School of Lies begins with the premonition of danger and unrest. A senior student has injured his toe, and his classmate helps him in the washroom. It is evident that this occurs quite late at night- the school corridors, hallways, and even the washroom is empty. So when, a junior catches them inside, he is instantly seen as a threat. This is how the new Disney + Hotstar show School of Lies, created by Avinash Arun Dhaware wants its audience to navigate the story, with a sense of intrigue and suspense enmeshed into the proceedings. Does it succeed? Patience is key, as the case rests in this 8 episode-long series that you will have to survive to know. (Also read: Scoop review: Hansal Mehta sets the bar high in one of the best shows of the year)
A child goes missing
Set in the fictional location of Dalton Town in the hills, School of Lies takes place in the private boarding school named River Isaac School of Education (RISE). The next day, it is reported that 12-year-old Shakti Salgaonkar (Vir Pachisia) has been absent from all the classes, and is soon declared missing. This incident branches out to develop several connecting threads. Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat), the two boys who were in the washroom the earlier night clearly know something, but they are careful not to shred an iota of fear. Resident housemaster, Sam (Aamir Bashir), reluctantly calls the cops. Shakti’s mother Trisha (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) arrives. Meanwhile, the school counselor Nandita (Nimrat Kaur) begins to interact with Shakti’s friends in her chamber. Then there’s the school gardener Bhola (Nitin Goel) whose son Chanchal (Divyansh Dwivedi) was seen with Shakti a month ago his disappearance. As the scrutiny begins, secrets begun to unspool. Or so you would imagine.
The fundamental template of School of Lies is to tell a story about neglect, loneliness, abuse and mental health that begins at a young age- but through the prism of suspense and intrigue. The question is, do I provide my viewer with the chance to create their own opinion through a position of reserve, or do I imply on certain conclusions without really trying to ask why? School of Lies, unfortunately falls on the latter end of this argument. It is in fact, not interested in what happens to Shakti, rather creating the mystery surrounding him like a narrative scapegoat to prioritize negligence, abuse, and trauma of the people involved. From the first episode itself, the doubt falls on Vikram and TK, and there is no enigma left when the truth finally reveals itself. It was predictable miles ago. That’s not the point- the show reasons. Then, it goes on to show in elaborate detail what happened to Shakti and the consequences of that horrifying act. There was no point in spoon-feeding the audience either.
The narrative intrigue
Leaving no turns to absorb the beauty and terror of the hills that surrounds the school, Avinash Arun shoots and frames his characters with sincerity and poise. Unfortunately the sights and sounds do not translate in providing any context to the story. There’s a rootlessness with which the overlong and repetitive School of Lies operates- the school might as well be located somewhere near the railway station to employ the sound of tracks. It would make no difference. The angle of the local child who accompanies Shakti- which we follow in a parallel track with the story in present time, is shockingly left incomplete. An illicit affair also comes forward, but School of Lies clearly is not interested in asking the questions and understanding the helplessness of these characters. They are given half-baked dialogues and told to talk in a solemn tone, sprinkled with occasional dramatic bursts and moments of teary-eyed confessions. The burden of these cliché-ridden theatrics fall most on the shoulders of Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, as the mother of the missing child who doesn’t know where to look and whom to ask. There’s no one to blame really, most of the people seem clueless and bereft of any intelligence in the first place.
Then there’s Nimrat Kaur’s counselor asking unnecessary questions like do the students face bullying if they break the rules. No, they get badges of honour. The police warns that in most kidnapping cases the child is not found again. Their only job in School of Lies is to appear with a bunch of questions when someone looks tired enough with the constant interrogation, and then disappear. The later episodes struggle to maintain any control over the ever widening narrative loopholes. For starters, how is no one from the police team able to track the gardener even after getting to know that his son was seen with Shakti? What happened to the blackmailing gambit? Where are the children who were found hidden in the shed? No evidences were found from the security cameras? Why throw in a manipulative queer angle in the mix? School of Lies makes a good case for trauma dumping, without an iota of sensitivity and nuance. The more questions you ask, the more it becomes bitter.
By the end, School of Lies reminded me of Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s haunting film Loveless. There, a missing child case draws back to his separated parents, and in turn presents a bleak portrait of a nation seething mercilessly with anger. School of Lies could have benefitted with some of that awareness and foreboding as a parable for an increasingly selfish society.
School of Lies released on Disney+ Hotstar on June 2.