School of Lies-DisneyHotstar

School of Lies review: Uncovering harrowing truths about trauma among boarders

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In more ways than one, School of Lies, an eight-episode Disney+ Hotstar mystery thriller series created by Ishani Banerjee and Avinash Arun Dhaware, exists to respond to a template. Similar to the wave of true crime, Indian creators seem to now be hedging their bets on narratives about teen angst, loneliness, and euphoria that has turned the complicated struggles of being a student in modern India into a trope overnight.

The protagonists of these shows aren’t just characters, rather they also tasked with being a representation of the cyclical ills that plague society, right from casteism and class privilege to sexual abuse and repressed masculinity.

Mysterious disappearance, hidden secrets

In its form, School of Lies is cut from the same cloth as shows like Kota Factory, Mismatched, and Laakhon Mein Ek, but it most resembles Class — Netflix’s latest hit — in both scope and intent. Like Class, School of Lies is concerned with peeling off the layers of civility, invested instead in laying bare uncomfortable truths about the trauma that most students end up confronting in one of the most formative periods of their life.

These two shows lie at the other end of the conventional language of teen narratives, eschewing the bubblegum optimism that accompanies coming-of-age with a harrowed tone of distrust, one that implicates progressive educational institutions as sites of assault and unrest.

On paper, it sounds like an arresting proposition. Set in a fictional hilly town of North India, the plot of School of Lies revolves around Shakti (Vir Pachisia), a 12-year-old student who suddenly goes missing from River Isaac School of Education (RISE), a prestigious private boarding school. It is this disappearance that prompts a closer view of the skeletons stacked up in the closets of the adults tasked with protecting the kids from the world.

Parallel tracks run alongside the central whodunit, shaping it into a blistering character study of the monsters that come alive inside people behind closed doors and the lengths that they have to go to rescue themselves from their own past.

Haunted adults at the boarding schools

Over the course of eight episodes, each running under 40 minutes, the writers chart an enthralling portrait of the show’s personality, investigating the tragedy in the foreground with the origins lurking in the background.

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There is a jittery, middle-aged professor and guardian (Aamir Bashir) whose monstrosity arises from victimhood. There are two single mothers (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Sonali Kulkarni) who remain hostage to the language of masculinity that slowly breeds inside their sons. An empathetic career counselor (Nimrat Kaur) who takes to protecting kids as a way of rewriting her own lost childhood and a local drug-dealer (Nitin Goel) destined to remain in the lowest rungs of the class hierarchy irrespective of the leaps he keeps taking to bridge the power imbalances.

School of Lies is competent in setting up the machinations that come to form the crux of its story, in particular the bromance between Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat), two 17-year-old seniors who face the brunt of the boarding school’s generational breeding of haunted adults who struggle to reconcile their inner victims with their outer perpetrators.

School of Lies-Nimrat Kaur

It’s hard not to see Dhaware as a natural choice to helm the series given the filmmaker’s experience with directing kids in Killa (2014), his sensational debut feature. Even here, the director, who also lenses the show, manages to bring an effortless authenticity into the show’s worldbuilding that places the anxieties of its teen protagonists right at the centre.

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Dhaware shows the advantages of a director-cinematographer combination by setting scenes with both narrative and visual cohesion. Despite having the geographical setting of the hills at his disposal, the filmmaker resists over-utilizing the scenery to lend an atmospheric quality to the show, tapping instead into the silences and lies that consume weak minds and hurt souls.

A crisis of imagination and invention

At the same time, it is almost impossible to not feel that Dhaware’s efforts and voice are hijacked by the narrow-mindness of the show’s writing. It’s a feeling I came away with even in terms of the performances by the ensemble cast that exist somewhere between melodrama and manipulation.

Most of it seemed a tad too emotionally and narratively staged to be taken seriously. In that, I wish the show was more thoughtful in the way it went about implementing and executing its ideas of toxic masculinity, alienation, and the horrors of child sexual abuse on screen.

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By which I mean that the limp storytelling of School of Lies feels like a crisis of imagination and invention, a dishonest vehicle preoccupied with reducing the complexities of trauma and assault into bite-sized, hammy reflections of the toxic inheritance of masculinity. The writing is content with taking leaps to its desired conclusion while the show’s dull dialogue and background score takes the spoon feeding route, hampering the plot to develop on its own.

Perhaps that’s why I’m hesitant to read the show as a portrait of generational trauma simply because it extrapolates the idea of assault as a means to an end, exploiting it as both justification and conclusion to hint at the connection between absent parents and assaulted kids. Of late, there seems to be a renewed interest in dissecting the contours of mental health and sexual abuse in narratives, a trend that is worrying given the near-frequent surface-level depiction of assault and victimhood.

To my mind, School of Lies feels no different: it is the kind of show that offers an illusion of neutrality, of not labelling victims and perpetrators with two different strokes as a way of trickery. But what it does instead is this: it parades clear ideas of hero and villain while leaving narrative gaps wherever convenient. This is the kind of a show that demands you to feel a certain way just because it can.

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