From Killa to School of Lies: Avinash Arun’s Filmography of Empathy

The director of Three of Us, School of Lies, Paatal Lok and Killa has emerged as one our most sensitive storytellers.
From Killa to School of Lies: Avinash Arun’s Filmography of Empathy
From Killa to School of Lies: Avinash Arun’s Filmography of Empathy

In the final scene of School of Lies, director Avinash Arun leaves the viewer with a scene that is shrouded in beauty and melancholy. By now, we know what has happened to little Shakti, whose disappearance sparks scandal and brings a police investigation into an elite boarding school. We also know that the systems that are in place do more to perpetuate cycles of violence, rather than help those who are victimised. Rather than ending the show with either Shakti or ones responsible for his disappearance, Arun settles upon Chanchal, the boy who lives and remembers. While the other players of School of Lies move on with their lives, Chanchal sits in silence, haunted by what he knows, the unspeakable truth that he can’t unsee. Around him is the misty forest, blue as a mood, still as breath held in, and shadowed with secrets.

Of the many qualities that make School of Lies one of the best shows of 2023 — it’s got a solid plot, thanks to Arun and writer Ishani Banerjee, and magnificent acting performances by the likes of Varin Roopani and Aamir Bashir — Arun’s ability to weave storytelling into his visual detailing is perhaps what holds School of Lies together. Every frame is beautiful, but the aesthetics aren’t simply decorative. They help to convey character, mood and even information. With director and cinematographer Avinash Arun behind the camera, nothing is ever just a pretty picture. 

Avinash Arun.
Avinash Arun.

This has been true of Arun’s work as a director over the past decade, notably Killa (2015), Paatal Lok and Three of Us (2023). Having branched into direction by chance, Arun has emerged as one of our most gifted and sensitive storytellers, with a particular talent for bringing out fantastic performances from child actors. 

Who’d have thunk this director would also count among Animal’s fans? 

In an interview with Film Companion, Arun spoke about the themes of his work, how he picked up directing, arriving at a level of security in the craft he pursues, and why he thinks Animal is a “special” film. The edited excerpts are below:

Film Companion (FC): Avinash, I’m told you loved Animal. Tell me what you found compelling.

Avinash Arun (AA): (laughs) Oh my god, you are directly shooting from there. Love, I mean, I don’t know. I felt a lot of things when I watched the film. You see, my definition of love is any kind of a feeling. The ability to feel anything (when you watch a film) is love, I think. There were many, many mixed emotions when I was watching the movie. I am still processing. It's quite a special film. Very rarely, a film makes you feel so much: The good, the bad, and the ugly. 

A still from 'Three of Us'.
A still from 'Three of Us'.

FC: What kind of emotional or intellectual shifts do you target when you write your work?

AA: I approach everything very emotionally. I think about what is the buoyant feeling, what emotion I locate when I am doing the work, and then on the basis of that I cut out my work to make the audience feel the same. I present it in front of them and if they relate to it, and the way they process it, the audience's reactions can vary, and not resonate the way you would think. But when they are feeling exactly how you would like to think about the work, I feel accomplished. Ultimately, cinema is a magic trick. You are showing something through the craft of technology, music. You put something out there, and it becomes an entity of its own.  

Avinash Arun and Shefali Shah.
Avinash Arun and Shefali Shah.

The person you are while you are making, and the person you become at the end of it, are two very different people. It feels like the story has gone through you, but it doesn't come from you. It has come from somewhere, and that thing has used you as a medium. It has a shape of its own. There are changes at every stage, and in the end, when you watch the film as a director, you wonder, “This is the film I wanted to make?” This happens every time. Which is why when people say good things about your work, it feels great, but I wonder, “Am I the same person who made that?” There is always an attachment-detachment game, I think. During the time we were making Killa (2015), this felt far more pronounced. I don’t know how that film got made. 

There is constant evolving, I am not sure if I should say “evolving” because that has bigger implications. It is a constantly changing scenario.

FC: I know Killa theatrically released in 2015, but it got its premiere a year before that. The next year will mark a decade since then. How do you make sense of its legacy?

AA: Two-three years post the release of the film, I would say it was all very dramatic. Maybe that's not the right way to put it: I was feeling a lot of things. I was not able to identify with the film. I did not have any plans to direct, but it had happened. I came to Mumbai to study cinematography, and explore that profession. But suddenly, this happened. There was a lot of love and appreciation, but I also found myself in a different frame of mind. The thing is, a filmmaker’s journey is different from what I had initially intended for myself. Cinematography is a craft which requires a certain expertise. When this film got made, I racked my brains about what to make next. People started recognising me too. They thought of me as this “brilliant filmmaker”, which was quite awkward for me. I had not planned that: It just happened to me. Which is why, I had nothing ready when it came to my next venture. 

Avinash Arun with the cast of the Three of Us.
Avinash Arun with the cast of the Three of Us.

