Netflix’s 'Class' Director Ashim Ahluwalia Gives Deeper Insights About What Went Into Making The Show
Director Ashim Ahluwalia: I Hope There Won’t Be Voyeuristic Gazes When People Watch ‘Class’

Adapted from a Spanish show, Elite, the show’s plot revolves around a rather fateful incident that ensues at the Hampton International School

As one of the top 10 trending shows in India at the moment, it’s safe to say that Netflix’s Class is a viewer’s delight. Adapted from a Spanish show, Elite, the show’s plot revolves around a rather fateful incident that ensues after three underprivileged kids get enrolled in Delhi’s upscale Hampton International School. And, when their worlds collide, a girl loses her life. Laying due emphasis on diversity, director Ashim Ahluwalia puts the spotlight on a raging societal issue in India— communalism. In a chat with MW, Ahluwalia takes us through what went into making the show, his experiences with shooting in the capital, and training a batch of new actors.


The kind of response that you are getting, did you ever anticipate that? 

The response has been amazing. I mean, I was not expecting it, to be honest. We thought it would be quite niche, maybe just a certain kind of audience would get it, because it’s very new for India, in terms of the themes and the style, and the fact that we have a completely new cast and, you know, lots of things. It’s been number one in 15 countries, it’s been trending all over, and all kinds of people have been watching it, not just younger audiences. I can’t complain, it’s great. 

The story of the show takes a deep dive into the issues that it touches upon. Take us through the research and writing process 

I started the adaptation in my head before I even got the writers’ room going. So I had a kind of vision for how I thought it should be adapted for India. It needed to be different from what we had seen before. I set up a writers’ room with people who are also friends so they could understand where I was coming from, Rajesh (Devraj) and Kersi (Khambatta), and Bhaskar (Hazarika) all come from a similar space in the way that they think, it’s not just plot outlines but also social dynamics. And we got some young people that were students that had just graduated from these kinds of schools in Delhi to help withthe research. So we could get their take on schools, scandals, gossip, how the WhatsApp groups work, the kind of struggles and conflicts that they were seeing and experiencing. The key plot points are taken from the original Spanish show, but the details of their lives and the social context, and all that are very much rooted in Delhi. 

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You said you already had a vision for the show. Where did that come from? 


I had gone to a school, which was sort of fancy for its time when I was growing up in Bombay, definitely not on the level of Hampton International, but a place where some of these things would play out. Let’s just say that I wasn’t the greatest student, you know, and I was on the outside, on the periphery of lots of things. So, when I was growing up, I observed a lot of these dynamics, they were not as extreme because, you know, when I was growing up, India wasn’t globalized in the way that it is now. And the kind of money you saw then wasn’t as excessive as it is now – it was still a closed economy in the 1980s. Now it’s crazy, and the gaps between different classes are huge. But I think some of the basic dynamics, between, say, like, the students, the difference between kids of teachers and maybe some of the others, or I would see someone pretending to be wealthy whose family is not doing so well financially, and they need to pretend so that they fit in with their wealthier classmates – these are character traits I used from my school days. All of those observations made it into the screenplay. 

You are a Mumbai lad and yet you choose Delhi over it to shoot and base this show. Why? 

It’s the first time I’ve set something in Delhi. I just felt that Delhi lent itself more to the need for this series. Because even if you’re wealthy in Bombay, you can’t really evade poverty. You can be a billionaire; you still have a drive through a slum each morning to work. We live on top of each other in Bombay, whereas in Delhi, the wealthy can be very separate. And it’s actually similar for somebody who’s in a poorer neighborhood. They can be very separate as well. The neighborhoods in Delhi are like self-enclosed bubbles, cut off from each other. And Hampton International is a bubble. So when these characters have to deal with somebody who’s not like them, who comes into their space, you immediately have conflict. 

Since it is a show that is based on students and these youngsters will want to watch a show like this, did you set any boundaries while making it? 

The original Spanish series is quite sexually explicit, it has a lot of nudity. And that’s something that I was very clear that I didn’t want. I didn’t want a voyeuristic gaze. I wanted to deal with young people’s sexuality and all of these themes, but I did not want it to become one of those shows that people skim through just to see nudity. I was very clear about that. I wanted my version to be integrated, be part of the storyline and be a part of the situations that these young people are in. I didn’t want to glamorize anything, I wanted to show it for what it is, with all the messy consequences of the drugs or whatever recklessness you may choose— there are always ramifications somehow. I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to be a show like Euphoria, which sometimes can have this music video aesthetic, it can be seen as “cool”. I don’t think these things are ever really that cool in real life because eventually things kind of go downhill if you push it too much. And I think that’s very much there in Class, the characters end up having to live with the consequences. And I think that acts as a deterrent to young audiences, you don’t want to end up like these characters, so you might think twice before doing something. 

A show like this is quite bold in today’s time for India. Were you asked to mellow some things down after it was done? 

