These five stars became overnight successes, thanks to their mature performances that belie their age. At their candid best, actors Anjali Sivaraman, Zeyn Shaw, Cwaayal Singh, Piyush Khati and Ayesha Kanga share with HELLO! their career arc and how dissimilar (or not) their lives are to the characters they portray..
They came, they saw, they conquered! Their Netflix show, Class — an adaptation of the globally acclaimed Spanish seriesElite — became an instant sensation on release, finding a connect with many a generation for delving into a narrative often ignored in today’s society: the class divide students face in schools. Overnight, Anjali Sivaraman, Zeyn Shaw, Cwaayal Singh, Piyush Khati and Ayesha Kanga became household names for their gripping performances. Each talented in their own way and from backgrounds as varied as their characters, in this dark yet engrossing show where two parallel worlds collide.
Class Cast Interview
While their on-screen personas may not always get along, on the set of the HELLO! shoot, there was nothing but pure magic. The actors share an endearing camaraderie that comes through on camera — and even as they share tall glasses of cold coffee. HELLO! gets candid with the brilliant ensemble cast, digging deep into who they really are behind the scenes...
HELLO!: What was it like growing up in Ranikhet?
Piyush Khati: “It’s a magical place. Everyone has that one dream they can’t forget. Every time they close their eyes, it’s still vivid and evokes certain emotions that you don’t feel on a regular day. That dream, those memories play like a Tim Burton movie, painted on the canvas of my subconscious. It’s a place that raised me on its sheer beauty; its people have inspired me to be determined in the harshest of conditions. Living in the mountains taught me something sacrosanct for an actor — the art of being patient — as it’s no easy feat. Neither is starting out in our industry.”
H!: Class is your third OTT series after Criminal Justice (2019) and Extraction (2020). How did you foray into the online space?
PK: “I wouldn’t call it a foray. It wasn’t sudden, and it definitely wasn’t planned. Criminal Justice was one of my first auditions in Mumbai. I auditioned for Extraction a year later, with no idea that it starred Chris Hemsworth in the lead. Class came about at the right time, when I was more aware of myself as an artist, more acquainted with the way the industry works. Also, with Class, I had finally arrived at something I always wanted to do — a teenage story, which is not a common genre in our film industry. So, in a way, it’s been a full-fledged journey.”
H!: You play the sweet, likeable character Dheeraj on the show. What drew you to him?
PK: “It was the situation and the stance of the character that inclined me towards him. I think Dheeraj, as a character, survived the test of time that his life put him through without compromising on his goodness and the principles he holds close to his heart. That’s what drew me towards him.”
H!: You’re part of the ‘other side’ on the show — a lower middle-class boy surviving the world of the rich. Did you have to step out of your comfort zone to play this character?
PK: “I come from a very humble background. My parents never strived for luxuries. They worked selflessly to raise us. Economically, it wasn’t that hard of a job to step into the shoes of a character who survives on a bare minimum. But it was a challenge from the first day till the last shot to be able to comprehend the struggles faced by the community Dheeraj belongs to.”
H!: How would your friends describe you?
PK: “Like Iron Man, they might call me an ‘Ironic Man’ because there are times when I share my thoughts and philosophies, and they sound contradictory to them. Like I once said, “If you’re lost, it means you’re on the right track.” After this, they keep cracking jokes like, “According to Piyush, if you’re dead, you’re alive.” They also named this school of thought ‘Khatism’.”
H!: Are you a cynic or a romantic like Dheeraj?
PK: “Well, I haven’t fallen in love yet. But whenever I do fall into that inevitable pit, I’ll make sure I introduce him to Dheeraj, to understand the nuances of ishq, mohabbat and pyaar.”
H!: What drew you to your dark, dysfunctional, and complex character in Class?
