‘Class’ Shows Elite Indians Confronting Their Privilege — Or Failing To

The kitschy web series sets up a bird’s-eye view of Indian society’s various fissures — caste, religion, sexuality — and asks why the rich can hardly see beyond themselves

‘Class’ Shows Elite Indians Confronting Their Privilege — Or Failing To
A still from “Class.” (Netflix)

“Who are these fucking losers?”

“What are those shoes she’s wearing? Looks like they cost 200 rupees from Sarojini Nagar.”

“Seen the hijab?”

These are the reactions — some whispered and others not so much — that greet the three new students admitted to Hampton International, the posh Delhi school where Netflix’s “Class” is set. These students are different from Hampton’s usual attendees, who belong to ultra-rich business families in the Indian capital. Instead, the new arrivals are marked by their social distance from these elites. Dheeraj Valmiki belongs to a Dalit family; his father is a daily-wage worker, while his older brother wants to overthrow the rich and avenge the caste discrimination he faces on a daily basis. Saba Manzoor is the daughter of Kashmiri Muslim migrants, who pretend to be from Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state, lest they face discrimination. Her parents run a tailor shop and her queer brother deals drugs to the students at Hampton. And Balram Patwal, or Balli from Delhi, is a “Hindi-medium” student (he has until now studied in a Hindi-language school) whose broken English doesn’t deter him from flaunting his “289K-plus followers” on social media, even if people think he’s cringe.

The collision of these disparate worlds, of the rich students and their new classmates, forms the premise of “Class,” the Indian adaptation of the Spanish show “Elite,” both produced by Netflix. The show arrived on the heels of a 2023 Oxfam report that offered bleak revelations on inequality in India. The top 1% owns more than 40% of the country’s wealth, but 64% of its taxes come from the bottom 50%.

It’s a trend seen throughout the world: The fortunes of billionaires are said to have grown more during the COVID-19 pandemic than they had in the previous 14 years combined. “Eating the rich” is thus, understandably, a dominant narrative of our times. The most successful stories of the zeitgeist reflect an aversion to a sliver of the population portrayed as living off the rest. From “Succession” and “The Menu” to the (admittedly extremely contrived) fourth season of “You,” the rich are no longer aspirational characters but the villains in our stories. And “Class” is one of India’s first eat-the-rich shows.

The Indian adaptation of the original Spanish show is made possible because class disparity is a universal theme, but “Class” is far from a copy. Dheeraj’s equivalent in “Elite” was a working-class student, but in “Class,” the character’s circumstances are skillfully localized and dramatized through his caste location in Indian society.

In the first episode, Dheeraj’s brother Neeraj has just been released from prison for protesting the arson of Dheeraj’s old school, orchestrated by his new classmates’ rich father, a real estate tycoon called Ahuja. Ahuja had admitted Dheeraj, Saba and Balli as “charity cases” on scholarships to Hampton as a way to offset the public relations damage from the fire. So when Neeraj finds his brother hobnobbing with the people responsible for their displacement, he can’t help but taunt him.

But Dheeraj insists, “Ahuja’s kids study with me. Same class.”

“Ahuja’s kids and you can never be in the same class,” Neeraj retorts.

The pun is intended. Over the course of eight episodes, “Class” shows how caste closely shadows individuals, even as they move up the Indian socioeconomic ladder. Class can change via the accumulation or loss of wealth, but caste is inherited at birth, indicated by name, place of birth and familial occupation. Trying to shake off these visible and invisible markers of caste can have violent consequences, as Dheeraj’s father explains to his son’s naive classmate Suhani. When he gave his sons names commonly used by dominant caste members (or savarnas), his family was driven out of the village. “Today they’re taking our names; tomorrow they will take our land,” said Dheeraj’s father, articulating the insecurities felt by the savarnas.

