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Class director Ashim Ahluwalia: 'It felt natural to set the series in Delhi, where the rich and poor are physically separated unlike in Mumbai'

'Miss Lovely' and 'Daddy' director on adapting the Spanish ‘Elite’ for his new Netflix web-series, 'Class', Gen-Z shows in India, and complex class-caste interactions defining Indian teenagers even today.

February 05, 2023 / 01:13 PM IST
Director Ashim Ahluwalia (left) on the set of the Netflix series 'Class', with DOP Tapan Basu

Director Ashim Ahluwalia (left) on the set of the Netflix series 'Class', with DOP Tapan Basu

Netflix’s new series Class, directed and helmed by Ashim Ahluwalia, an adaptation of the hit Spanish series Elite, is a whipsmart and gripping entry into the teen show pantheon. We have had few of them in India, and so far, no show has been gritty enough to show the twisty, ambitious and painful realities of Indian teenagers. This show is teeming with clandestine crime, forbidden sexuality and the class and caste divides that still define much of India — in this case, the national capital, Delhi.

The series punctures the elite sanctum of Hamptons International, a school that is really a den for the suffocating and brutal machinations of Delhi’s upper class. Ahluwalia and his team are genuinely invested in the psyche of the ambitious teenager. The young ensemble cast shows irrepressible energy and talent and the writing, over eight episodes, combines the pace of a soap opera and the grit of a great thriller.

Ashim Ahluwalia on the set of the Netflix series 'Class' Ashim Ahluwalia on the set of the Netflix series 'Class'

(Spoilers in this paragraph) Class begins with a murder and unfolds in flashback, as multiple viewpoints put the pieces together of a close coterie of rich families and their insidious plot to save themselves. When three students from a suburb one the outskirts of the capital — Saba (Madhyama Segal), a Muslim student of Kashmiri lineage, Dheeraj (Piyush Khati), a Dalit, and Balli (Cwaayal Singh), a born hustler interested in climbing Delhi society’s echelons — get compensatory admission into Hamptons, the who’s-who brats are aghast. Siblings Suhani (Anjali Sivaraman) and Veer (Zeyn Shaw) are the centre of the drama — children of the builder who funds the school and whose obsession with wealth, brands and vulgar profligacy, much like the other families in this coterie, becomes a stinging commentary on Delhi’s moneyed.

Mautik Tolia, co-founder and director at Bodhi Tree Multimedia, the producer of Class, says, “It is the first global adaptation of Elite, so, it was a huge responsibility for the team to make sure the Indian version passed the muster. The Netflix team was keen to adapt this show given the gap in the young adult space in India. Given our expertise in this space, they approached us to adapt the Elite.” Tolia says the vision of the show was to do a realistic portrayal of young India. “The vibe had to be right to make sure the youth connect with the show. We had to make sure we chose the right faces for the parts who had the potential to become youth icons. The casting process itself took almost a year.”

In an interview, Ahluwalia delves deeper into the details and thoughts behind its making. Edited excerpts:

What was the appeal of this project for you?

I’ve been keen to make something about teenagers, the deep, conflicted emotions you feel when you’re young. Just the whole struggle with defining yourself at that time of your life interests me. I could personally really relate to that struggle as I was kind of a rebellious, wild teenager myself.

I was asked to look at the series Elite for a possible adaptation, but, honestly, I wasn’t even thinking about a series at the time. Even though the original series is totally different from what I usually make, there was something in the characters and situations that sparked something. I realised that this could be the teenage project I’ve been wanting to do. The class conflict between the rich and poorer kids, and the way that the school plays out like a mini version of the world outside was something I could get into. I’ve always been interested in the way society pushes people over the edge — whether it was sleaze filmmakers in Miss Lovely (2012) or gangsters in Daddy (2017). I like stories that show us the push and pull of individuals against the world they occupy.

What are some of the key things you have changed or adapted in the Indian context?

