Ahluwalia says he wanted to make something about teenagers for a quite while — the strong, conflicted emotions of the young. “I could personally really relate to that struggle as I was a rebellious, conflicted teenager myself…writes Sukant Deepak
When ‘Miss Lovely’, centering around Mumbai’s C-grade porn and horror industry, released it did many things… most of all challenging the very grammar of Indian cinema. One had rarely seen a Hindi film crossing multiple genres, bringing into play different styles and playing on several narratives simultaneously… at once reminding the viewer of Wong Kar Wai and a certain suspended magic realism. Director Ashim Ahluwalia had arrived. And in style.
Cut to 11 years later as his series ‘Class’, adapted from the Spanish series ‘Elite’ currently being streamed on Netflix is hooking viewers. Exploring the dynamics at an elite school, and what happens when some ‘other’ students join the institution — a collision of two worlds — shaking up everything from the roots.
Ahluwalia says he wanted to make something about teenagers for a quite while — the strong, conflicted emotions of the young. “I could personally really relate to that struggle as I was a rebellious, conflicted teenager myself.”
Calling the offer to adapt the Spanish series an accident, the director, who had never worked on a series before admits that the original show is totally different from the films he usually makes. “However, there was something really unique about the characters, and the class conflict felt very relevant to India. I just wanted total freedom to make it my way, which Netflix seemed open to,” he recalls.
A research team comprising kids that had been to elite schools was brought on board. There are tons of Delhi school scandals online as well, which have also been alluded to in the show. Ahluwalia and others were shocked by some of the stories, the kind of shaming and outing people online that happens, and how social media plays a huge role in mediating relationships.
“Generally we don’t see any of this stuff on Indian screens. I cannot comment on other stuff made for young adults as I do not watch too much other content, it mostly seems quite predictable and made from the point of view of older people or even younger people who are out of touch with what is really going on, and I just did not want that while making ‘Class’. Hopefully, this will become a benchmark of some kind,” he says.
But are the issues of caste and class represented and dealt with seriously in Indian cinema or OTT? He admits that despite the fact they are built into the fabric of our society, we hardly see them represented on screen enough, and definitely not in an authentic way.
“Either they are the central ‘subject’ of a film, and then foregrounded and monetized as a flag-waving hot topic – or simply invisible. I think it does not have to be either. Frankly, I am interested in exploring the way these themes are represented in everyday life, as a part of how we all interact each day. I do not want to write a manifesto or preach on any particular topic, but just reflect on how we all live.
Someone who does not work like an industry director and has roots in independent cinema, Ahluwalia, who delves into each detail and needs much control and space to work, says, “Considering the scale of a series like this, it can be hard when you want to maintain a certain form of filmmaking. Netflix was patient with my working style and was supportive of my vision. In a series you cannot do everything yourself, and so I brought in two-episode directors – Kabir Mehta and Gul Dharmani – who followed specific strands of the storyline and this allowed me the space to oversee the whole world of the show,” says Ahluwalia, who also adapted the screenplay and was involved with everything — hiring crew, casting, locations, production and costume design, picking the soundtrack, etc. “The scale was gigantic, and it was hard work, but I am happy with how it has turned out,” he adds.
Believing that opportunities to do anything edgy are given, but have to be made for oneself, he feels digital platforms offer more opportunities to do interesting things if one is ready to fight for his vision. ” There definitely is an algorithm that pushes for predictability and safe content. This is not edgy filmmaking for the most part. And yet, if you compare streaming to the old Bollywood mainstream distribution system, where one is pretty much forced to cast stars, stick to formulas, and open on 2000 screens at one go — so you can only make lowest-common fare – streaming feels radical, especially in India.”
Ahluwalia, who has always explored ways in which society pushes people over the edge – whether it was sleaze filmmakers in his first film ‘Miss Lovely’ or gangsters in Daddy, he says, ” I like stories that show us the push and pull of individuals against the world they occupy. In this case, money pushes these kids over the edge, it makes them feel invincible. But, of course, they are not.”
Currently committed to a few film projects including an international one — his first English-language film set outside India, he adds, “It is also set in the near future, so quite different from other things I have done. There are a few other projects in development, but then I tend to take my time.”