I come from independent cinema. In that sense, I don’t hold back on reality, you know, that’s something that is really important in my work. I don’t want to make something sugar-coated, so that means that things can get more extreme because it can be how things are in real life. 

I have to say Netflix was very supportive of my vision. Of course, during the edit in a few places, they said, okay, this might be difficult or some scenes are too extreme, you know, we don’t think we can get this kind of stuff out. And sometimes I would tone things down. But for the most part, I think they were excited about what we had. And I understood where they were coming from with regard to audiences, it’s quite a new show. It’s a boundary-pushing show, it’s, I think it’s going to be kind of a case study of its kind, I think it will become a sort of reference point of young adult content in India. So we have to also be responsible, without compromising on the vision, there has to be a balance, I think. 

Dalit representation is rare in Indian cinema and you had two characters Neeraj and Dheeraj Kumar Valmiki. Why do you think people still shy away from this topic? 

You can’t make a show about different classes without involving caste in some way. We can’t pretend these systems don’t exist if we claim to be making something set in contemporary India. I personally feel that most Indian cinema originally came from a place of fantasy. Its starting point was fantasy, it was designed as a kind of aspiration, a collective dream. It was never intended to reflect the real world. When I first started making films, I was often asked why I bothered to make films that are realistic because audiences don’t want to see real life, they have hard-enough lives as it is, and they just want to escape. That’s always been the argument for Indian films not dealing with real issues. But I don’t agree with this, and I think our audiences are beginning to change as well. 

What was the reason behind choosing the Kashmiri Muslim character of Saba Manzoor? 

Saba is very unique; she doesn’t represent anything symbolic. She is herself, with her own particular story. If you notice, she doesn’t tell the students the truth about where she comes from. She says she is from Aligarh. That also tells you again, that there’s no one singular Muslim identity in India, there are different kinds of identities, and there’s no generic type. And depending on where you are from geographically, you’re going to be treated differently. So that was the idea, that everybody comes from 

a particular place. And Kashmir, of course, is more complex. So therefore, it becomes more interesting to see what would happen if somebody was Kashmiri, and in Delhi, and they had to introduce themselves in a school like Hampton. What would happen there, right? As opposed to if she was actually from Aligarh, maybe she would have been dealt with very differently… 

The Queer relationship of Dhruv Sanghvi and Farooq Manzoor too was a heart-touching equation. How did you make sure that it’s different? 

Since I was making a show about young people now, I wanted to make sure we were addressing the conversations that young people are actually having, and one of the conversations is that if somebody is gay and they want to come out, what does that really mean? We’re not living in the West, right? We scrapped section 377 but that still doesn’t mean that socially it’s easy. And, even people who are out, they may still continue to have difficult relationships with families, neighbors. These conversations are just beginning. And the response to these themes has been amazing, the show has really opened up so much dialogue around acceptance. I’m grateful for that. 

With Faruq and Dhruv, it’s actually, in a way, the most conventional love story in the whole show. And, I knew that I also wanted the most conventional love story to be the one that was not that convenient when it came to sexuality. What happens is that it allows audiences to connect, because it’s a classic Romeo and Juliet story in some ways, like you just want them to be together, and they can’t be together, right? But of course, it’s two men as opposed to a man and a woman and yet, in a mainstream way, it does create empathy for these characters. A certain segment of the audience might not have had that empathy before. 

You took a leap of faith by hiring a cast that was completely new to all this. How was it working and training with them? 

I didn’t want anyone famous in it. I wanted characters that were absolutely fresh, whom we had never seen before. And who actually felt like the characters in that school, you know. Now, everyone just looks at these kids and they become those characters in Class, you can’t think of them in the real world, because you don’t have any history of them from other films or shows. And they just captivate you because of that. 

But, of course, it’s a huge struggle when you work with new people. Even though I chose them myself, they obviously came on as non-actors, they had to start from scratch. It’s just that each and every one of them is super sensitive and very intelligent, they were ready to be molded and gave so much of themselves to this show. 

A lot of them knew my work from before, they had seen Miss Lovely or Daddy, and were exposed to World Cinema and different international series, they watch all kinds of stuff. So they were very smart about understanding my vision for the show. They were like, okay, this guy’s not doing something which is, you know, the established OTT thing, he’s going to push it and they were really game for that. So they brought a lot of their own stories, a lot of them have either known characters like the characters in Class or they’ve had experiences that are close to those experiences. They brought their own lives to the role, which is why they come across as so genuine. 

What next will we be seeing from you?

My first choice is not to do a young adult project right away. I don’t want to repeat myself; you know, I definitely want to explore a different space. I mean, for me, that is where my interest lies – in exploring 

new things that haven’t been represented or maybe haven’t been explored on screen yet in a certain way. So I’m working on a couple of different things. One is an international film, which is probably going to be my first English-language film shot outside of India. So that’s kind of fun, and that’s very different as well. 

Lead Image: Netflix

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