Why Ashim Ahluwalia enrolled for ‘Class’: Unpredictable characters, urgent Indian realities

[Scroll.in] Why Ashim Ahluwalia enrolled for ‘Class’: Unpredictable characters, urgent Indian realities

The Netflix series Class has many things going for it – a gripping narrative about the social and economic fault lines in Indian society through the prism of a murder investigation, uninhibited performances by a mostly first-time young cast, top-notch production values. The official adaptation of the Spanish series Elite is set in the fictional Hampton International School in Delhi, and traces the shock waves that run through its air-conditioned classrooms when three working-class students are enrolled on a scholarship.

Openly sneered at and bullied, Dheeraj, Saba and Balli each find ways to fit into a world beyond their wildest dreams. While drug consumption, social media shaming and bedroom romps give Class its edginess, the exploration of privilege, entitlement, aspiration, casteism, Muslimness and queerness resonate strongly too.

The students are played by fresh talent, but the series director is a veteran. Ashim Ahluwalia has previously made independent documentaries (including John and Jane and Events in A Cloud Chamber), the arthouse feature Miss Lovely, and the unconventional gangster biopic Daddy. Although little in Ahulwalia’s resume suggests a match for Class, he is better suited to the material than imagined, as he said in an interview. The streaming show has a cinematic feel in the way it has been shot, designed and performed – “atmospheric, moody and intense”, Ahluwalia told Scroll.

You are an unusual pick as series director for Class. How did you get involved with the Elite adaptation?I make odd choices with projects, but it has to be something new for me, something unpredictable. All my work from the very beginning has been atmospheric work. I usually start with spaces, and then make work about people who inhabit those spaces. You need to understand the spaces people come from, so I really am into building the world around the characters in as much detail as possible. I can’t make films without this.

I was interested in making a feature film on rebellious teenagers for a long time. When I was approached to look at Elite for a remake, I had never done a series. When I saw Elite, I thought, this is not my terrain at all – the way it’s made and the style of its making.

But there was something in there that was quite close to stuff I was interested in. I thought the characters were very complex, not black or white. Each character appeared to be a cliche at first, but then they end up surprising you.

The class conflict was very interesting. Also, the unpredictability of where the narrative goes. I thought, if this was to be remade and I had a free hand, it could be really interesting.

What I was most pleasantly surprised about is that I went into that first meeting with Netflix and told them, this is not exactly my cup of tea, you know the stuff I make, are you going to be okay with the direction I might take this in, it will be atmospheric and moody and intense, they were, like, we want to do it with you, if you have a vision, go for it.

Ashim Ahluwalia.

The show has been in the making for quite some time.I guess I’m quite a difficult director. I don’t make things very often. I do fight a lot to get what I want.

But I think there was this understanding that Netflix were getting exciting stuff, we knew we had something fresh. Even our co-producers Bodhi Tree, who come mainly from television, supported this kind of unconventional approach. We wouldn’t have something like this if everyone wasn’t invested in it.

The shooting took two-and-a-half years. We shot over three waves of the pandemic, and the edit took time as well. It was complicated having to keep so many strands running together and still allowing audiences to be engaged. I take time to make things because of the level of the detail, I’m not very fast.

I worked closely with my editor Deepa Bhatia. We share a great rapport, she really understands how I like things to unfold – and also with my second editor Utsav Bhagat, who brought a fresh eye. I think we underestimate how much the editing here made the show what it is.

You were raised in Mumbai. How familiar were you with the Delhi milieu depicted in Class?I spent my summers in Delhi. My grandmother lived in a middle-class neighbourhood in Nizamuddin. But I had been to a few parties in farmhouses and had friends in different spaces, so I did have enough exposure to the contrasts to understand how to set this in Delhi.

In Bombay, the wealthy still have to drive through a slum, they can’t live separately. But in Delhi, there is a major segregation of classes, you can be ultra-wealthy and not deal with anyone poor, and vice-versa. And that was very relevant to this story.

Class (2023). Courtesy Future East/Bodhitree Multimedia/Netflix.

You have put together a huge team for the show. Who were you looking to recruit?I don’t come from Bollywood or the TV industry. I have a very specific, independent vision when I make things. I knew I didn’t want to make just another streaming show, it needed to look and feel very different.

So it’s natural that you want people from a similar universe as you, who understand the aesthetic choices – like Kersi Khambatta, who has written Being Cyrus or Rajesh Devraj, who gets the social dynamics and has the same kind of dark humour. Then there is Bhaskar Hazarika, who is also a friend and was another writer with us. Raghav and Kashyap also have a brilliant sense of humour, their dialogue is really on.

