When writer Ishani Banerjee started contacting people who had either been to boarding schools in the past or are currently studying as boarders, one detail eventually came up in practically every conversation. “They had some wonderful experiences to share and it was amazing to hear those but with 99.9%, there were some instances of abuse and bullying which still have a very deep and profound impact on them and on their lives,” said Banerjee. These memories and stories would become integral to the Disney+ Hotstar show School of Lies, created by Banerjee and Avinash Arun Dhaware. “Avinash had shot at a boarding school in Shimla and he wanted to do something in the boarding school space,” said Banerjee. “I was very interested in doing a story from the perspective of the perpetrator,” she said.
Directed by Arun, who is also the show’s cinematographer, School of Lies exposes the rotting, beating heart of oppression, repression and power hierarchies through the story of a missing student at an elite boarding school. When Shakti Salgaonkar’s (Vir Pachisia) goes missing, it takes some time for the teacher-in-charge, Samuel “Sam” Singh (Aamir Bashir) to notice. When the students and Sam can’t find Shakti, there’s no option but to let the police inside the school. During the investigation into Shakti’s case, the school is plunged further into scandal when two students accuse Sam of sexual abuse. Understated, brooding and powered by some extraordinary performances (particularly by the child actors), School of Lies is one of the most beautiful and well-made of this year’s streaming shows so far. “I think I keep gravitating towards — I don’t want to use ‘dark stories’ because it’s the most clichéd thing I keep hearing — but I kind of do gravitate towards a certain intensity,” said Banerjee, whose previous projects include the film Aligarh (2015) and the web series Human (also on Disney+ Hotstar).
Film Companion asked Banerjee to talk about three scenes from School of Lies that are special to her for different reasons. Warning: There are spoilers ahead.
This scene takes place after two students, Vikram (Varin Roopani) and TK (Aryan Singh Ahlawat), find themselves in desperate need of scoring a large amount of cash and decide to blackmail Sam in order to get the money. TK threatens to reveal Sam has been in a sexual relationship with him and Vikram. However, when they go to meet him, instead of giving them the money, Sam takes the boys to his elder brother Alden (Mohan Kapur), who happens to be an old boy of the school. Alden beats the boys to pulp, and threatens to ruin not just their lives but also their families’ prospects if they go public with their allegations.
"I think that scene is one of the most pivotal scenes of the show because of the dynamics that are playing out. Number one: That place. It’s the ‘Ghost Alley’, it’s where Shakti would meet his friend … it’s a place of adventure and unfortunately, it’s also a place of misadventure. We also realise [through this scene] that there is also some trauma attached to Sam Sir. He was probably bullied by his elder brother Alden at the same place. … This scene was also very very personal to me. When I was in my college days, something had happened to one of us and it was a bad incident of abuse, which I had not processed for a very long time. When we were writing the story and we got to this point, I knew that I have to go to that space, to access the memory of something that I have kind of erased, but it exists — which is why I’m writing a whole show around it now! … It was very hard, just the writing of that scene was very hard. I remember when I was writing it, and Avinash had read it, he was very moved. He read it and he’s like, ‘Oh my god, you took it there’.”
“These kids can very much go to their families and get the cops involved [to report Alden]. Unfortunately, they can’t because they’ve done something horrible themselves. So they don’t have the choice anymore. They’re kind of stuck, they’re helpless. At the same time, there’s a guy [Sam] standing there who is party to this, but who is probably not wanting to be party to this. … For Alden, there is nothing else he can do because he understands how the world works, he knows that his younger brother is weak. He has abused his younger brother, but at the same time it’s that classic abuser complex — ‘only I can abuse my younger brother, he’s mine to abuse and he’s mine to save.’ … This is the reason they’ve stayed together. They are in this twisted toxic equation where the abuser is also your saviour. You really don’t know what to feel about Alden anymore, especially because he’s someone from the family, which is what happens to a lot of people.”
With a police case underway in which Vikram is a person of interest, Vikram’s family — his mother (played by Sonali Kulkarni) and his brother — move to the town in which the boarding school is located. Vikram invites the school’s counsellor, Nandita (Nimrat Kaur) over for dinner. She is the only one who knows his terrible secret and has some idea of what really happened to Shakti.