AS: “As dark, dysfunctional and complex as Suhani Ahuja is, she has a more important story to tell. Today, a lot of kids go through intense bullying and peer pressure, especially in international schools. There are a lot of unreal expectations of them. With the kind of person Suhani is, she is torn between two worlds. She doesn’t want to bend to peer pressure, but doesn’t know better at the same time. That’s what makes her who she is. As someone who went to an international school in Bengaluru, I felt I had insight into that world. I don’t come from an affluent background, so I understood both sides and wanted to tell Suhani’s story.”
H!: The show dramatically conveys the disparity between the haves and have nots. What was your takeaway from this experience?
AS: “This was a more impactful way of telling the story. To realise how some people are treated in this world was shocking for me, too. Walking through the streets where we were shooting, we saw the difference between lifestyles. It was important to shed light on these disparities.”
H!: While you’re part of a liberal, upmarket school in Class, what kind of schooling did you have?
AS: “My dad was in the Air Force, and when he retired, he joined an airline and wanted to give us a higher level of education. I transferred from a public school to an international school. We had a Wagon R, so I used to feel embarrassed when I’d see kids arrive in Mercs, BMWs and Audis. This was a new world for me and a culture shock. So I really understood where Suhani was coming from. I was the newbie and had classmates from affluent social circles who knew each other. I understood that alienating feeling, which helped me get into character.”
H!: Tell us a little about your experience at the shoot and the bonds you guys formed on the set.
AS: “We were part of an ensemble cast, but not all of us shot with each other. We shot the show over two years. Even though we’re all very different people, we’re united like a family. I don’t think we’ll ever experience this kind of bond again.”
H!: How did you land your debut role in 2022’s Cobalt Blue?
AS: “I auditioned for it in 2019. There were a lot of contenders for that role. I had a few meetings and screen tests to convince them to give me the part. I’m South Indian, whereas Anuja was Maharashtrian. I’m feminine, but she was gender neutral… I needed to work on these aspects, but I managed to get the part. I’m confident that way.”
H!: How do you let go after portraying such intense characters?
AS: “It varies from role to role. In my first on-screen performance as Anuja in Cobalt Blue, I had to work hard to get into character as she had a distinctive personality. That project was shot at a stretch. But with Suhani, it was a long-drawn process. I’m still new to this world, so I’ll find a process that will help me stay mentally well.”
H!: Where would you draw the line when it comes to intimate sequences?
AS: “An intimate scene is fine as long as I have a director I can trust, and there’s an intimacy coordinator on the set who’s trustworthy, unbiased and non-judgmental. If I know exactly what I’m doing, with whom, and I trust my partner, I’ll do whatever is best for the scene.”
H!: Your mother, Chitra Iyer, is a popular singer, and you enjoy singing, too...
AS: “Mum has been a singer her entire life. Her side of the family is musically inclined. We watched her perform constantly, and she often invited us to sing with her. This set the trend at an early age. I’ve also been performing with a contemporary jazz funk band called Bartender for eight years. It brings me true joy.”
H!: What is the real Anjali Sivaraman all about?
AS: “Unlike this glamorous woman you see, I’m shy, introverted and unbelievably awkward! I’m confident in my work, but I’m also the biggest geek who’s obsessed with anime. I love chilling at home.”
H!: Could you compare the boarding school you attended in Singapore with your school in Class?
ZS: “In terms of infrastructure and facilities, my boarding school in Singapore was pretty fancy — quite similar to Hampton International in Class. It was also a very different time; I was 14 back then, and there was no social media. People valued each other’s time, and conversations were more real. We weren’t glued to our phones all the time.”
H!: Veer Ahuja strikes us as a wimpish character witha conscience. What’s your opinion?
ZS: “Veer isn’t wimpish. And, of course, he has a conscience. I think Veer grew up in a ‘rich boy’ bubble. We grow up as a product of our surroundings and experiences. I’ve seen that myself. The people around you shape how your mind develops, to an extent. Veer’s dad is a criminal, and his sister is a drug addict. But he’s loyal, and his family comes first. I don’t think he’s classist either. If he were, he’d have never fallen in love with Saba. He’s just a confused kid with severe anger issues.”
H!: Who was your favourite on the set?
