In the fictional Dalton Town, at the fictional RISE boarding school, a regular day turns into a crisis when the house master notices that a child has been absent. The disappearance of seventh-grader Shakti Salgaonkar is just the start of the drama and suspense that is about to rattle the foundations of this all-boys private educational institution, with a master’s daughter as the only female student.
Intercutting the search for Shakti (Vir Pachisia) and his parents’ anguish is the story of two seniors who are burdened by their own complex secrets. Final year students Vikram (Varin Roopani) and TK (Aryan Singh Ahlawat) are being mentored by their housemaster Sam (Aamir Bashir). As they navigate the delicate balance of life in boarding school, Vikram and TK are making some questionable and dangerous choices along the way.
School counsellor Nandita (Nimrat Kaur) tries to assist with the investigation. Her methods at building a psychological profile of Shakti or making any headway are set aside when the screenplay decides instead to focus on Nandita’s own ghosts and emotional vacuity.
As is expected in a boarding school that thrives on discipline and hierarchy, there are plenty of rules, hence plenty of rules for the boarders to break, sometimes with the blessings of the faculty. A staffer moonlights as a drug peddler. There is another side-bar about trafficking of various kinds.
The motive behind Shakti’s disappearance is revealed midway. Dhaware, who has also co-created and filmed the eight-episode series, is in great command over the suspenseful and macabre moments.
But the human stories run shallow, and the script repeats whodunit similitudes. The script (Ishani Banerjee, Nishant Agarwala, Shoaib Nazeer) tries to create a diversion, succeeding partially until it loads the dysfunctional with so much damage that our sympathies shift to impatience.
School of Lies abounds with characters who have PTSD responses or need to exorcise their ghosts. Joy is fleeting, with brief moments of magic, such as jumping across a broken bridge, listening to fables about the forest or a game of football.
Dysfunction is endemic, most quantifiable in the defective hiring practices. At least half the staff is ill-qualified to shepherd impressionable, lonely, often broken children living away from home and families. Shakti’s disappearance brings down a house of cards. Yet, the police investigation, headed by Varun (Hemant Kher), has a job on its hands eking out the truth.
No one is beyond blame – neither the teachers, students or parents. Even Shakti’s mother Trish (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and Vikram’s widowed parent Pallavi (Sonali Kulkarni) are carrying unhealed scars. The mid-series arrival of a sadistic former student, whose behaviour captures an all-boys boarding school’s tradition of bullying and harassment, shakes things up.
But the shifts between linear and non-linear storytelling do not serve the complexity of the world and the emotional fragility of the characters. Nandita, as the keeper of secrets, emerges as the most complex character.
The show emphasises the danger of unresolved issues, childhood trauma and proclivity for repeated behavioural patterns, but opts for visual impact and specific surprise, padding the narrative with surplus characters and side plots. The lead performances are moving, particularly Bashir, Kaur, Nitin Goel, Roopani and Ahlawat.