“There’s the counsellor Nandita who’s sitting on one side and Vikram’s mother. And Vikram has cooked the food. So there’s also this home dynamic that kind of plays out because it’s not the mother who’s cooking, but the son who’s cooking. …Nandita has made that very difficult choice of actually keeping her mouth shut and really believing that maybe this boy deserves a chance. Because the young boy (Shakti) is gone. But there’s a young man here who has his entire life. It’s in front of her that this scene plays out so she becomes privy to what is happening in this household. She’s witness to the inherent violence in that household. It’s a very very powerful place to be in.”
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘So in your story, Vikram gets away’. … For me, the answer is always that, ‘Hey, this is not a guy who gets away. Just look at the dynamic he’s stuck in.’ … This cycle of repression and release [that Vikram is stuck in] will keep continuing and crumble this boy who is Vikram. Just look at when it comes to his younger brother, he is far more aggressive than Vikram. So you can see that the anger has actually passed down to his brother.”
“The way Avinash frames that scene is so important. You hear the brothers fighting, first you see them a little, then you can hear the brothers fighting and Nandita, who can’t take it anymore, she just kind of rushes to them. Because that is who she is essentially — she is somebody who will rush. But it’s the mother who just sits there with her food. She knows. She knows so much more. She probably even knows that Vikram has done something, which he was not supposed to do. This anger cannot be healthy, and it is so toxic. It’s such a stuck environment. But she herself is also not able to come out of it because sometimes, it’s not possible for every person to be so strong.”
“Nandita is someone who had to get stronger to deal with her father’s sickness which is why she is still someone who can talk about what happened to her. But Vikram’s mother cannot. So the way Avinash framed it, that quiet moment, that defeated quiet moment… you realise through his mother that it is not a victory for Vikram. That is not the way the character is written. He doesn’t really get away with anything. Whether he is found guilty or not guilty, this is it. … Whatever you may have felt for Vikram, you also feel that at the end of the day, he’s also at the end of the day a 17-year-old boy.”
The show ends with a shot of Shakti’s friend Chanchal, sitting by a body of water, lost in thought. All around him is mist and silence. In the present, Chanchal is missing and unlike the rallying of resources to find Shakti, few have even noticed Chanchal’s absence. Chanchal is the one of two people who knows what ultimately happened to Shakti. We don’t know if the police will figure out the truth behind Shakti’s disappearance. We don’t know if Chanchal will be found. Instead, we have the memory of Shakti’s mother, begging VIkram to tell her what happened to her son, and the silences surrounding Chanchal in the past and the present.
“Somehow the last scene, the ending of the series, was also the actual last scene that we shot. … The impact of that place was very, very poetic in its own sense. It was very misty, it was raining, it was very quiet. I think there was general fatigue and exhaustion had seeped in. But there was also this kind of feeling that ‘Ok, we have done something magical probably and it’s over now. We are done.’ So whatever it is, we are also liberated from it.”
“When you carry the weight of a show on you for a long time, the weight of an idea, then getting that executed, it’s a lot to carry. We all felt lighter. We felt that much heavier and lighter at the same time. So I think that also kind of translates into the character of Chanchal. … When he was sitting there, alone, in that place, and the way Avinash just framed the shot, everybody just went quiet. There was this absolute silence of 100 people, not a whisper. I think it was just so spiritual because we were all so happy. I’m still getting goosebumps when I talk about it. We were so happy, sad, everything at the same time. It was so, so magical. To be a part of that kind of a making, it’s just incredible."
“So I’d written some lines earlier [for Chanchal]. We removed every one of them. We realised we don’t have to give him any lines. We don’t have to do anything. We just have to be with him, with that feeling of his. I said, ‘Let’s get rid of all these lines, words whatever.’ Avinash used to laugh that the two of us, we have worked so hard on this but we were the first ones to throw scenes away. But in that scene, there’s so much silence around us, why do we need any words? Let’s just stay quietly with Chanchal and this moment.