On the afternoon of June 13, 1997, a fire caused by an improperly maintained transformer broke out in Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema, quietly fumigating an auditorium packed for a first-day screening of flagwaving blockbuster “Border” with carbon monoxide before plunging the room into darkness.
Those scrambling for the exits found multiple code violations standing between them and survival; the balcony doors had been padlocked from the outside to prevent late entry. 59 cinemagoers never saw the light again; over 100 were injured.
“It wasn’t a cinema hall, it was a crematorium,” notes one official in “Trial by Fire,” a necessarily sorrowful but forcefully compelling seven-part dramatization of the blaze and its aftermath, which represents one of Netflix India’s strongest miniseries to date.
At its centre are Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol), a representative middle-class couple who are introduced as they wave their son Ujjwal (Abhishek Sharrma) and daughter Unnati (Poorti Jai Agarwal) off to what would ordinarily have been just another matinee. Of the two, it’s Neelam who reacts more violently to news of her children’s deaths, absconding from the funeral to conduct a one-woman investigation into the tragedy.
This quest for justice leads her — and the show — to the gilded doors of the Uphaar’s owners, Gopal and Sushil Ansal, at that point Asia’s biggest property developers, who subsequently spent years deferring any responsibility onto the electricity board and fire services. (The brothers returned to the courts last week, seeking unsuccessfully to halt the show’s release.)
Justice of any kind would be a long time coming; the inferno was the prelude to several agonizing cycles of legal hell. Yet in adapting the real-life Krishnamoorthys’ 2016 memoir, showrunner Prashant Nair and co-writer Kevin Luperchio grant themselves room to manoeuvre: notice of kinetic intent is served by an early pursuit that dispatches Shekhar after an apparently unmoored Neelam. Later instalments highlight the pair’s frustration that the news cycle has abandoned them, and the effort to assemble survivors’ support network AVUT (The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy). Yet suggestive nudging, marked changes of pace and multiple perspective switches succeed in moving the series along, as do brisk, digestible 40-minute episodes: judicious briefing, not dutiful procedural, is the order of the day.
One through line is the portrait of a marriage tested not just by the tragedy, but by the sudden emptiness of the household to which husband and wife returned. Deol’s Shekhar remains trusty and rational behind his surveyor’s spectacles, running a sensible campaign until he’s led astray by an old friend in an episode that suggests at least one half of the couple may themselves be moving on. Neelam is both more focused and more volatile, her residual anger lending an edge even to generic tête-à-têtes. That rage proved sustaining and transformative – it changed the way India gathered going into the 21st century – but for the most part, Deshpande works expressive miracles with a limited palette of scowls and frowns. Her Neelam can’t shake off an inner sadness; we wonder whether we will ever see her smile again.
Yet the true dramatic achievement lies in the way the series expands around the couple; in so doing, “Trial by Fire” becomes vastly more kaleidoscopic than the linear procedural form typically allows. Nair and Luperchio dig out involving subplots for the Ansals’ enforcer Neeraj (Ashish Vidyarthi) and repairman Veer Singh (Rajesh Tailang), while a haunting, deftly acted sidebar centred on a retired Army couple (Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah) allows the show to re-examine both the veracity of the film people were literally dying to see, and what India was prepared to stand and fight for circa 1997.
This tragedy had multiple layers and levels, which is one reason “Trial” cuts deep: it’s not just the Krishnamoorthys’ struggle, but the struggle of a country gripped by a widespread dysfunction in how it does business.
A quarter-century on, India has embraced streaming TV wholesale — sometimes haphazardly, with a deluge of projects rushed into production, squandering ideas as they go. “Trial by Fire” feels more considered, marked by a new maturity in writing, direction, performance and craft, and a determination to get its story right, the better to uphold the justice for which the Krishnamoorthys and AVUT fought.
By the closer — a grim, sooty final reckoning with the events of June 13 — the colourful escapism of the Uphaar’s Bollywood posters suddenly looks half a world away. As the Ansals surely realized, this “Trial” sides with those of us in the cheap seats. Yet it does so out of solidarity, and a recognition — one the judiciary was painfully reluctant to share — that we have as much to lose as any tycoon when the lights go down.
“Trial by Fire” is now streaming on Netflix; all seven episodes were screened for review.
Head of Production: Henry Dcunha
Executive Producers: Vinod Iyer, Mrinalini Khanna, Anaya Mohanty, Harish Shah
Showrunner: Prashant Nair
Production Controller: Siddhu Ingle
Post Producer: Shilpan Vyas Tinu
Cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Abhay Deol, Ashish Vidyanthi, Poorti Jai Agarwal, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shardul Bharadwaj, Rajesh Tailang, Abhishek Sharrma.
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