I was very confused. I had a story, which I am still pitching to people. I still want to make that film. But, when I started working as a cinematographer, things started to make sense, like, how do I want to shoot, and what kind of stories I wanted to be a part of. As a cinematographer, it’s about someone else’s viewpoint, their expression. Even if you are not able to make it your own, at least try to get closer. I love that process. When Paatal Lok happened, I was ready for it. By that time, I had also realised, “Itni buri picture to nahi banayi thi (the film I made was not so bad)”. I had decided that if within five years a good project (pertaining to directing) comes my way, I would have made it as a filmmaker. Before Paatal Lok, I was offered shows and scripts, but nothing sort of clicked. When Sudeep came to me with Paatal Lok,  I realised I want to do this.

FC: What is so striking about School of Lies is how the beauty of the scene, and the characters in it, don’t spar for attention. As a cinematographer, can you take me through the intentionality there?

AA: I had understood a long time back that visuals come very naturally to me. This is the 22nd year I am working with the camera: I have worked for several years as someone assisting behind-the-scenes and with the camera. So I started very young, and think I am extremely comfortable with the camera. Most of the time, it monopolised my attention, and I used to wonder: “What is going on in this scene? What is supposed to happen? What is it supposed to make you feel? What is the tone of the performance?” 

I use this technical tool to tell stories, and I was aware that there are not always endless resources to tell stories, and you have to make do with what you have. With these limited resources, it was about what kind of expression, emotion you can put out there, and how  it can create a sort of wave. After stuffing the story with appropriate emotions, then you wonder what it does for the tone of the narrative. School of Lies shows the world of a boarding school. It was a very mystical experience for me. I went into a school in Shimla, and looked at how the kids were coping. They were all so small against the sprawling grounds of the school. That scared me. It made me apprehensive. So, I tried to bring the fear I was feeling more forward in the show. 

Long-format storytelling has its own rules. We wondered how to bring the personal in. There are so many different layers, characters. You have to mix all of them, and dignify every detail. The challenge was to take this outward looking formula, and make it personal. Whether I was able to do it or not, only the audience can tell me, but that was my intention. Visual, as you can see, is the last thing I think about. But the setting where the story is happening is very important. Cinema is all about time, space and matter. Matter is the people, the culture and the language. Time is about what the rhythm is. Cinematic time is different. It was a deliberate, and strategic choice to have this rhythm. 

The world is changing so fast. People are going for faster cuts. I am talking about the mainstream films here, not festival films. It's difficult to have slower rhythms in longer formats, so I think I am grateful it's something I got to do. 

FC: How do you flesh out the interiority of these school kids?

AA: I think, “This character is like this, and let me put myself in their place”. When you empathise, you might have a perspective on what tone you would like. I think all of the characters have valid points of view. No one wants to be bad, and it’s not the motivation they work from. Some line of truth emerges from empathising, a thread, and once you get a hold of that, something happens. And if the sound is able to exemplify the tone, that’s where we feel like, “Yeah, that was a good take”. Later on, there is the editing process, where you weed out what ends up not working. 

I would never say I will know for sure what I will end up making, I would also never say I don’t know what I am making. The truth is in the middle of this. 

Avinash Arun and Jaideep Ahlawat.
Avinash Arun and Jaideep Ahlawat.

FC: In both School of Lies, and Three of Us, assembling events and memories is part of the narrative process. Tell me about this impulse to investigate the past to excavate something new out of it in these stories. 

AA: I keep asking this question to myself, actually:  “Why do I keep going back to something? Why is this character going on a journey? Why do they want to escape from wherever they are?”

It has to do with current times, I suppose. You are not 100 percent aware of what is happening. There is constant restlessness and dissatisfaction with where you are, and you think you would rather be somewhere else. It is a condition of the human mind. It is a philosophical and existential question I think about, and through stories this can be explored. I am in the very initial stages of a career as a filmmaker, I feel. Whatever happens after this, you never know, the form might be different. From Killa to Paatal Lok is a very different kind of journey, whether it is about the genre, craft or ambition. And from Paatal Lok to Three of Us, it is very different in terms of time, space rhythm and what the characters are standing for. And again, from School of Lies, to Paatal Lok, that is also very different. 

My favourite filmmaker at the moment is Paul Thomas Anderson. He has hardly made a film about contemporary time and space. He always goes back in time, and I am extremely fascinated by it.

FC: You mentioned during the interview that it is a privilege to have the audience receive your work as you had intended it to be received. Has that happened for you yet?

AA: Yes, yes it has.

FC: Which work?

AA: All of them.

FC: All of them?!

AA: I won’t lie  — I am extremely grateful. 

FC: Do compliments about your work make you anxious? I got the sense that they worry you.

AA: Earlier, yes. Not anymore. Now, I know. I am on my seventh project as a director, so now I know more about myself. I don’t get anxious anymore, I feel motivated. I feel more confident. Fear, however, is a different thing. “Now with all the experience you have got, what is next?” — is what I think about. Fear related to that is definitely still there. But whether I can make a film or not, or whether I should make one or not, or what people think about me, I don't preoccupy myself with that anymore. 

I used to think about whether I would be taken seriously or not a lot. But at this point, I think it's fine whether people take me seriously or not. 

FC: What can we expect from you in 2024?

AA: I want to develop something I am excited about. I am not thinking about when it will get made. That anxiety is not there anymore. I want to give time to myself.

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