EXCLUSIVE: Ashim Ahluwalia, known as a director of edgy films such as John & Jane and Miss Lovely that have premiered at Toronto and Cannes film festivals, is not an obvious choice to direct a young adult drama series for Netflix. But when local production house Bodhi Tree Multimedia approached him with a proposal for a Hindi remake of Spanish show Elite, he jumped at the chance.
“I’ve always been interested in making something on teenagers, especially wealthy urban teenagers, because that’s a world that I know,” says Ahluwalia, who grew up in the tony neighborhoods of south Mumbai. “I went to a school that was very different to the school in Elite, or in this series, but had the same elements of class conflict. So while I’d never thought about doing a series before, I thought this would be an interesting project to do.”
Created by Carlos Montero and Dario Madrona, Elite follows three scholarship kids from a modest socioeconomic background who get placed in an exclusive high school and have to quickly navigate that world. Ahluwalia says he started watching the show thinking it was a typical young adult drama, but then “something really unpredictable happens in the writing. You expect it to be this typical story where the poor kids get tormented by the rich bullies, but then it starts to become very complex and dynamic.”
He says he didn’t want to make something that just replicated the original, but also thought it was a perfect fit for India because he could take the original themes of inequality and excess to a more extreme level. “I thought if I treated the original as a source novel, rather than a just another show to be adapted, I could completely change the angle. These issues become much more complex and interesting in India, because in addition to the class elements, you’ve got all these other flash points like caste and religion.”
Working with a group of writers he’d handpicked himself, Ahluwalia kept the concept and most of the plotlines the same as the original, but dug deeper into the psychology of, not just the kids and why they behave the way they do, but also the families they come from. “I’ve extended the roles of the adults and the parents, because I was interested in this idea that if the kids are as wild as they are, and they’re all intense in a way whether they’re rich or poor, then the parents must be even more crazy.”
After talking to real-life rich kids and scrolling through their social media accounts, Ahluwalia also felt he needed to present a more extreme version of what these teenagers get up to in terms of sex, drugs and unhealthy use of social media. There’s less flesh on show than the Spanish version, but the students of Class’ fictional Hampton International are also operating with a greater sense of impunity. “Europe has to deal with all these laws and regulations, but in India you’re in a culture where if you have money you can buy your way out of anything. So that does push the stakes in a way that it wouldn’t in Europe.”
When it came to casting the teenagers, Ahluwalia searched high and low for a group of kids that were as close to the characters they were playing on screen as possible, fought hard for his choices and refused to cast any ‘nepo babies’ (children of showbiz personalities), which is common practice in the Hindi-language film industry. Gurfateh Pirzada, who plays the older brother of one of the scholarship students, is signed with Karan Johar’s Dharma and the only one who has done recognized work before.
“We workshopped all the kids quite a lot and I think they started to realize just how close some of these stories were to their real lives. In some of those performance they’re just being themselves and not acting,” Ahluwalia says. “It was also a big responsibility to make sure these kids didn’t look bad, because some of them have been wanting to act for years, doing small modeling jobs or being Instagram influencers, and last thing I wanted was for them to be criticized for their performances.”
Although most of the show ended up being filmed on sound stages in Mumbai, thanks to the pandemic, Ahluwalia says he also got access to some of the real houses of the Delhi elite to shoot in. “The reason I wanted to set it in Delhi is because the gap between the haves and the have nots is just so massive and very different from Mumbai in that it’s geographically separated. In Mumbai, everyone kind of rubs along next to each other. I went to a fancy school but it wasn’t a patch on some of these wealthy schools in Delhi where the kids are coming to class with bodyguards.”
In addition to independent films John & Jane (2005) and Miss Lovely (2012), Ahluwalia’s credits include award-winning experimental short Events In A Cloud Chamber (2016), gangster noir Daddy (2017) and a segment of horror anthology A Field Guide To Evil (2018). He was about to start shooting a period film in northern Italy when the pandemic struck and the project was put on hold. But he says he hasn’t given up on features and has a few in development – including an international project and a Danish novel adaptation that will be set in Mumbai with two female stars.
But first he’s curious to see how Indian audiences reacts to Class, which starts streaming worldwide on Netflix today (February 3), as local film and television has rarely shown the underbelly of the country’s ultra rich. “In Bollywood, everything was already a fantasy – the middle class guy is living in a European chateau. When we released the trailer a few weeks back, a few people said it was unrelatable, and I thought that’s so interesting, because the reality is we have a lot of very excessive wealth in this country, but it’s never really been represented on Indian screens before.”
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