ZS: “This is a tough one. We’re all part of a big, dysfunctional family. We have each other’s back and love each other. I’m close with a lot of the cast members, including Anjali, Gurfateh Pirzada and Chintan Rachchh, but I’m closest with Chandan Anand. He also stayed with me for a few days, and we share a strong bond.”
H!: You switched from studying journalism at Suffolk University in Boston to acting at Lee Strasberg in New York. What made you gravitate towards acting?
ZS: “When I first went to university, I had no idea what to do. Coming from an affluent family in Delhi, it was expected of me to work with my parents on graduating, though I had no interest in that. I studied business management for two years, but I failed math so many times! I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Midway through college, I moved to PR, advertising and journalism, which I found more creative. I also tried to work in Boston, but a 9-to-5 desk job didn’t excite me.
My parents have always been supportive, so I told my mum I wanted to drop out of business school and go to an acting school instead. Since she insisted I get my degree first, I waited till I graduated and then I went to Lee Strasberg. My first day was amusing, as I had never been around so many aspiring actors. I was nervous as they were all so well prepared. It really made me fall in love with acting. I enjoyed myself. And like my mum says: if you don’t enjoy what you do, drop it. It’ll never work out.”
H!: How fashion conscious are you?
ZS: “My sister is super trendy and fashion forward. My mother is an interior designer, and my father has this swag. They all dress really well. And then there’s me. I don’t know why I never picked up on it, but fashion has never interested me. I’ve had three pairs of jeans and five T-shirts for the past six years. I wear the same thing every day!”
H!: What was your first day on set like?
ZS: “It was so scary! I only had a background in theatre and hadn’t seen so many large cameras before. I saw my name on my vanity van. It felt surreal. The first few days were brutal. I took way too many takes, but the director was (mostly) patient. After 15 days of shooting, I became comfortable and confident.”
H!: OTT or the big screen?
ZS: The big screen is like a dream, as I’ve always wanted to see myself on a movie poster. But I prefer TV shows as you get to explore the character, especially when there are multiple seasons.”
H!: You seem to have really enjoyed playing the super snooty Yashika…
AK: “Yashika was a mood! She was also a complete lockdown baby. I tested for the role because there wasn’t much else going on. In fact, I was shortlisted for both Koel’s role and Yashika’s. I actually fell in love with Lu — the character Yashika is based on — after watching Elite.”
H!: Do flawed characters appeal to the actor in you?
AK: “Of course! There’s more range and so much more to work with. Also, to defend Yashika, she’s only a product of her environment. She wanted the scholarship, and this was the only way she had learnt to get her way. She’s young and doesn’t know any better. There’s a lot of room for growth…”
H!: Are you anything like your character?
AK: “I’m completely unlike Yashika. We don’t come from the same economic background. I think she has a lot to learn about life. She’s cool and intelligent and doesn’t have to feel pressured about fitting in. It consumes her. I care very little for those things. I do, however, admire her drive and relate to that immensely. She goes for what she wants. She’s a go-getter, and I am, too!”
H!: How different was your own schooling?
AK: “Oh, it was a stark contrast! I was a day scholar at a Parsi boarding school in Bandra, Mumbai. No one cared about how anyone looked or dressed. Every experience I had was veiled by rose-tinted glasses. I was an art geek, and it was a skill that was valued. Kids were kind, and the display of wealth was minimal.”
H!: Which co-star are you closest with?
AK: “It keeps shuffling between Chintan, Naina Bhan, Chayan Chopra and Piyush!”
H!: “You trained in graphic design from the National Institute of Design and then dabbled in acting...
AK: “It’s pretty complicated… I dabbled in acting around 2011-12, while attending junior college at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. I wasn’t very interested. I wanted to be an artist or a designer. It wasn’t until after I got a degree in graphic design that I rekindled my interest. I decided to get into acting full-time after watching Made in Heaven. Well, that and being fired from my design job.”
H!: Tell us about your work as a creative director with NID Kid, your design firm.
