with a younger audience,” Akhtar says. “My generation is low hanging fruit, we’re coming because it’s the Archies, but kids today care deeply about issues like the environment and sexuality.”
Therefore, Akhtar and her two co-writers have created a story where the teenagers fight to save a park from development, and one of the characters is gay – presenting an innocent, but also more realistic, view of a group of young people. She also set it in a fictional North Indian hill station, among the Anglo-Indian community, who are closer to Western culture. The overriding message of the film is: “You are never too young to change the world”.
Indian press has been giving Akhtar some flak for casting three Bollywood star kids as the Nepo baby debate rages on local social media. The cast includes Suhana Khan, daughter of superstar Shah Rukh Khan; Khushi Kapoor, daughter of Boney Kapoor and Sridevi; and male actor Agastya Nanda, who has links to the Kapoor and Bachchan acting dynasties.
But Akhtar stands by her decision to work with the trio through a casting process that was based on merit: “Three of the actors have industry connections, four don’t, but all seven were the just the best actors I could find. The most experienced is the actor who plays Jughead, Mihir Ahuja, who was in Made In Heaven and is a very good actor. I cast him in one audition.”
She adds that she was initially nervous about working with so many newcomers, “because I’m used to working with very experienced actors. But we ran a bootcamp and trained them in everything, not just acting and dancing, also swimming, skating, cycling, and we had the best time ever. I had so much fun with them.”
Shooting the film was another whole story because Akhtar needed 24 hour access to a park, not an easy task in India where most large-scale parks are national animal reserves, which rightly don’t allow film crews to shoot at night. The original plan was to shoot the park scenes in Sri Lanka, but the country’s economic meltdown in early 2002 made that impossible.
“So we had to find another location, which ended up being Mauritius, but then there was a monsoon so everyone had to break. At one point the entire cast and crew got Covid and we had to stop. So it was a long shoot but then that just gave everyone more time to prepare and become a closer unit.”
The Archies starts streaming worldwide on Netflix today (December 7).
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