Although the practice of untouchability was banned when India became a republic in 1950, caste-based discrimination remains rampant and is a chief contributor to inequality. To this day, a Dalit can be murdered for growing a mustache, wearing jeans or riding a mare to their wedding, which are seen as transgressions from caste norms. India hosts the third-largest group of billionaires in the world, all savarnas, and even as they grow in number Dalits remain trapped in the intergenerational occupations of trash collection, scavenging and cleaning, earning 30% less than the national average.

Mainstream Indian storytelling has also rarely given caste its due as a subject, intellectually and artistically. Bollywood and Indian media, largely run by the savarnas, are notorious for glossing over caste. Take the case of “Sairat,” a critically acclaimed 2016 Marathi film that showed two intercaste lovers being murdered for breaking caste norms. This was remade in Hindi by a top production house as “Dhadak.” It retained most aspects of the story — except caste, which had been at the center of the failed love story. Another film, “Sir,” which uniquely and sensitively portrayed the love story of a rich Mumbai man and his domestic help, explored their class differences but not their caste. And movies that have explored caste, such as “Article 15” and “Swades,” are often guilty of employing the “savarna gaze,” wherein the aware, progressive savarna is portrayed as a savior, out to rescue hapless Dalit characters, or to school society about social evils.

“Kota Factory,” a popular classroom drama produced by a newer, younger production house, in which a student commits suicide after not passing a competitive exam, also did not touch on social positions — even though there is a strong correlation between mental health, suicide and caste-based discrimination in the Indian educational system. The deaths of students like Rohith Vemula, Payal Tadvi, Aniket Ambhore and Darshan Solanki, all from a Dalit background, were linked to caste-based discrimination on campuses, even if their institutions refused to acknowledge this fact. A poor educational performance and broken English are excuses often used to make students feel like “others” when they make it into the universities that reserve a percentage of seats for Dalit applicants. These criteria are also used to oppose affirmative action, on the grounds that they lower collective merit.

Indian stories’ routine erasure of caste, a defining axis of Indian society, may be partly because of the difficulty of talking about complex social phenomena. After all, not every story needs to be rooted in social realism. But a contributing factor is the history of the conflation of caste and class in India, stemming from their interchangeable use by the country’s former leaders and colonizers. The word Dalit, which translates to “depressed,” originated from the colonial term “depressed classes” and was used by the British to describe the “desperately poor and downtrodden.” It was then used to refer to the untouchable castes from the early 20th century.

“Class” was renewed for a second season within a month of its release, catapulting its good-looking Gen-Z-next-door cast to fame. It received rave reviews for its diverse cast and staunchly intersectional storytelling, but was also criticized for lacking nuance, trying to take on too much and being over-the-top. Is it really that bad out there, some seemed to ask, or have things been exaggerated to suit the story?

It is quite bad out there. Take the example of the Saba storyline, which has real-world precedents. When Saba joins the new school, her rich Hindu classmates jeer at her. As a result, the school principal advises her not to wear the hijab at school, and indeed Saba eventually drops the religious garment so that she can attend classes in peace and work toward winning a prestigious scholarship. If this seems too dramatic, the experience is rooted in India’s political and social realities. In 2022, nationwide protests were sparked after Muslim girls in the southern state of Karnataka were restricted from entering their schools and colleges for wearing the hijab. Counterprotests from Hindu nationalists followed; they stormed classrooms and restricted girls from entering. In one interview conducted by Newslaundry, an independent media outlet, a Brahmin schoolgirl admitted that the hijab alerts her to how someone is “different” from her, and may affect her decision to be friends.

While Saba and her family represent the alienation that Muslims face on a daily basis in present-day India, they also show the increasingly contentious position held by Kashmiri Muslims. In Indian cinema, they have often been portrayed as militants, and the recent film “Kashmir Files” fanned this sentiment. The film portrayed Kashmiri Muslims as responsible for the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits, who fled the valley in an exodus in 1990. Thus, when “Class” showed a typical Kashmiri Muslim family feeling like outsiders because of their identity — an amalgamation of their class, religion and region — it made a statement of a kind rarely seen on Indian screens.