It just felt natural for Class to be set in Delhi, mainly because of the way the rich and poor are physically separated there, compared to Mumbai. The economic gap in Delhi — with the ultra-rich and the very poor almost kept apart from one another — those extremes were in line with the themes of the show. Immediately you know that if those worlds collided, there would be conflict.

There is also caste in India, which is another layer, and that works alongside the class divide.

This is more complex than how things work in Spain where the original show was set. I wanted to get into these layers, I think we don’t usually deal with these themes enough in our films and series.

The original show also has a very European take on its depiction of sex, family conflict, and showing how these kids are messed up. I felt our version needed to be more believably set in the wealthy world of Delhi. That narcotics were a big part of the lifestyle — the rich kids were ingesting and snorting everything, and that needed to be part of the story.

Most importantly, I also wanted to understand why these kids are so uncontrollable. What’s going on in their heads? The original series didn’t explore it enough for me. Like, how do the parents play a part in enabling all this? If the kids are this wild and out-of-control, I could just imagine how wild the parents would have to be.

I wanted to explore extremes but more Indian ones, and once we started doing research, talking to wealthy kids about their school scandals and WhatsApp groups, the stuff that goes on behind closed doors, it felt like we could make something that was both an adaptation and was very authentic, rooted here, as well.

There is a real paucity of smart content about Gen Z and teenagers in India. What were your challenges in understanding this generation in our context?

We had a research team comprising kids who had been to schools like this, so, we spent time with kids from that world. Of course, there are tons of Delhi school scandals online as well. We heard some truly shocking stories, about bullying, about the way the kids get very out of control, about shaming and outing people online — and the way social media plays a huge role in shaping relationships. Maybe this is a function of class as well, but I feel we don’t explore this in India enough. I can’t comment on other stuff on Gen Z as I don’t watch too much other content, it mostly seems quite predictable and made from the point of view of older people. I didn’t want that for Class, for sure.

A still from the Netflix web-series 'Class', directed by Ashim Ahluwalia. (Photo: Netflix) A still from the Netflix web-series 'Class', directed by Ashim Ahluwalia. (Photo: Netflix)

Tell us about the casting. It’s one of the most inspired things about the show.

I was clear that I didn’t want famous kids or anyone well-known. Each person needed to be a discovery. Other than Gurfateh Pirzada (who plays Neeru, the brother of one of the students, a self-proclaimed Dalit vigilante dealing with poverty and an alcoholic father, and who gets involved in the crimes that unfold in the school), everyone else is a non-actor, each making their screen debut in Class. I had done that with Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) for my first film Miss Lovely. I’ve just never been a director who is bothered with famous faces. Even in Daddy, other than Arjun (Rampal) and Farhan (Akhtar) and a few others, I worked with mostly non-actors. A lot of the credit goes to our casting directors and also to my producing partner Niharika (Singh), who scoured Instagram to find cast that realistically fit this world. I think we pretty much screen-tested everyone in each major Indian city between the ages of 18 and 25. It was more about the right mix of people who already felt close to the screen characters themselves, who were authentic and brought a certain spirit and life to the role. I think that these actors in Class are going to be the stars of tomorrow.

Do you feel the awareness of class — economic, social — is still deeply entrenched in our country and especially among our country's under-25 generation?

We all know it’s there and built into the fabric of our society but we don’t see this represented on screen enough, and definitely not in a authentic way. We also don’t see the intersection of class and caste shown in an everyday way. Either it’s the subject of the film or series, and then foregrounded as a hot topic — or it’s not shown at all and is invisible. I’m interested in exploring the way this is represented in everyday life, just as a part of how we all interact each day.

What do you foresee as the appeal of Class among Indian audiences?

It’s a combination of many things — it’s a realistic show about teenage life, a show about the craziness of new Indian wealth, a show about us as a society. The characters are incredible and complex. It’s sometimes can feel like a noir thriller as well. Let’s just say it’s complicated and messy, and wild and funny. But also beautiful and tragic. A bit like life itself. I just like that it doesn’t feel like anything else that’s out there.

Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai. Views expressed are personal.