With a passion for filmmaking that stands apart from the mainstream in the best way possible, Ashim Ahluwalia has told tales in a very special manner by way of his direction on both the silver and TV screens. A National Award winner best known for critically acclaimed and provocative works like Thin Air, Daddy and Miss Lovely, his latest directorial project is based on the Spanish global hit, Elite. Retitled Class for the Indian audience, this Netflix series has garnered praise and also opened discussion on the pressing issues that the youth of India face today. HELLO! chats with the man of the moment to find out more...
HELLO!: Your style of directing is unique, and you tell stories in a distinctive way. What would you say is your ‘trademark’?
Ashim Ahluwalia: “I’ve never fit into any particular space, so I guess I start by knowing there are no rules I need to follow. I just make things that don’t exist in the world yet, things I would like to watch through my perspective. What I feel like I can do is try and share that. I’m just glad others appreciate those things, as well. I need to learn something new from every project and make sure I don’t repeat myself. That’s about it!”
H!: Much like its Spanish installment, Class is made up of complex characters and hasn’t shied away from the caste and class systems in India, homosexuality and sexual content. How were you able to navigate these intricate elements for an audience that’s a little more conservative than the West?
AA: “I don’t think so much about the audience when I make something, as that would throw me off. For me, there’s no single audience. There are a million people with individual opinions who are all looking at it from where they’re standing. I need to trust my own intuition and make what I feel is genuine. Of course, Netflix would have stepped in if things looked too wild, and we would work around that. But they were mostly supportive of my vision for the show. I’m really happy about how open and evolved our audiences have been since its release. It really did take me by surprise.”
H!: Tell us about the casting process for Class. Many members of this production are fresh faces. Was that deliberate?
AA: “Yes, I was clear I didn’t want famous kids or anyone well known. Each person needed to be a discovery. I had done that earlier with Nawazuddin Siddiqui for Miss Lovely. It was his first lead role, and not many people knew him then; the unexpected casting really helped that character. I don’t think Class would have benefitted from famous faces as that would have brought the baggage of us knowing them from their other films or series. Now, they feel very close to their on-screen characters. A lot of credit goes to our casting directors, but mainly to my producing partner Niharika Singh, who has a great eye for cast that realistically fit this world.”
H!: Each of them delivered fantastic performances. How did you bring out the best from the actors on set?
AA: “They were all pretty much non-actors when they started, which was quite difficult in the beginning. We held a lot of workshops with them before we shot, and I’d spend a lot of time with each one, getting into the backstories of their lives. Sometimes, it was like being a therapist, understanding what they could draw from their real lives to make the performances feel authentic. But each of them is really intelligent and perceptive, so they were able to understand the vision I had for them and the show, as well. They also had an intimacy coordinator on set to take them through the sexually charged scenes. We gave them a lot of time and were very patient, even when someone was having a bad day. In a sense, we did become an extended family of sorts, and that made everybody comfortable. They called me ‘Daddy’ on set, which was kind of funny but also true I guess. I did push the performances and kept the intensity up, but also made sure they got a lot of love and support.”
H!: Were there any challenges when adapting a series from an already widely watched, international hit? Viewers were bound to draw comparisons. Did that add to the pressure?
AA: “I knew it was a risky project, as Elite also runs on the same platform, and I had changed the entire tone of the show. It’s darker and more cinematic in form. I did expect some comparisons, but I saw those die down after the series dropped. Suddenly, it appeared like an altogether different beast with an entirely new audience. What made me happy is how the entire Elite fandom also embraced it globally, especially the psychologies and motivations of the characters, a lot of what was never explored in the original.”
H!: As a director, what would you never compromise on?
AA: “I don’t compromise on much, which is why I sometimes get labelled a difficult director. I’m pretty unexcited about most things I watch, and I’m even harder on myself. So I have to kind of live with this.”
H!: What drives you as a person?
AA: “Trying things I haven’t done before. Making films that are intense experiences that audiences might think about later. I like things that try and amaze us, wake us back up to life.”
H!: What’s next on your agenda? Will you be directing Season 2?
AA: “No, I won’t be doing Season 2 of Class. Personally, I feel like I’ve said my thing and have had a clear vision setting up this world. It’s now up to others to take the story forward. I’m currently committed to a few film projects, one which is an international film. It’s also set in the future, so it’s different from other things I’ve done. I have a few other projects in development, but I tend to take my time.
Photos: Rohan Shrestha; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Styling: Anushree Sardesai & Richa Mehta; Assisted By: Janhvi Khatwani; Hair & Makeup: Pooja Chaurasia & Sandhya Aggarwal; Location Courtesy: Native Bombay