Ashim Ahluwalia’s debut film, John & Jane, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. His debut fiction feature, Miss Lovely, had its first showing at the 2102 Cannes Film Festival and won two National Awards. In 2017 he made Daddy, a biopic on gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli (played by Arjun Rampal) followed by The Palace of Horrors, a chapter in the international horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil (2018).
An independent filmmaker in work and spirit, his newest is the series Class (from 3 February on Netflix), a remake of the Spanish show Elite. Ahluwalia’s first adaptation, is set in an upscale Delhi high school and follows the culture and class clash that takes place when three kids from the other side of the tracks are given scholarships to an elite private school. Ahluwalia shares details of the show and where he sees Indian independent cinema heading.
You have so far always told original stories. What attracted you to a remake?
I’ve always wanted to make something about teenagers. The intense, conflicted emotions you feel when you’re young and how relationships play out. I just never found a project. Then, I was asked to look at ‘Elite’ for a possible adaptation. Even though the original series is totally different from what I usually make, there was something in the way the characters and situations were written that really excited me. The class conflict between the rich and poorer kids, and the way that the school becomes a kind of symbol of the world outside were things I could really get into.
What were some of the challenges in adapting a Spanish show to an Indian milieu?
In my mind, this show immediately felt like it should be set in Delhi, mainly because of the way the rich and poor are more geographically segregated there than in Mumbai. Also, the way class and caste works in India is very different from the West. So that was a big difference in approach. The Spanish series has a very European take on its depiction of sex, family conflict, and how the kids get uncontrollably wild. I felt our version needed to be more believably set in the wealthy milieu of Delhi. I wanted to explore extremes, but more Indian ones.
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 while also being authentically rooted here.
How would you describe ‘Class’?
I try not to describe it, honestly. But if I had to, I'd say it’s a combination of many things – a show about rich teenage life, a show about us as a society, where we are as a country right now. It 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 like that it doesn’t feel like anything else that’s out there.
How rigorous was the casting process?
Crazy. I think we pretty much screen-tested everyone in each major Indian city between the ages of 18-25. I was clear that I didn’t want famous kids or anyone well known. Other than Gurfateh Pirzada, everyone else is a non-actor making their screen debuts in Class. I had done that with Nawazuddin Siddiqui for Miss Lovely. I’ve never been a director who is bothered with “known faces”.
A lot of credit goes to our casting directors and also to my producing partner Niharika (Singh), who scoured Instagram to find a cast that realistically fit this world. 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 these kids are amazing.
What was the experience like, working on a series format?
I come from independent film, those are my roots, even when I’ve made a bigger film with stars. I get into each detail and need a lot of control and space to do my thing. Because of the scale of a series like this, it can be hard when you want to maintain a certain form of filmmaking. Netflix was extremely patient with my working style and supportive of my vision.
In a series, you can’t do everything yourself, so I brought in two episode directors—Kabir Mehta and Gul Dharmani—who followed specific strands of the storyline. This allowed me the space to oversee the whole world of the show. Other than being the series director, I also adapted the screenplay and was the showrunner. This meant being involved with everything from hiring crew, casting, locations, production and costume design, being on set daily, working on the edit, literally down to picking each and every tune on the soundtrack. The scale was massive, and it was a lot of work, but I’m really happy with the outcome.
Talk about the look, in terms of cinematography, the design and choreography of the shots, particularly in relation to how the film was lit.
I was clear about the look of the show from the writing stage, even the kind of lenses I wanted to shoot with. I knew it would be different from Elite—closer to my other films, in a way. I wanted deep colours, lots of atmosphere. So there would be deep blacks but also a lot of gloss to evoke the luxury of the wealthy world. This would be in contrast to the grittiness of the poorer spaces. I wanted the parties to be wild, lit with LEDs and drenched in saturated colour.
We worked with five amazing DoPs—four international and one Indian—and with two episode directors and multiple second unit crews shooting over three waves of the pandemic. I had to make sure everything looked consistent. I always had the whole colour palette and contrast ratio in my head and was super strict about maintaining it. In the end the best compliment I got was that nobody can tell who shot what material, as it all looks so seamless.
Do you find there is enough texture and provocation in Indian OTT content?
I felt like Pataal Lok had that, but mostly I don’t think there is much texture, realism or provocation. I think that this has less to do with the platforms themselves, but more to do with the content and the creators who tend to play it safe. I had very supportive producing partners in Bodhi Tree, who gave me the space to make this the way that I wanted to. I know that Class can be seen as racy. It may freak some people out. Others may say, “Oh, this doesn’t happen in India. This isn’t relatable. Kids aren’t so crazy.” But I also know young people who will say, “Oh my God! That’s my life, I know characters exactly like this.” It doesn’t take much to Google Delhi school scandals or news stories about super wealthy people going off the rails. Do that and you’ll know that everything in Class is based on real-life. I think it’s about time we are honest about what happens around us.
What else are you working on?
Right now I am committed to a few film projects, one of which is an international film, and one is a pretty wild thriller set in Mumbai with two female stars. It’s based on a Danish novel. I have other things in development, but I do tend to take my time with projects.
Given your independent filmmaking antecedents and spirit, how do you see the present and future for independent content in India?
If this show works, and the audience takes to it, I think it will be a benchmark of sorts, especially for other young adult series. This happened after I made Miss Lovely and Daddy. Things that came out after sort of started looking gritty and noir-like, period stuff with mixed colour temperatures in the lighting, and ‘realistic’ casting. That is always flattering, of course. But if it doesn’t work, I guess we will go back to safer content for a while. So I hope it works, especially for all the filmmakers and creators out there who want to push the envelope and explore new landscapes and forms of storytelling.