Director Ashim Ahluwalia is no stranger to pushing the envelope of what's possible and moving away from the tried and tested. As a creator, he's consistently demonstrated a willingness and an unparalleled ability to create art that challenges the status quo of every medium he works in.
His latest project with Netflix is Class. Despite being an adaptation of Spanish teen-drama Elite, Class is its own distinct entity; one that boldly goes were few Indian television series have ever dared to venture in examining the intracasies of the caste, class, and sex based bigotries that exist across the country; crafting a tale that lays bare the hypocrisies and structural inequalities that plague both the privileged and underprivilged.
What makes the series all the more immersive is its soundtrack, which took the premise and the narrative of the show and imbibed it with an electric, moody and soulful angst that mirrors that of the protagonists. Ashim leveraged a combination of his impeccable ear and his intimate familiarity with the underground music scene across the country to assemble a group of artists and tracks that perfectly summon and invoke the current Indian music zeitgeist. He also took the conscious decision to avoid the mainstream; instead choosing to go with a combination of bedroom producers, underground bands, and DIY artists.
The artists featured, while diverse in their own way, all tap into sonic territory that allows its sizable Gen-Z audience to fully immerse themselves in the sordid world of the show. By avoiding mainstream labels and artists gave the show an organic credibility that allowed it to break through the often impenetrable scepticism of the internet. There's an earnestness and a rawness to every track that is indicative of Ashim's tireless pursuit of authenticity.
We sat down with the director for a freewheeling conversation about how he conceptualized the music, curated the artists and put together a soundtrack that could herald a new wave of soundtracks that harness the full potential of independent and underground homegrown music across the country.
How vital is a soundtrack in terms of sonically personifying the complexity of feelings such as angst, sorrow and joy? Gen-Z is possibly one of the most jaded, generations we’ve seen so far and growing up on the internet and surrounded by irony and meme culture means they are typically incredibly discerning about what they consume. How do you go about creating a soundtrack that is authentic and culturally relevant but at the same time avoids the pitfalls of pandering? How do you toe the line between authenticity and having it appear contrived or forced while putting together a soundtrack like this?
A soundtrack can do some heavy lifting when it comes to building mood, pre-empting action to come or setting up the evolution of specific characters. I was very keen that the music feels personal, not a bunch of faceless pop songs. I have to relate to the music emotionally and it has to feel authentic to the genre – just like cinematography or casting. I can’t separate my filmmaking style from the soundtrack somehow. It needs to have my vibe.
I’ve been personally connected to the underground music scene so I knew that was the direction I wanted to take. I was looking for a lot of new hip-hop and electronic music, something that felt right for a Gen-Z show, but that also had this melancholic mood that fits well with the tone of CLA$$. I think when you pick the music you love and yourself listen to it, it doesn’t usually feel forced. This was all just music that was close to me.
How does the genre of the project affect how you creatively build a soundtrack? At what juncture as a director and producer, did music come into the creative process? The soundtrack powerfully underscores societal and political themes, without telegraphing them. Walk us through the process you take with your creative partners. Is there a general theme that you try and keep consistent or does it vary depending on the subject and motifs you’re expanding on? What genre of film do you think lends itself best to the current wave of underground homegrown independent music we’ve seen a surge in since the beginning of last year?
This was a young adult show so I felt that the soundtrack needed to evoke a lot of conflicted teenage emotion. But it sometimes also just needed to feel like a party, or feel luxurious, and other times it needed to feel like hip-hop from the street. I wanted it to sound like it came from Delhi, and yet like nothing from Delhi that we’ve heard before. I started making secret playlists at the writing stage, sometimes with tracks that I had already earmarked for other projects. I had wanted “Hum Kal Mein” by Janoobi Khargosh for another film even before I started working on CLA$$. But once we cut the party scene with Saba (where she is spiked and ends up tripping) I just knew I needed that track. So I wrote to Waleed (Janoobi Khargosh), who’s based in Pakistan, and said I need this man, how do we sort the licensing? I kind of worked in isolation on selecting the soundtrack, I was worried about getting it through since it was so different from the usual stuff so I didn’t share tracks with anyone until we started mixing.
The zeitgeist is captured through music, and music is often a mirror of the times. How do you believe your approach to film/show soundtracks has evolved from Miss Lovely to Daddy and now Class? What’s the main difference between building a soundtrack for the medium of film, which is a continuous narrative and episodic shows, which are more narratively syncopated and spread out? Were there any lessons from this process that you incorporated into the soundtrack for Class? Are there any sonic Easter eggs or callbacks to those films, both in Class itself as well as the rest of your body of work?
Miss Lovely was where I first really explored telling stories through a soundtrack. It was set in the 1980s so that needed to be the universe. I re-discovered Rupa, a forgotten Bengali disco diva, and used a track called “Aaj Shanibar” in the film, which had been lost since 1982. It was picked up by Gilles Peterson and Caribou and just blew up worldwide, being mentioned in places like The Guardian as “the track from Miss Lovely”. That film also re-introduced the whole 80s synth sound back into the contemporary conversation with a soundtrack featuring Nazia Hassan, Bappi Lahiri and a bunch of lost Ilaiyaraaja electro tracks. None of these were remixes, which was unheard of in an Indian film – they were all the original tracks that had been untouched.