AK: I’ve started creative directing shoots, styling and putting teams together. I never thought this was the turn my career in design would take, but it makes perfect sense since I love both fashion and image making.”
H!: Give us a peek into your family life.
AK: “I was raised by a single mom. My dad and his family absconded when I was 14 or 15. My mother is possibly the strongest, most organised person ever. I have a younger sister, Trisha (who has a cameo on the show! She’s into improv, so she wrote the scene on set) and two cats, Adminder Singh and Kristopher Kaur (or Adam and Kris). It’s an all-women household, with one male cat (who has also adopted womanhood at this point).”
H!: Share a few things unknown about you.
AK: “1. I can read and write Korean and French. 2. I play the guitar. 3. I used to be a chess champ in school. 4. I worked at Adobe in machine learning and artificial intelligence.”
H!: What mantra keeps you going during tough times?
AK: “It’s hard to be motivated when things go south. I don’t look for immediate validation or search for quick fixes. Honestly, I just acknowledge the hard times and live through them. Your mind eventually finds a way to feel joy again. But I do wallow and cry a lot. Life, I suppose?”
H!: You have an unusual name. What does it mean?
CS: “I’m from Nainital and a Shiva devotee. Cwaayal is another name for Lord Shiva. It was Shiwayal, but I randomly changed my spelling. It get kept getting used in the audition circuit, so I stuck with it.”
H!: You worked as a theatre artist before signing Class. What’s the journey been like?
CS: “Acting is like meditation for me. I started with street plays in Delhi. I also performed at Mandi House, Sriram Centre and India Habitat Centre and even sold tickets for my plays. After three years of theatre, I got some ads and finally got Class. So I’ve had a good run, which will hopefully continue.”
H!: How different was your boarding school in Nainital from the elite institute on the show?
CS: “I’m an army brat and studied in military schools. But in Class 10, I transitioned to a private school. I faced a lot of bullying and stress here, and since it was a co-ed school, it was my first time meeting girls. So I could relate to my character, or even that of Dheeraj, because I had encountered these issues. You realise the class difference, that there are academic pressures and people wealthier than you. You tend to seek validation from others.”
H!: Balli seemed like a tough character to play, as it required a certain body language and rowdy lingo. How did you get this role and prepare for it?
CS: “I got this role during the pandemic. Everything was shut, and I was confused about what to do. My agency set up an audition for Balli’s character. I liked the Haryanvi part and found him to be a complex character. There was a full arc. I was nervous about the intimate scenes, though. They sent me the intimacy script. I took 10 days to decide and was confirmed after three months.
We had workshops for a few months. I used to call my Haryanvi friends to modulate my tone and even took a course with a coach. It was tough to shoot the intimate sequences, but we trusted our intimacy coach. I also gained 7kg for this role by eating a lot of junk food and lifting weights. Since the project took over two years to shoot, it was hardest for me as I was carb-deprived and living on chicken breast and broccoli!”
H!: You played the young pilot in Runway 34. How was the experience working with Ajay Devgn?
CS: “I auditioned for Runway 34, and Ajay sir liked my tape. I enjoyed working with him. He’s a fab actor who also has strong technical skills, besides acting and direction. He can even do lighting. One can learn a lot from him. I had shot my sequence in Moscow. I got to see a lovely place and also be directed by Ajay sir.”
H!: Do you remember your first day on the set of Class?
CS: “I was nervous and scared. I had to shoot an intense fight sequence and a few intimate scenes. Initially, it was awkward because it was my first time kissing a guy. But it was all fun at the end of the day.”
H!: With whom did you hang out the most on set?
CS: “I never hung out with anyone. I was focussed on myself. I had to work out, eat right and follow a routine. I had no time to ‘hang’, so to speak. But I’m kind of close with Piyush Khati, as we’re both from Uttarakhand. He’s like a younger brother to me.”
Interview: Nayare Ali; 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
This has been adapted for the web from a story originally published in the April 2023 issue of HELLO! India. Get our copy of the latest issue right here!