Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

When a 12-year-old boy goes missing from his boarding school, the search for the student sets off a series of incidents that uncover dark truths, buried secrets, and years of trauma afflicting those connected to the case.

Directed by Avinash Arun, the 2023 mystery “School of Lies” has been co-written by Ishani Banerjee, Nishant Agarwala, and Shoaib Nazeer. Set in a fictional hill-station called Dalton, the plot follows the disappearance of Shakti Salgaonkar (Vir Pachisia), an impish boy known to be a troublemaker. Shakti’s house-master and senior teacher, Samuel (Aamir Bashir), believes Shakti has simply run away from school, but the boy’s mother (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) asserts he must have been kidnapped. As the school falls under police scrutiny, two senior students, Vikram (Varin Roopani) and Tapan (Aryan Singh Ahlawat), begin to feel the heat as they are being blackmailed by a school staff member over their own secrets.

While the trailer for “School of Lies” reminded me of the 2018 boarding school-based film “Noblemen”, it turned out to be quite different from the latter, which heavily focused on bullying. Avinash Arun’s series instead delves into multiple themes, including an assortment of mental health issues, underage drug use, and abuse. Nimrat Kaur poignantly portrays a campus career counselor for students, who reaches out to all students who had any connection to Shakti in her efforts to help solve the missing case.

The storytelling in “School of Lies” isn’t linear, and the creators mislead viewers by not clearly demarcating between the past and the present. Some viewers might even feel cheated because the creators selectively use date-stamps on certain scenes while leaving them out in many other flashbacks. However, this technique effectively maintains the mystery throughout. Nevertheless, the pace of the series is somewhat slow, and several scenes have unnecessarily long lingering shots that could have been trimmed. Additionally, almost every character is burdened with a sub-plot centered around their own problems. Instead of eight episodes, the show would have been crisper if the story had been wrapped up in seven.

Interestingly, this series shines brightest during the student interactions. The writers skillfully craft believable and witty banter among the students, and the story is elevated by a fantastic cast of young actors who convincingly carry their roles. Vir Pachisia, who portrays the missing student Shakti, breathes life into the otherwise grim series every time he appears on screen. The same can be said for Divyansh Dwivedi, who plays his wisecracking buddy.

Varin Roopani and Aryan Singh Ahlawat, who play 17-year-old close friends Vikram and Tapan, are the standout stars of the show, despite their limited screen time. The writers choose to be cryptic about their relationship and sexual orientation, leaving it open to interpretation, implying they may be either bisexual or gay. This ambiguity not only highlights the reluctance in Indian society to acknowledge sexual diversity but also reflects the caution with which creatives continues approach LGBTQ+ representation, lest they upset the heterosexual majority. Aamir Bashir, in the role of house-master Samuel, has one of the most complex characters in the series; a two-faced senior teacher who abuses his position, who faces an eventual downfall.

Given the dark themes “School of Lies” attempts to explore, the cinematography skillfully switches between dimly lit scenes and the stunning, bright landscapes of the hill station. The boarding school premises and architecture are also visually striking, providing a rich backdrop to the drama of the lies both children and adults tell to maintain a false facade of normalcy in their twisted lives. With unpredictable characters and unreliable narrators, the series manages to be gripping until the end. Although the last episode was somewhat overstretched, it primarily focuses on the aftermath of the legal complications the boarding school & some students face when a whole bunch of skeletons tumble out of their closet.

You can stream the series on Hotstar.

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