No Holds Barred with Ashim Ahluwalia

By Jyothsana Narasimhan, Educator

In the world of cinema, there are filmmakers who adhere to conventional storytelling and then there are those who push the boundaries – Ashim Ahluwalia belongs to the family of the latter wherein his films and series delve into the unconventional and the tabooed. Ahluwalia’s films challenge traditional narratives and take the audience on a journey into the obscure and uncharted territories of human experience.

In conversation with Sneha Iype Varma, Jury Member of Film Craft Lions, Founding Partner at Nirvana Films, India, and co-founder of the Neev Literature Festival, the duo jumps right in with a categorical “no holds barred” approach with Sneha expertly quizzing Ashim on topics ranging from the themes that inspired him in his films to current day problems of the youth and his take on modern day parenting!

One of Ahluwalia’s most acclaimed works is the film Miss Lovely which premiered at Cannes wherein he masterfully exposed the dark underbelly of the film industry, offering a glimpse into the lives of those on the fringes of the entertainment world. The film’s noir aesthetic and the raw portrayal of its characters garnered critical acclaim and announced Ahluwalia as a bold and innovative filmmaker. Ashim Ahluwalia’s work stands out for its uncompromising vision and visual aesthetics. He is known for incorporating elements of surrealism, symbolism, and a unique sense of style into his films. His distinctive visual language, often characterized by unconventional framing and an uncanny use of light and shadows, creates an otherworldly atmosphere in his films. 

With his Netflix series Class (2023), Ahluwalia says he seeked to explore the underbelly of the cities wherein the protagonists are outsiders or on the margins. He says he is interested in the radically rebellious as well as in understanding the social dynamics of the interconnected systems from where the problematics/the circumstances or the backstory could be derived for he truly believes that we are often a strange mix of our circumstances and there isn’t a character that is inherently “good” or “bad”. Class aimed at showcasing the dynamics of the poor vs the rich in an elitist school delving deeper into the problems of spatial separateness, bubbled existences, peer ostracization, narcissism and the privileges of one’s social ranking and stature cutting across gender, sexual orientation and more – nudging us to have “uncomfortable” dinner-table conversations with our adolescents.

To the question if there were any topics off the table – Ashim responds that “no topic is ever truly out of bounds but they must be dealt with sensitivity given that there is a lot of information overload and over-exposure on the one hand, yet not enough conversations happening between teenagers and their parents on the other. The biggest problem is that there is little communication between the adults and their teens for they both seem to be living in parallel universes or oftentimes, adults with their own unresolved issues project their angst onto their teens.” Ashim also honestly discusses the pretences of youth-bravado, their assertions of individuality, the mental health crisis and the detriments of technology, for often today’s friendships seem superficial, in which bullying has become implicit, latent and often takes the insidious form of social isolation rather than the explicit forms it took on in the previous generations. For instance, someone hiding our books or lunch boxes were some forms of common bullying before, whereas now, the youth are under immense pressure in terms of Instagram defined “freedoms” of who gets tagged and who doesn’t. While physical bullying is more overt and easier to recognize, social isolation operates quietly in the background, leaving deep emotional scars on youth. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to social isolation, given their heightened need for peer acceptance and social belonging.

Ashim and Sneha in conversation

When Sneha asked Ashim how then we can create our “compass points” and what we can do to help our teens create theirs and navigate these, Ashim gives us a few pointers:

  1. Open Communication: Let us bring out “closetted” conversations to the dinner tables and bridge the communication gaps. Let us trampoline into discussing real life issues instead of filtering out or plastering our kids from the brute reality of the external outside world.
  1. Education and Awareness: Let us be more self-aware and be consistent with our behaviour, setting clear expectations and consequences. For instance, if we want our kids to limit the usage of their screen and read more books, we must lead by example.
  1. Support Systems: Let us create and foster support networks that allow adolescents to seek help and share their experiences with trusted individuals. Let us also be adults or “cool adults” in their lives but let us set boundaries in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

Overall, Ashim Ahluwalia’s work is a testament to the power of cinema to challenge the status quo, inspire conversation, and provoke thought. He continues to push the boundaries of storytelling and visual artistry leaving a lasting impact on the landscape of Indian and international cinema. Ahluwalia’s films serve as an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers and a reminder of the boundless possibilities of the cinematic art form.



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