THE Netflix series ‘Class’ is a sharp portrait of the class divide. At the same time, the young adult drama, an up-close examination of the complicated lives of uber-rich kids, has divided the viewers. While the younger generation is lapping it up, finding it a relatable ‘representation of their world’ and inundating its acclaimed showrunner and director Ashim Ahluwalia with laudatory messages, naysayers are exclaiming loud and sharp: “Aisa bhi hota hai kya (Where on earth does this happen)!”
Interestingly, Ashim was expecting a polarised response. He reasons, “When we see something real and hard-hitting, there is always a section saying, ‘Don’t show me this.’ For them, it’s too much reality.” However, he refuses to buy the argument that the world of young adults portrayed in ‘Class’ is not real. Rather, he asserts, “Do a Google search, and you will find similar scandals. None of it is buried under a rock, it is in public domain.”
In fact, when he was asked to do an adaptation of the Spanish series ‘Elite’, which is more glossy and fantastical, he said ‘yes’ because he was ‘a rebellious teenager’ himself, and wanted to do something on badly behaved young people. Besides, he thought, “Why not use the plot point like ‘Othello’ or ‘Hamlet’ or any mythological story where you know the outcome but what matters is how you tell the story.” He focuses on the dynamics of the characters, brings out conversations around homosexuality, bullying, etc, and makes it more class-centric. Since class is not far removed from caste in India, he certainly wanted to address this elephant in the room too. For those who think the series bites into more issues than it can chew — it also has a thread on religion running as an undercurrent — his response is: “It was not meant to be a manifesto.” The problem with cinema in India, the National Award-winner feels, is that while mainstream cinema whitewashes ticklish concerns, we have “flag-waving cinema” that picks up cudgels with misplaced gusto.
He wanted to capture the complexity of the world we are living in, with the super rich getting richer and the poor super poor. Tell Ashim that you see shades of the Oscar-winning South Korean film ‘Parasite’, the two extreme worlds of haves and have-nots on a collision course, and he takes no offence. He says he is a big fan of Korean films. “My influences are not Bollywood or Hollywood.” The fact that he studied at Bard College, New York, certainly informs his work. It was away from India that he was exposed to the very best of Indian cinema — from Satyajit Ray to Ritwik Ghatak. He has no issues with the fact that critics love him and box office not so much. He says, “My films are not meant to be blasted from 5,000 screens. That is for old-school multi-genre Bollywood films.”
As ‘the collapse of Bollywood system’, something he foresaw 10 years ago, becomes a reality, he professes, “There has been a seismic shift in the entertainment industry.” With the audiences becoming more sophisticated as well as niche, he sees no reason to second guess audience taste and the good old ruse that ‘audience is not ready’ no longer holds true. As viewers have made ‘Class’ a runaway hit, a sequel is only expected. But Ashim will not be helming it. Repetition for him is “death of creativity and a ticket to mediocrity”. Success certainly opens doors but comes with a rider. “As long as I am ready to repeat myself, there will be offers,” he shares. Yet another series on OTT would have been a possibility had he not been such a ‘control freak’.
With five cinematographers on board for ‘Class’, Ashim’s filmmaking process is in the same league as films like the hypnotic and immersive ‘Miss Lovely’ and gangster drama ‘Daddy’. Add to it the fact that he had fresh faces on board ‘who go out of character, can get nervous’. While shooting the scenes of sexual nature with young actors, he was cautious, “I didn’t want any real nudity. I even had an intimacy coordinator, Aastha Khanna, to make the actors comfortable.” At no point did he want the show to be controversial or just another sexy voyeuristic ride.
On the dark themes that his work invariably delves into, his riposte is, “My show is no darker than the world around us. I just reflect what I see.” Thus, he wouldn’t care to categorise or create characters as heroes or villains. “For, more than heroes, the world needs human beings. Nobody is a pure hero or villain.” While he may not be interested in superhero characters, indie makers right now making such films do get a pat on the back from Ashim. He says, “The most interesting content in the Netflix-Amazon paradigm is being made by them. In the West, too, Christopher Nolan, who has given us the Batman franchise, started out as an independent filmmaker.”
Be it OTT platforms or Bollywood distribution with a commercial system at play, Ashim rues, “No one is going to do anything for you. As an independent filmmaker, you have to find your way out of the maze.” Perhaps just as he has, with a deep penetrative eye, refusing to simplify things or view people and situations as binaries. Away from the Bollywood gaze, the aesthetics of this half-Sikh are very much his own signature.
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