I needed a writers’ room that could protect the vision at this fragile writing stage. Otherwise what ends up happening is that you start second-guessing audience expectations and start pulling things back. Dumbing things down. I was very clear I didn’t want to make something very light and forgettable, it needed to be engaging but also stay with you.

I think it’s easy to blame platforms for mediocrity, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Many creators give in a lot, they compromise early on, do things they think the audience wants. We don’t know what the audience wants until we try it though.

We were able to keep the vision tight on the execution side because our company Future East, was the creative producer, and brought in the crew. Whether it was the five cinematographers, production or costume designers, hair and make-up, or the episode directors – everyone had the same vision, and many of us had worked together before. One of the episode directors, Kabir Mehta, started with me and is now a really interesting director in his own right. So is Gul Dharmani, the other episode director.

The series looks closely at the way privilege works in India. Is that one of the reasons it has resonated with viewers?We haven’t really had a film or a series that observes privilege in that much detail before. That’s quite surprising since we have such a huge gap between different sections of society.

I find that we either make commercial films where nobody has a caste or class identity, they are mostly generic, or we make flag-raising, identity politics films which are only focused on that one issue. We need more films where we just have individuals with their back stories as part of the story. We don’t have to find a solution for it, nor do we have to teach some moral lesson. For me, it just feels more authentic to reflect everyday life.

When you see something involving rich and poor, you often see the rich depicted as “the bad guys” and the poor as the innocent. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. Everybody is hustling, everybody is working it, and everybody comes with their baggage in this show.

Also, I was asked how come I could make something that has all the tropes of a soap opera. But I love that. When people say it’s hyper-real, it’s over the top, I think it’s actually emotionally very real but has a hyper-pop sensibility.

One of my favourite directors is Douglas Sirk. Sirk had that, in the 1950s he made what was then termed “women’s weepies” – basically melodramas for matinee female audiences, domestic dramas. But they were more emotionally authentic and complex than any arthouse film you could see.


Class (2023).

Your own background is of privilege. Did that help in crafting Class?I grew up in South Bombay and went to the Cathedral and John Connon School, which, in its time, was seen as a privileged school. Having said that, that school isn’t a patch on anything in post-globalised India. Privilege in the 1980s was on a very different scale. Hampton International is an escalated version of where things are now.

But having spent time in a school like that and being a terrible student, not feeling like I belonged there, definitely helped develop some of the ideas in the show. Also being from a family that didn’t have as much money anymore, compared with many of the other students, I could understand how a character like Yashika or Dhruv would think. How they would have to perform for their peers to fit in, and how their actual lives were anything like the other kids.

In some ways, all these characters are people that I’ve known in some form, and I also know adult versions of them. A lot of dialogue is lifted from real conversations I’ve heard.

That is why I rewrote Yashika’s character. In the original series, she is Guzman’s infuriating girlfriend but she doesn’t have another side. In Class, I saw her as the girl who isn’t getting pocket money from the dad anymore, she looks rich but she’s broke, her parents are in a messy divorce, and they have left her in an empty house with no financial security, that’s why she needs that scholarship. She is actually not able to keep up with the wealth of her peers, she is falling back.

That’s a great anxiety in India, isn’t it? Poverty. This anxiety runs underneath the entire show.

We cut a scene I loved of her ducking from her friends as they get into their fancy cars after a party. She hides and gets into a taxi that she’s called just outside the gate, just in case they might see her.

Did you make any other tweaks to the source material?I didn’t want to change the essential plotline. I just wanted the telling to be different.

Class is more linear. One of the places where I did add a lot was to the adults, the parents. I felt that the adult characters in the original series didn’t explain why these kids were the way they were. I also switched the title from Elite, which is about the wealthy, to Class, which is about the relationship between the haves and have-nots. That changes the tone and focus completely.


Class (2023).

The show also addresses the role of social media in the students’ lives.This wasn’t there in the original. What this allows you to do is link up narratives, to jump between plot points.

The shots are all designed to integrate social media. For examples, when Sharan is being trolled and shamed online, he is very still in those scenes. I thought it would be interesting that when the content of the social media comments are scandalous and hardcore, that when the shots should remain very still. That creates great tension.

Also, the general way in which people’s emotional worlds are processed through the mediation of a screen. Probably my favourite scene in the whole show is where Yashika has a fight with Veer and she gets yelled at and is crying. The first thing she does is fix her face and start taking selfies. That was never written, I just tried it while we were shooting. That’s a powerful image – it sums up that generation and all of us, how much of our lives is fake and how much is real.

