Something is not right at River Isaac School of Education (RISE), a private boarding school in the hills. Twelve-year-old Shakti Salgaonkar’s dorm-mates wake up to his vacant bed; his teachers note his empty bench. The news spreads. Over the course of the day, speculations of mischief morph into the dread of disappearance. Shakti (Vir Pachisia) is declared missing. His mother is summoned from the city; the principal takes over. One by one, the characters in this developing story come into view. Each is neck-deep in personal problems. The middle-aged housemaster, Sam (Aamir Bashir), is reluctant to involve the police; he is visibly not the guardian the institution hired him to be. The new counselor, Nandita (Nimrat Kaur), gently interrogates Shakti’s friends and seniors. A caregiver to a sick father, she hesitates to commit to a potential partner. Shakti’s 17-year-old seniors, Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat), are involved in illicit activities; they are being blackmailed by a local who knows the skeletons in their closet. This local is the gardener named Bhola (Nitin Goel), a drug dealer whose own son, Chanchal (Divyansh Dwivedi), spent his evenings with Shakti.
At first glance, School of Lies is a typically solid whodunit. A small-town mystery invites scrutiny onto a place of learning. Suddenly, all those carefully crafted walls of education and care are in danger of crumbling. Everybody and nobody is beyond suspicion, but not always for the crime at hand. The case of a missing child becomes a smokescreen. It triggers a closer look at a cyclical culture of deception, abuse, loneliness, toxic authority and mental health. Where Shakti is – or what happens to him – becomes secondary to the deeply entrenched darkness that shaped him. The weather reflects the mood: The mist conceals some secrets, the rain washes away some sins. A few early signs tease this intrigue. While eating dinner, Nandita is seen enjoying Barfi! (2012), a Hindi film whose whimsy is activated by the case of a kidnapped girl; the plot features an adult conspiracy, an empathetic cop and a deaf-mute protagonist (a metaphor for the school’s silence and complicity). A boy is seen practicing Moonlight Sonata, a piece of music Beethoven is said to have composed as a tribute to his 16-year-old student and lover – a possible nod to the track of a RISE professor in an affair with two 17-year-old students.
Like the people in it, though, there’s more to this series than meets the eye. The kids are more than alright, the visual language is on point, the pace is perfect, but it’s the intricate writing that soon takes centerstage. As the investigation cedes space to the complexity of a human drama, the dual meaning of its title emerges. (‘Class of Lies,’ for instance, might have played the disappearance of a privileged boy against that of his poor pahadi friend). As it were, ‘School of Lies’ is not just about a literal school replete with lies, lapses and moral conflicts. ‘School of Lies’ also refers to the social anatomy of lying. It delves into the most fundamental nature of the act by posing two questions: What is a lie? Why do we lie? The two are so related that a venn diagram would depict a circular arrow-flow between them. The first question is rooted in how the “School” in the title actually alludes to a tier-wise nurturing of lies. Like an institutional hierarchy of sorts, where one age of lying progresses and graduates to the next (st)age. The stringent rules and proximity of society ensure that failing a grade is rarely an option.
The smallest – or youngest – are the most innocent kind of lies. They’re the harmless fictions told by primary schoolers like Shakti to impress each other, escape themselves or hand-craft their own bubbles of fantasy. Flashbacks imply that Shakti is a topper in this standard of lying. He sweet-talks seniors, cooks up stories, earns the distrust of other house-mates, and lies about his mother’s cooking. In one scene, Shakti watches an interview of a teenage mountaineer and her father, and instantly detects that the man’s softness is a performance for the camera; “he’s strict behind closed doors,” he quips. Similarly, Shakti’s bunkmate Murli lies to his friends about having spotted Shakti on the night before he disappeared. Like most kids his age, Murli doesn’t expect to be found out – until Shakti’s frantic mother demands to know more. Chanchal also cites a silly superstition – what is mythology but the fiction we create to cope with life? – to stop Shakti from urinating on a tree. When the kids’ dorm is raided, the seniors find snacks, lighters, magazines, chocolates and the most heinous seventh-grader lie: Water-balloon condoms.
Vikram and his ilk typify a more serious syllabus of lying. Theirs is a higher grade, where lying is a form of subsistence, hope and agency. Beyond the drug-soaked outings, themes like masculinity, rebellion, microaggression, sexual identity and peer pressure make up most of their chapters. One of them is gay, but remains the only student with a (frustrated) girlfriend. Another is having a torrid tryst with a teacher, and without realizing it, gravitates towards an adult survivor of sexual abuse. Another makes a grave mistake and fears the threat to his vast future. Another tries to blackmail a faculty member into giving him the money he needs to save himself. They bully the juniors – basking in the glory of being the “Old Boys” of RISE – to regain a waning command over their lives. Stolen cigarettes and alcohol are their default level. Towards the end, a character who comes through a life-or-death ordeal asks a girl if she’d like a beer stashed away in his ‘secret fridge’. It’s a cute but telling scene, almost like he’s reclaimed the chastity of teenage lying before it’s too late. Yet, he’s also living a heterosexual lie for his parents – he was always in love with a boy from school.
