Adhura Series Review: A Ghoulishly Bad Boarding-School Horror Show

The show, starring Ishwak Singh and Rasika Dugal, is streaming on Prime Video
Adhura Series Review: A Ghoulishly Bad Boarding-School Horror Show

Directors: Ananya Banerjee, Gauravv K. Chawla

Writer: Ananya Banerjee

Cast: Ishwak Singh, Rasika Dugal, Shrenik Arora, Rahul Dev, Poojan Chhabra

A little Kubrick stare goes a long way. The head lowered, eyes peering upwards stance (used to denote insanity in Stanley Kubrick's movies) is overused to the point of exhaustion in AdhuraEach of the horror show’s seven episodes feature multiple shots of a child staring grimly at its targets, a recurring image that aims to conjure scares, but just comes across as silly. Not that there’s much else that’s frightening in this series, an anti-bullying public service announcement that staggers towards its ‘the real ghouls were us all along’ conclusion with all the lethargy of a reanimated corpse shuffling its way down a corridor.

Set at the Nilgiri Valley School in Ooty, Adhura largely flips between two timelines – 2007, in which the school’s dean is found dead; and 2022, in which the batch of 2007 returns for their 15th reunion and finds themselves stalked by a supernatural presence. It’s the second series this year, after School of Liesto examine the horrors of a boarding-school experience, but where the Disney+ Hotstar show was a thoughtful exploration of what its characters were haunted by, Adhura’s blunt focus is on more literal spectres.

School of Lies was deeply unnerving because of the bleak reality it painted – the many ways in which children come into the world pre-burdened with the weight of their parents' grief, their failings and their sadness. In that show, a child ran away, but it was his father who left first. The series also pinpointed how the same insular nature of a community could turn isolating for outsiders looking for answers, but in Adhura, the fog that shrouds a school’s secrets appears only as a cosmetic effect. This is a show that relies so much on crafting an overall atmosphere of tension – foley effects of bones cracking, a child bolting upright in bed at night, a shadow reflected on a metal glass, jump scares, ominous whispers, flickering lights – that any interiority is relegated to second place.

Ishwak Singh and Rasika Dugal in Adhura.
Ishwak Singh and Rasika Dugal in Adhura.

All the characters are more ‘types’ than they are fully formed people. One man's personality boils down to his anxiety issues. "Usse anxiety hai," the characters remind us repeatedly. Another is a failed actor. A female classmate feels eclipsed by her husband's societal standing. For members of the 2007 batch, adulthood is so relentlessly unsatisfying – stalled careers, stagnant marriages – that they cling to the past. They talk and behave like they’re in a state of suspended childhood. A teacher, Adhiraj Jaisingh (Ishwak Singh), is scared to sleep without the lights on – a fear that children outgrow. A murderer describes his targets as “hungry monsters”, a phrase more likely to be used by someone much younger. Adolescent rejection becomes a possible motive for a revenge plot. But even the flashbacks, shot in soft-focus, reveal that their childhood was defined by scars and spats.

When the characters later say they spent the last 15 years thinking about each other, it doesn’t ring true because we’ve only been privy to their bad blood. The camera isn’t interested in them beyond their conflicts. Who are they outside of the events that happened to them more than a decade ago? They exist only to prod and punish each other. Even those barbs, however, aren’t scripted well – when characters who know each other this intimately spar, it should achieve the effect of old bruises being poked at with the accuracy of someone able to locate exactly where the wound is. Instead, their taunts are just a flat series of cliches.

Children and horror movies have long been an obvious pairing, either as an easy appeal to emotion when they’re placed in situations of strife, or as a means of unnerving the audience by juxtaposing the innocence of their cherubic faces with their capacity to inflict pain. In Adhura, however, the Kubrick-staring child (Shrenik Arora) is a passive observer in his own life, with no discernible personality of his own and no agency over his actions.

Adhura Series Review: A Ghoulishly Bad Boarding-School Horror Show
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There are moments in which Adhura plays with time well, capturing what it feels like to let the years slip through your fingers, to show up to a place 15 years on and discover how that version of it only exists in your memory. At the same time, flashbacks and match cuts convey just how little human nature changes over time. But for a series revolving around a homecoming of sorts, the show meanders, not in any hurry to get to its end point. It manages to feel both slight and bloated, laying out its straightforward premise, then being agonizingly slow to connect the dots. The ghost toys with the characters in drawn-out sequences instead of just killing them outright. There are several near-death experiences, none of them inventively staged or shot despite the abundance of locations and setups the vast school grounds provide.

Despite this being a show in which the characters explicitly acknowledge and experience the supernatural, they remain oblivious when it comes to piecing together the larger puzzle. Enough is revealed, in bits and parts, to let the audience fill in the gaps by themselves, to resolve the mystery alongside the characters, but the show insists on handholding. It drops viewers into lengthy flashback sequences that do little but except pad the runtime. Fifteen years pass over the course of Adhura, but every episode feels like an eternity.

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