Tell us finding the young actors who embody their roles.All are first-time actors, except for Gurfateh Purzada. We went out very wide in terms of casting. The actors had to be of consensual age and not minors.

I didn’t want known faces, because then you have the baggage of earlier films and series, they remind you of other things. A lot of our cast were discovered on Instagram – models, musicians, dancers. Instagram is its own entertainment industry, acting school, casting studio. It’s changed the game completely.

We also had multiple casting directors, so we had hundreds and hundreds of screen tests. My producing partner at Future East, Niharika Singh, being an actress as well, was also greatly involved with shortlisting the final cast, getting them re-tested or re-styled so that we could convince Netflix they were worth casting. Casting was initially a bone of contention – how will we mount something of this scale and this budget without known faces? We would screen-test these kids eight times, sometimes more.

The parents we cast were amazing too – willing to go the whole way. Ritu Shivpuri is nothing like her character Garima Ahuja. I said to her, you’re an exhausted Delhi mom, right now, you are depressed, you are upset, you just went shopping and you are just pissed off with your daughter. She just said, don’t say anything more, I know what to do.

I really love the adults in the show. The kids are amazing, of course, they are all discoveries. But Chandan Anand, who plays Suraj Ahuja, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee (Vandana Sanghvi), these actors are so authentic, they were so in tune with what I imagined them to be. Kabir Sadanand (Tarun Kalra) hasn’t done anything like this either. But all were super open with me, no ego issues, just total submission to the character. Just incredible.

Class (2023). Courtesy Future East/Bodhitree Multimedia/Netflix.

What is your own process of dealing with actors?I try to understand where people come from. I spent a lot of time finding people who had the spirit of the original characters – they may have grown up in wealth, or had to deal with conflict or understood bad relationships, for instance. They had to be intelligent, they needed to be from that world, but they also needed to have distance from it. It was about trust and spending a lot of time with these kids.

It also helped that I had made Miss Lovely. A lot of the kids already knew about it. These are kids who were exposed to world cinema, they have seen a lot of stuff that is being made. I was very upfront with them in the beginning in terms of mood boards and the way I wanted to shoot scenes.

This may sound harsh, but there are kids who have Bollywood aesthetics shoved down their throat, and they can’t step out of that. What was refreshing for me was that with this younger generation, I found a space where people understood what I was trying to do much easier than an older generation because their exposure was wider. The reference point was an international film in terms of the shot-taking, the drama, the performance style, the stillness, the mood. There was no convincing needed.


Class (2023).

Did the long-form format change the way you look at narrative?The streaming format allows you to slow down things, make things more complex. With my film Daddy, it had a very complex structure, but it went out into the world as a theatrical movie.

My films only work in a conversation with the audience. Miss Lovely, because it started at Cannes and was a festival film, had that conversation. Daddy got lost in translation, the lens through which it was viewed was problematic for me. It wasn’t a typical Bollywood gangster film and it was misunderstood as that. I hope that film will have another life in a few years, it will be seen again for what it was.

If Class has been made as a film, people would have had a similar reaction, they would have found it too much, too dense. But because a show has eight episodes, it allows people to process and break it down at a pace with which they are comfortable. Even if the project has a high degree of cinephilia in the way that it has been made, it’s not too hard for the audience, it doesn’t make them closed somehow.

Some of my work can make audiences wary, they can feel like they are put on a back foot. But it’s never been an intention of mine to alienate viewers, I want to immerse them in a world, but I prefer to do it on my terms. In a series format, because you live with these characters for longer, it allows an entry point for audiences who may not be otherwise be open to new forms of filmmaking.

What is the kind of response you have been getting?This is probably the most directly narrative project I have done. But I am still surprised at the response. I expected it to be more niche maybe, it’s intense, very moody, I thought maybe it’s not young adult enough. There was the impression that Class is a lot more complex than Elite.

What I am happy with is the response of young audiences – there is a generation now that is more open and receptive. But I’m also surprised at older audiences who seem to be really into it, which I was really not expecting.

I’m getting texts from people I wouldn’t imagine watching this – my broker, my kid’s teacher in school, a friend’s grandmother, so many unexpected people. They are genuinely moved and invested in it, not bothered at all by how wild it is for India. This is a huge shift.

Also read:

‘Class’ review: An immersive and revealing show about privilege

Source: Scroll.in