Last weekend, Zoya Akhtar’s Tiger Baby films released the poster and teaser of their latest production, The Archies, and it met with pretty strong reactions, to put it mildly. A basic search of "Archies Netflix" will return hundreds of tweets accusing the makers of waving the nepotism flag yet again with such brazenness (The film marks the debut of three high-profile star kids, namely Suhana Khan, Agastya Nanda, and Khushi Kapoor). However, the conversation this time also steers towards another major criticism-how this film and these characters do not look "real" and how 99% of the paying public won’t be able to relate to this film in any manner. Mind you, it’s just a teaser they have seen. What, then, evoked such a strong trigger-happy response?
The reception to The Archies' teaser takes us to a larger debate around the changing taste of our viewers. We have collectively become more demanding of logic and realism in our movies. A film like Radhe would have received roaring success a few years ago, but the skepticism towards it was much higher in 2021. While Rohit Shetty’s films still rule the roost, they remain an exception. However, a cry for content that’s more relatable, or accurately representative of what India stands for, is a recent development-and not without its reasons.
Still from Eternally Confused and Eager for Love
If there is one thing that links the success of larger-than-than films like RRR and KGF 2 and shows like Scam 92 and Mirzapur, it’s their inherent ‘Indianness.’ A show like Mirzapur, despite its hyper-stylised portrayal of gangsters and quirky dialogue-driven scripting, seems more real because of its backdrop of crime in rural heartlands, which we know to be true. On the contrary, a show like Eternally Confused and Eager for Love, another Tigerbaby production, which was set in spacious houses and featured people perennially dressed in their best, seems western and, by default, "less rooted," probably because an average viewer doesn’t have proximity with that world or its people. Then, such a setting has to carry something heavy to be taken seriously.
The gigantic expectations of the fictional rich people isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, Hindi films portrayed the rich as the constant bad guys, often driven by their uncontainable greed for wealth. If the protagonist was ever a rich person, they had to justify their wealth by being charitable and overtly sympathetic towards the underprivileged. It was only in the mid-90s that our films began to have unapologetically rich characters as protagonists, a trend that was cemented with Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, which brought to our cinema a kind of affluence and richness that wasn’t larger-than-life and felt closer to reality, going against Bollywood’s standard depiction of the rich. However, going by the current mood of the audience, it seems that a privileged protagonist from a privileged universe is not merely unwelcome now, but rather prone to outright rejection-not until they have a bigger moral or social battle to fight.
There is a strong reason the multiplex era was welcomed back in the mid-2000s with great gusto; for it enabled the possibility of smaller films finding their own niche audience amidst a market driven by star-studded vehicle narratives that catered to the popular taste. The current tide somehow has flown back to a rising demand for content that appeals a little bit to everyone, and there seems to be sudden derision for smaller movies that are seeking their own little pockets of acceptance.
The Archies clearly isn’t going for a very wide market, going by its ultra-western aesthetic, nor does it make claims to an accurate representation of ‘Real India’ (which itself is a disputable conceit)—which is why it makes little sense to begrudge the makers for belying the promises they haven’t made in the first place.
Of course, a film connects with us better when set in universes we are somewhat familiar with, and we naturally root for characters who resonate with us irrespective of our geographic or cultural distances. Having said that, the charm of watching movies also lies in their ability to transport us to a world beyond our familiarity. We were either taken in by its magic or not-when did the unfamiliarity of a film’s universe become an inherent drawback?
The whole discourse boils down to the burgeoning social gap between the middle-class and the upper-class strata, the latter best represented by Bollywood. For the past couple of years, the Hindi film industry has been undergoing a severe identity crisis (especially after the nepotism debate became a subject of household conversation). Their image is being painted by a large section of the media as that of a place brimming with vices and immortality of all kinds. The industry hasn’t recovered from that blow, and it occasionally shows in how some of their biggest ventures in the previous few months have been received. It doesn’t help that most of the stories by these "first-world" filmmakers are set entirely against uber-urban backdrops, steeped in western values and sensibilities.
Meanwhile, be it films or TV shows, the middle-class universe has emerged as the new mainstream, becoming the default choice for a story or the protagonist who drives it—which is reflected in our bestselling streaming content like Gullak, Panchayat, and The Family Man, which are firmly entrenched in the Indian landscape and ethos, and couldn’t possibly be aired anyplace else.
This resurrection of the culturally rooted middle-class has inadvertently led to a disdain for the ‘westernised rich', which is reflected in how frequently we see the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘woke’ thrown around to critique a film or show that doesn’t conform to the ideas of conventional Indian society (a similarly worrying trend can even be observed in most of our real-life interactions where words like ‘liberal’ and ‘communist’ have acquired negative connotations, being used to describe anyone mildly non-conservative). A show like Four More Shots Please did find an audience, but not without meeting resistance from a major section of the audience who were alienated by the show’s westernisation, among other things. The same can be said for Made in Heaven, which was panned by some sections for its criticism of certain customs of Indian society.
It cannot be denied that Netflix India is going through a crisis, having still not delivered one single pathbreaking or successful show that connected across its viewer base. Going by the looks of it, The Archies will probably add to their list of duds as yet another product that fails to resonate with the subscribers-but it not being based on our cultural reality will not be one of the reasons, just like Jayeshbhai Jordaar did not succeed despite being located in a very relevant reality of our times.
A piece of work fails when people don’t connect with it emotionally or intellectually, not because the protagonist lives in a four-storeyed mansion instead of a 500 sq. 1 BHK. But it seems, at this point, we are beyond giving that chance to some films or the ones who make them convince us otherwise.