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Newsletter | A Class Act: Ashim Ahluwalia's Netflix Series Is Capital Critique

Class is a moody, exhilarating exploration of class differences in India’s capital, that manages to blend style and substance, writes Manik Sharma.

Newsletter | A Class Act: Ashim Ahluwalia's Netflix Series Is Capital Critique
Detail from the poster for Class. Netflix
  • Manik Sharma

Last Updated: 06.01 PM, Feb 07, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on February 8, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


IN NETFLIX’S CLASS, when an entitled teen visits his peer’s decrepit family-run workshop, the girl’s cautious mother covers up a painting that might give away their status as Kashmiri migrants. “At least I’m open about who I am,” the boy scoffs, deriding the girl for hiding her identity.

It’s a scene that emphasises the blinkered outlook of the well-heeled, the ease with which they equate their pomp to the dogged defiance of those living without a hint of privilege. Class is a moody, exhilarating exploration of class differences in India’s capital, that manages to blend style and substance. Helmed by Ashim Ahluwalia, the textural density of this young adult series resembles that of true crime and while it isn’t quite as poetic as HBO’s Euphoria, it is uncanny, unhinged, and all the better for it.


ADAPTED FROM the Spanish series Elite, Class is a double edged sword that implies both distinction and discipline. The show goes back in time to investigate a murder, but begins with an experiment: three students are selected on scholarships to join Delhi’s most expensive school, Hamptons. Dheeraj (Gurfateh Pirzada), Balli (Cwaayal Singh) and Saba (Madhyama Segal) are the outsiders introduced to a campus full of entitled, bratty snobs equipped with the kind of privilege that allows them to stare into the eyes of their teachers. Dheeraj is the plucky good guy, Saba the righteous nerd. But possibly the most fascinating of the three is Balli, a boneheaded hustler who believes in hacking his way up the ladder of class and caste. He is boisterous, on-the-nose, and deliciously blunt. He is also a body-building influencer. The way he crashes rather than caresses his way into elite circles is a thing of decadent beauty.

On the other end of class spectrum here are Suhani and Veer, the daughter-son pair of the Ahujas, a moneyed family behind the scholarships that have put the three teenagers in school. Theirs is a toxic family, filthy rich but reliant on traditional moats to seed their cultural roots in. In one scene Veer’s mother refuses to acknowledge a burqa-wearing Saba in her home. In another, a gathering of the school’s richest families gloat over overpriced possessions and yawningly audacious gifts. It’s as grisly as it is supposed to be glittery. The show, however, balances the dreary stakes of its claustrophobic world with some enchanting strokes of humanism. A gay love story blooms, even under the shadow of despotic class divisions. New perspectives are born even across the pyres of social inequity and indignation. Even a resolute Saba melts; a blinded Veer begins to see.

There is a lot to like about Class, foremost its ability to control a wide array of intersecting threads that could so easily have spiralled out of shape and size. Secondly, it remains committed to the pace and intensity of a true crime story unravelling amidst some truly amoral and cruel teenagers. Not for a minute does the series let-up on its bold endeavour to constantly provoke. But it does so with classy hues, a terrific soundtrack and some breath-taking cinematography. Never has a story so glib and ungainly looked so viscerally breath-taking at the same time. This isn’t the Delhi of smog-filled skies and trafficked roads, after all, but a Delhi of palatial bungalows and lives that seem to have been imported from crony fantasies.

For a character canvas impaled by debauchery, sex and immorality, it’s incredible that Class manages to create people you’d still like to root for. There are a number of underdogs here. Veer’s older brother, a naïve idealist, fights for a warped form of justice. Faruq, a drug-peddler, must confront both his economic heritage and his sexual conditioning. It’s a wretched situation that he interprets through the fatal poeticism of graves and mausoleums — places where he sells drugs and eventually falls in love at. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for the doomed future of a certain kind of yearning that intends to demolish far too many walls. It’s incredible then that a largely untrained young cast has unanimously delivered excellent performances.

Class isn’t perfect for it becomes too stylistic and vacuous in its exaggerations. Some of the sex and sleaze on show possibly goes a bit too far for a modest appetite. India quite simply isn’t used to watching young-adult stories, not at least with this hot-blooded template and the audacity to mix it with prescient questions regarding religion, caste and class. Adapting an international series can be tricky, but Ahluwalia has pulled off a miracle. In doing so he has given us a feverish mix of sex, drugs, murder and depravity with surreal — and affecting — social messaging thrown into the mix. Class may yet be too intense for some, but the innocence it forgoes is more than compensated for by the ruinous beauty it finds in everything that is close to crumbling or has never quite been built. It’s riveting and unlike anything we’ve seen before.