Meanwhile, Saba’s brother Faruq and her classmate Dhruv portray the hidden lives led by India’s queer and gay communities. When it is discovered that Faruq is a drug dealer, his parents are appalled and force him to marry a girl of their choice, displaying a common attitude of South Asian parents who think marriage can reform young men. Meanwhile, when Dhruv’s father finds out about his sexuality, he is distraught, and his mother insists her son is just going through a phase. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in India in 2018 and social attitudes have yet to catch up: Coming out to Indian families involves great internal and interpersonal conflict, even ostracization. Only now is India’s supreme court debating same-sex marriage, and the arguments against it from the Union government and Bar Council of India reveal the misinformed, almost abusive views that are prevalent about queer communities in India.

The post-millenium rise of anti-caste resistance in India through social media and independent cinema has contributed to a caste consciousness among today’s millennial and Gen-Z Indians, many of whom are now reckoning with their caste privilege. In modernized and globalized polite society, where the social need of the hour is to “check your privilege,” young extremely online Indians are hyperaware of not only these fault lines but also the social mores of talking about them. But they are often called out for their “woke” hot takes disguised as allyship, especially if they come without real concessions that challenge the systems being criticized.

That is also why “Class” stands out from the earlier stories that have attempted to tackle caste. Its self-awareness and even mockery of its privileged characters expose how little their lives change and how tone-deaf their efforts can be. For instance, when a teacher at Hampton asks the students to interview a peer on video, keeping in mind the sociocultural differences of “class, caste, poverty, luxury,” Suhani — possibly the most considerate of the privileged lot — visits Dheeraj’s shanty for the project. But as soon as she enters, she instinctively blurts out the insult, “I didn’t know you were running an underwear shop!” Yashika, a student more nakedly narcissistic in her pursuit of academic achievement, laughingly admits that the problems of the marginalized are suitable only for social media and trending hashtags. Veer, an angry young man who develops a conscience over the course of the series, realizes that “nobody in the school values their privilege.”

“Class” doesn’t stop at revealing these dark, selfish sides of its privileged characters. It also provides glimpses into the situations they arise from, proving that the show has nuance, maybe even heart. Veer is torn between wanting to be the ideal son to his corrupt businessman father and his desire to be a better person for Saba. A lonely Yashika pursues academic achievement and social media fame in a bid to get the validation she does not receive from her divorced and distant parents. Suhani’s hedonism with drugs and boys is humanized when we see the history of mental illness and family dysfunction they stem from.

Younger people, often more aware of their mental health, have to deal with families who don’t always understand them, as well as an increasingly complicated world, whose glaring problems can feel impossible to solve. The resultant moral vacuum is easily filled through distractions such as social media and achievement, which make people feel as though they’re contributing to society even when they remain in their own bubble. One look at Instagram reveals this paradoxical culture. Teenagers from South Delhi and South Bombay — the posher neighborhoods of the Indian metropolises — dress up like characters from “Euphoria” for house parties, while also sharing memes about how busy and mentally ill they are, along with posts tagging #DalitLivesMatter.

The biggest achievement of “Class,” however, is perhaps its ironic, kitschy tone in addressing these difficult truths. Instead of vilifying the privileged or glorifying the victimized, it spares no one. The revolutionary fighting caste discrimination is willing to steal; the idealistic religious girl gives into peer pressure and parties; the queer couple are ruthlessly separated; and even the rich, mean kids succumb to kindness and love. Everyone starts to seem human, with lives dictated more by buffoonery and circumstance than by active malice.

What may initially feel like overt aggressions or one-dimensional characters, set up to make a point about the state of affairs in India, later come across more as part of the show’s explicit intention, meant to cement just how much the personal is political. “Class” straddles both with style, managing to draw sharp, critical attention to multiple systemic issues, but without bitterness.

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