Then when I shot Daddy, I used Bappi and Alisha Chinai’s “Zindagi Meri Dance Dance”, which became a massive hit. Ironically, that never even featured in the original Mithun film Dance Dance, it was just a random extra track on the LP. But that was a nod to the 80s score from Miss Lovely, and also set the whole retro hipster vinyl collecting thing on fire. So in CLA$$, I was keen to get rid of the vintage tag and do something contemporary. It needed to feel like the score was pulled from bedroom producers off SoundCloud.
What stands out the most about the group of artists you’ve brought together for the Class soundtrack? Is there a single unifying thread that allowed them to elevate your vision or was it their distinctiveness and thematic contrast that enabled you to emphasize the dynamic nature of each scene and moment throughout the show?
I think one thing I was keen on is that they all be young Indian musicians, and it should all be brand new music. The thread was Delhi. And that bitter-sweet melancholia of youth – you know like falling in love for the first time, being heartbroken, things like that. Whether it’s Dropped Out remixing D₹V & LOKA or the dreamy stuff of Natiq, Faizan Rahman, Toorjo, and Udbhav – all of this makes for a pretty addictive, genre-blurring soundtrack that spans 8 episodes. Even the original tracks by Aditya & Nayantara, which they composed exclusively for the show, like Girta Sambhalta and Khidki, needed to fit emotionally into that sonic palette. I worked closely on the music production to make sure it stayed raw and true to that universe. They are incredible songwriters, and I’m thrilled about how their tracks have just blown up.
The sonic palette of the show is as diverse as they come; spanning underground hip-hop all the way to lo-fi and dream pop. How do you fit in so much diversity without it running the risk of sonic oversaturation? Or is that just a line you have to learn to navigate as you go?
Even though the music is so diverse – other than all the atmospheric pop, you have trap/dubstep tracks from NDS, Rusha & Blizza, Yung Raj and Noni-Mouse and techno from Spryk – I think something is connecting all those tracks, I can’t explain it, but it’s something to do with all the songs feeling a bit less over-produced and non-filmi. There’s something less in-your-face about them. They are cut for a club or to listen to privately, not designed as a score, so they don’t feel as mainstream somehow and that has really resonated with audiences. It feels genuine. For me, too much perfect production makes for boring music. Adi and Nayantara used to laugh when we were recording Girta Sambhalta, I kept saying, “You’re singing too well, make it sound amateur, more real, no Indian Idol type singing!”
Was there ever a point where you second-guessed your own arguably experimental approach to this soundtrack? You intentionally chose not to go with the safe, tried and tested route. What were some of the obstacles you faced when pitching something like this to powers that be at Netflix? Were they onboard right away or did it take some convincing?
I was convinced about what I wanted on the soundtrack, but I wasn’t so sure about Netflix or how the audience might react. I thought that could backfire. But when the Netflix music team eventually heard these tracks they were positive – they were just like “Where the hell did you get all this music? And how will we do the paperwork on all this? Most of these guys don’t even have labels or publishing rights.”
I had to call one of the producers Toorjo and tell him to pull a Sonic The Hedgehog sample out of a track and replace it cause we couldn’t clear rights on stuff like that. He was like, “Man, I have to find the session on that old PC at my parent’s house first.” That was the vibe.
So I have to really thank Faustin Missier from Netflix for putting up with my madness and chasing down all my buddies so we could actually make some paperwork happen.
Is there a particular place you looked to for inspiration over the course of this process? Are there any directors, either homegrown or global, whose approach to soundtrack curation somewhat mirrors your own?
My inspiration now comes mostly from the music scene itself and from friends or acquaintances that are musicians and DJs, not so much from filmmakers. I’m a fan of music labels like RVNG Intl, Light in the Attic and Habibi Funk, which put out really interesting music. I just try and stay open.
Some would say that this is the start of a brand new approach to music across Indian mainstream media. Is it still too soon to say? What do you think needs to change for creators to feel more comfortable with experimenting and thinking outside the tired, the tried and the tested?
The creators themselves have to first be interested to step out of their comfort zones. That would be a good start.
How do you avoid appearing too derivative of Elite in terms of your approach to the soundtrack? While it’s clear that your approach has its own distinct identity, that’s rooted in the nuances and subtleties of the homegrown iterations of the genres you feature, how do you respond to the inevitable comparisons?
I think the comparisons between Elite and Class were primarily when the trailers came out. Honestly, that was something that I was expecting. But once our show dropped, very soon I stopped hearing comparisons. Class is something else entirely when you watch it. Elite had a more popular aesthetic – it was more like a telenovela, with popular club tracks on the soundtrack so it had a wide appeal when it came out. We can afford to be more selective now as the young adult space has really developed since the original Spanish show came out.
Could you talk a little about your personal favourite soundtrack? What was the first album that influenced your work as a creative?
The opening track of 'The Burning Train' (1980) by RD Burman changed my life as a kid. For me, it’s the sickest, single-best title track of any Hindi film. Kalyanji-Anandji’s title track from 'Don' (1978) was probably the second soundtrack I had on repeat growing up. Those synths and that breakbeat still give me goose bumps and probably also influence everything I do.
The other album that really changed my life when I first got into film was Popul Vuh’s soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God' – a totally futuristic electronic score from 1972. It has influenced not just me but pretty much every modern-day score that came since.
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