Scrolling through director and cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware’s Instagram account, you would get the sense that here is a man drawn to nature in an intense, almost predictable, way. There are various shades of green, branches in gorgeous swirls of twistedness, a tree cover that looks like arabesques, spits of blinding rani pink bougainvilleas, rolling mountains, pregnant clouds, and tree trunks like thick wooden pillars that shoot up to the sky. In between, there is an ode to Paul Thomas Anderson, whom Arun reverentially calls “master”.
“Nature is beautiful, but at the same time it is very cruel because it alienates you,” Arun said to Film Companion over an hour-long call. It is this alienation that he draws upon in School Of Lies, his eight-part web series on Disney+ Hotstar — Arun is the creator, director, and cinematographer — set in a boarding school in the hills, in the fictional Dalton Town.
Years ago, when Arun went to Shimla to shoot Nishikant Kamat’s Madaari (2016) and found himself looking at the old buildings, the 150-year old schools, the rolling carpets of mist, he experienced “a strange psychological vibe. The winter was alienating — the kind you feel in your later life when you sense melancholy. Now imagine children studying in this environment. How would they experience this alienation?”
When 12-year-old Shakti Salgaonkar (Vir Pachisia) goes missing from his school, the questions pile up. Is he dead? Has he taken off with his “pahadi dost” Chanchal (Divyansh Dwivedi)? While investigating, the skeletons jump out of the school’s cupboard. The housemaster Sam (Aamir Bashir) is suddenly on the radar. His sexual relationship with two students — Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat) — comes to the surface. The new counsellor Nandita (Nimrat Kaur) gets caught in a crossfire of confessions. Everyone is nursing unresolved pasts. For a show spluttering with events — both past and present — there is a strange, alluring stillness, the kind that draws you further into the show’s world, as opposed to keeping you at an arm’s length.
This inviting stillness has been Avinash Arun’s calling card, right from his first feature film Killa (2014) set in a verdant Konkan village; to Paatal Lok (2020), which he co-directed, set in the clogged gullies of Delhi; and his short film in the Unpaused (2020) anthology, set in an apartment in Mumbai. The camera digs its heels into a graceful repose. When it moves, it slides smoothly, panning as though lubricated. “I don’t want to intrude. I want to observe my protagonists. You invest in them by observing them, without forming any judgement,” Arun said, theorising his aesthetic.
This desire to not draw judgments through the camera or sound design feels provocative and profound. In the second episode, there is a shot of Sam on his bed. He is reading something. Next to him, languorously stretched out, shirtless, is his student, Vikram. The tone is gentle. There is no stench of violation — no sense of threat or tension. There is a longing in Vikram’s gaze, a slight jealousy. This is a brave choice, to frame what is legally child sexual abuse as problematic, but still tender.
“It is tender,” Arun emphasised. “I wanted to shoot it as normally, observationally. Vikram is under 18. But at the same time, it is not like he doesn’t know what he is doing. People lose their virginity at a young age. Is that right? Wrong? What will you say? Here, it is grey, obviously. This is why even Sam says, later, that he has scarred the two children. Because he is the adult here. He should have known. It is his guilt that eats him up.”
At some level it is frustrating to talk to Arun, because you wish you could observe him at work, instead. His artistry is the intuitive kind and doesn’t lend itself to easy, articulate explanations. You want to be able to hear what he tells his child actors that makes them perform so comfortably in front of the camera, to see how they react to space under his stewardship. You want to see the way he creates an atmosphere on set, the noise he allows, the chaos he excises, to give the actors the space to be. Ease, comfort, fluidity — these are things to be sensed rather than articulated.
In his conversation with actors, Arun insists that he privileges their experience over his expectations, “I tell them this, ‘This is the situation. What do you think about this? You tell me how you want to approach it. Has this happened to you? Have your friend’s faced this?’ and they open up, and understand. It is about what they feel, not what I want. Unless they experience the truth in that moment of acting, I will not see it,” said the director.
School Of Lies is a rare show where it is the children who feel more fleshed out than the adults. The adults, armed with articulate meltdowns and serrated eloquence, feel more postured. The children, in contrast, toe the line between innocence and knowingness, between being violated and being violators. It is a masterclass — sculpting children’s performances without patronising their intent.
Arun treats his locations the way he treats his actors — allowing them to emerge, without too much intervention on his part. Along with production designer Rajat Poddar, Arun spends a lot of time zeroing in on locations, so he can use the available light, with minimal set-up, “Agar ghanti nahin baji location pe jaake, toh vahan shoot nahin karunga. Voh ‘palat’ moment hona chahiye (if the location doesn’t strike a chord, I won’t shoot there. I need it to demand a second look),” he said, adding with a laugh, “Isse kya matlab nikaloge? (What will you make of this?)” He is right — his intuition is not something to be dissected in the service of explanations. It simply exists, secreting cinema and beauty. That is all.
“For me every image is a feeling,” said Arun, when asked if he worried that the beauty of his frames would undercut the emotional tone of a scene. “I don’t differentiate the beauty of an image from the rest.” Fittingly for a cinematographer, he is also aware that beauty can be false, and feel false. “We mistake beauty for truth. Those are different things. The image should be truthfully beautiful,” he said.
There is a lot about School Of Lies which smells of audacity, inherited from Arun: “I am the only audience I am catering to, ultimately. I am my audience.” This audacity is there in the language — a generous and seamless mix of English and Hindi, a generosity that gave the streaming platform some pause, worried the English might alienate their core audience. But Arun stood his ground. Himself a graduate of a Marathi-medium schooling, he only began to feel confident having conversations in English after graduating from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). He recognised that Hinglish is the truth of his story, and in School of Lies, he fought for his language.
The audacity is also there in the refusal to label time — when we see Shakti and Chanchal together, we do not know if it is in the present or the past, until it is clarified much later. There are details that are not explained, leaving it to the audience to decipher and imagine to the extent they need. This audacity is also there in the way the show ends, with unresolved knots, particularly for some key characters. Not incomplete, but unresolved; a subtle difference.
It is this lack of resolution which both Avinash Arun and co-creator Ishani Banerjee were clear about from the beginning. Arun realised that after the success of Paatal Lok, he had gained the confidence of streaming platforms. He used this confidence, gambling on his success to experiment, to tell the story the way he and Banerjee wanted. “I knew I would get one opportunity to take all the risks I wanted,” said Arun. “That is why I made School Of Lies.”