In June 1997 a fire broke out at Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi. A full house, watching an afternoon show of ‘Border’, was entrapped and engulfed by smoke and flames. Locked exit doors prevented escape to safety. The fire-fighting equipment was missing and the firefighters themselves arrived late.
Fifty-nine people lost their lives, several more were injured and many families continue to carry the grief of this tragedy. Among the victims were teenagers Unnati and Ujjwal. Their parents Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who became champions in the fight for justice for those who perished in the blaze, recorded their experiences in a book titled ‘Trial by Fire’. The true story and legal battle have been adapted into a seven-part Netflix series of the same name.
Writers Prashant Nair and Kevin Luperchio have taken the records of the authors’ experiences as bereft parents, as catalysts who galvanised other bereaved families to form AVUT (Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) and as the fuel that pushed the legal system for justice. Their struggles to bring builders Sushil and Gopal Ansal to book have seen checkered results.
Showrunner Nair and co-director Randeep Jha’s ‘Trial By Fire’ is a respectful drama that quietly applauds Neelam’s efforts, above all others. Its steeped in pain and trauma, gradually building in various points of view – cinema workers, electricity board employees, devastated parents, lawyers and the unsuspecting audience.
Nair and Luperchio intercut the court case with back stories of other victims and their surviving families. A powerful scene in episode two captures the enormity of hurt and pain from one man’s eyes. It’s heartbreaking.
The writers bookend the show with a recreation of the event. The screenplay is laudable, weaving back and forth to culminate in the finale. However, the energy dips in the procedural parts and courtroom scenes that establish the sequence of events, fault-lines of the accident as well as AVUT’s ongoing efforts. Nair and Jha touchingly capture the ripple effect caused by death of some and the involvement of others. A debt-ridden usher with attitude (Shardul Bharadwaj), a conflicted corporate fixer masquerading as a dry fruits trader (Ashish Vidyarthi in an unusual and most affecting part), a retired army officer (Anupam Kher) eager to see how ‘Border’ captures the 1971 war with his impatient wife (Ratna Pathak Shah) and a foreman at the electricity company (Rajesh Tailang) play peripheral characters that colour in the blanks in the narrative. Redemption is sometimes fleeting, sometimes elusive.
Some of the stories feel incomplete though. Vidyarthi’s character was crying out for a fuller arc. There are also gaps in the Krishnamoorthys world – how did they financially sustain themselves, how did they face a disloyal neighbour, etc.
The show also illustrates the frustrations that come with trying to work within the system and the absolute conviction, patience and resilience needed when engaged in endless litigation. There are flickers of hope too.
Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande completely and wonderfully inhabit the world of the Krishnamoorthys. Deol unobtrusively and steadily plays Shekhar, who unquestioningly follows his wife’s impassioned leadership. There’s a touching segment in one episode when you see him briefly trying to return to a normal life only to be jolted into a painful reality. Rajshri Deshpande is the soul of the series. She captures Neelam Krishnamoorthy with the aching longing of a mother and unshakeable determination of a woman, seeking retribution and closure, for 26 years and counting.
As much as the actors and their real life characters, Nair, Jha and Luperchio are the conservators of ‘Trial By Fire’, presenting lacunae and corruption in the system while ensuring a powerful, reverent adaptation that sensitively captures trauma and loss.