At the top of the pyramid are haunted adults like Sam and Nandita. The lies that define them have turned them into either monsters or ghosts. Both are products of a scarring childhood. Both have lingering scenes where they’re alone with teen students, moments that are designed to go either way. But only one of them refuses to break the chain of oppression – passing the lies down to the students, ‘educating’ them and infecting them with fresher scars. Even the better ones are not immune to collusion, projecting their own rage and redemption onto the students they end up rescuing. It’s a zero-sum life, too advanced for second chances and too wounded for closure. No matter what they do, it’s the kids who will ultimately bear the brunt of their trauma.
Which brings us to the second question: Why do we lie? There’s no clear-cut reason, of course, but School of Lies offers a brilliant psychological flowchart of our times. The short answer is: Because the truth is distant and unsparing. The show’s reading of generational trauma is an updated version of Gehraiyaan – where the present is an imminent victim of the past. There is no running away from time and tide. Inevitably, all the isolation and messiness of these characters stem from dysfunctional families and childhood abuse. An early scene hints at the inheritance of pain. The camera closes in on a chicken pecking at pieces of fried egg. The boy watching this asks his friend in a pensive tone: “Do you think the chicken knows she’s eating her own child?” Which is to say, every parent and elder in the show is responsible for what their children have become. Shakti’s single mother (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), unlike the chicken, is not oblivious to the effect she’s had on his psyche. She is perpetually jittery, racked with guilt and shame, because she knows that her bitter divorce and love life have combined to make Shakti a liar older than his years. Vikram, too, resents his widowed mother (Sonali Kulkarni) for being evasive, and for turning him into the ‘man of the house’ at such a young age. Sam has a complicated equation with his older brother (Mohan Kapur), and Nandita blames her father (Uday Chandra) for not protecting her when it mattered the most. Even Bhola is trying to move on from a family tragedy. Everyone we see, then, is seeking refuge in an academy of lies because it’s the only way of controlling their own fate. It’s the only way they can lose on their own terms, in a culture that rewards losing oneself to the past.
The film-making does a fine job of conveying the gravity of these themes. Director Avinash Arun Dhaware (Paatal Lok) is a cinematographer by craft, but despite shooting in the hills, not once does he allow the horror atmospherics of the story to hijack its voice. The locations often look like they’re hiding and revealing information at once. The boarding school dynamics are spot on (Noblemen comes to mind), as are the bittersweet swipes at teacher-student ties. He also has a rare knack for directing children (Killa) and trusting their intelligence, as a result of which every young actor in this cast excels at their role. I like that the 12-year-olds mostly sprint from one spot to another; their nervous energy becomes a running detail, and a crucial part of the premise. Varin Roopani is terrific as Vikram, the leanness of his gait adding to the boy’s mercurial moods. But my favourite performance is Aryan Singh Ahlawat’s as Tapan, Vikram’s best friend who exudes heartbreaking tenderness in a space teeming with masculine expression. You can tell that he cares more for Vikram than the rumours swirling around them, and he doesn’t mind being the protagonist of their crisis-stricken bromance. The older actors – particularly Nimrat Kaur, Aamir Bashir and Jitendra Joshi (as Shakti’s father) – are just as competent. They seem to understand who they are in context of their surroundings. Consequently, their acting is loaded with the cumulative grief of being human.
The triumph of School of Lies, however, is that its own lying – otherwise known as storytelling – emerges from a sense of candour. This narrative subterfuge changes the way we process the heavy series. The commentary is never too obvious but also not too hidden until the final episode. The playful diversions inform our viewing experience. A ‘mission’ is mentioned to Shakti early on; someone jokes about selling him; the flashbacks don’t always feel like flashbacks; a trafficking sub-plot is not a distraction so much as a wake-up call to the cop (Hemant Kher). Perhaps the only shaky note is the police investigation; it flits in and out of sight, stuck in limbo, where it’s not clear if their presence amounts to any breakthrough.
But some of the red herrings go hand in glove with the characters and their predicaments. The timeline trickery, for example, echoes a child’s non-linearity of emotions. It’s a nice fusion of fact and fable, where the wilderness looks far more expansive and surreal than the bleak chaos of civilization. It says something about the staging that the most natural part of the story looks a bit supernatural. There are shades of Killa, not just in how kids look at time differently (where even a normal outing feels like an endless adventure), but also in the turmoil of a boy adjusting to an absent parent. Most of all, the last shot is beautifully framed. There’s a spotless face, a camera tracking in, the tragedy of truth, and an ambiguity that lies squarely between hope and despair. The next shot, we presume, might signal an end or a beginning. Only, it’s hard to tell one from the other. After all, surviving a school of lies – life itself – is the same as succumbing to it.