Halfway into Trial by Fire, there’s a scene in which Neelam, who has lost her two children to the fire that broke out in Uphaar Cinema in 1997, has an outburst in court. Later, she’s reprimanded by her lawyer who says Neelam may have potentially cost them their win. Chomping on a roll, he reeks of insouciance as he asks Neelam what she expects him to do in this situation. “Parwah kijiye (I want you to care),” Neelam tells the lawyer. And that in a nutshell is the campaign on which both Neelam and Rajshri Deshpande, who plays the role of the determined and grieving mother, embark upon in Trial by Fire. Neelam has proved to be a breakout role for Deshpande who has previously trained as a lawyer, and acted in festival favourites like Sexy Durga (2017) and Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) by Pan Nalin. Deshpande’s performance is filled with a quiet fury and unwavering intensity that anchors Trial by Fire. She spoke to us about the inner turmoil she felt while bringing Neelam’s seemingly tranquil personality to life, the dos and don'ts of screen acting, and her experiences with co-star Abhay Deol and Nair. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell me about your process as an actor?
Process-wise, I prepare and study a lot. I observe people all the time. I’m never on a holiday. That’s a memory bank for an actor. When I portray different characters, I dig into that bank and try to find someone closest to the character. I cannot be Rajshri there. Agar main Rajshri ko saamne rakhke Neelam karoongi, toh main Neelam ko kabhi dhoondh nahi paaoongi. Mujhe Neelam ko dhoondna hoga toh mujhe Neelam jaisa hi sochna padega (If I put myself first, I won’t be able to think like Neelam. If I want to be her, I need to think like her). I have to find her in me and enhance that part. You have to grow closer to that. You have to live that life, but not fully. Live the character, but with the full awareness that you are 'portraying' that character. You have to feel that pain, but not fully. You have to find that balance. We are actors, you know? We live different characters, we feel different characters. We are trained to be in that zone.
In 2018, you started Nabhangan Foundation. As someone who is also a social worker, how do you think your careers impact each other?
As an actor, I don’t judge my characters. I don’t want to do something which will be derogatory or paint the character in a particular colour. I try and understand what is written, what is the writer's intent, the director's vision and what the team is trying to achieve. Even in this (Trial by Fire), nobody is taking advantage of the situation, they just want to tell a story. I don’t want anyone to manipulate anything. If you’re telling a story, are you telling it sensitively, honestly, and sincerely? That matters. It’s very important that we deal with subjects, with people, sensitively. Only then can we hope to create something that we can be proud of. Otherwise, it's just numbers and profits.
What was it like to play the hero in Trial by Fire?
It is a huge honour. It was a huge responsibility also because I’m portraying such a strong person, 20 years of (her) life. It was a challenge, and I like challenges which inspire and move me.
How was it working with Abhay Deol and Prashant Nair?
Abhay is an earthy and transparent person. Nothing pretentious about him. And of course, he's a great person to work with. He supports you, he’s with you. He has a very different process than me. (After) the initial few days, you start realising that this is how his emotional anchor is. Of course, an artist surprises you also, but you start understanding a person’s mannerisms. Being professional actors, it’s not that difficult to gel with each other. He showed that respect, aisa nahi ki kaun nayi ladki hai yeh (He didn’t treat me like a newcomer.) Prashant was an anchor for both of us. The team was so good, our DOP [director of photography], costume, hair and makeup team. Prashant got all of us together. I think setting up the right team together was half the battle won.
Can you tell me about the physical transformation you underwent for this role?
I got the show when I was 50 kg. I started shooting when I was around 56 kg. Show khatam hote hote mera 66 kg ho gya tha weight (When the show ended, I was around 66 kg). I wanted to put on a little bit because I wanted to portray the character in a certain way. When you age, you change your physicality too. Unfortunately, we were not shooting in a linear manner, I had to be on the bulkier side from the beginning. I had little time. I put on weight in a very unhealthy manner, which is not right, but kya kare? Kaam mil gaya toh jaana nahi chahiye haath se (I didn’t want to lose this opportunity). Itna tayyaar ho jao ki the director will say (I wanted to be so prepared that the director would say), “Haan, yehi toh meri Neelam hai (I’ve found my Neelam).” Mauka hi nahi de ki mujhe nikaal de kaam se (I didn’t want anything to take this away from me). I’m that kind of a person.
Trial by Fire was shot during the pandemic. When you left the set every day, were you able to detach yourself from Neelam’s situation?
It was very difficult. When we were going through the pandemic and the third wave hit, oxygen cylinders were not available and people were dying. There was a rage inside me, and there was a time when I used to break down. A person dies because he didn't get oxygen? Whom do I call out for this? I was already going through all of that and then I was preparing for Neelam. The tragedy that happened, she utilised that rage to stand up and fight the legal system. She said, “I have full faith in our legal judiciary system and I want to fight.” She never lost that faith. Hum log shayad ek-do saal main (in a year or two), we’ll lose faith. Then after five-six years, we’ll forget everything because we’ll move on. Neelam and Shekhar got up every day, went to the trial court, and came back defeated, but the next day they got up, and they went again. For 25 years. What kind of courage she has to fight till today! That kind of determination not only enriches you as an actor but inspires you on a very personal level. I have immense gratitude that I could get a chance to play such a fighter woman.
Did you meet Neelam Krishnamoorthy?
We met in Delhi before the show was coming out. Her validation was so important. She gave me a big, tight hug. She said, “You’ve found me.” They really loved it, both of them. They were glad to know the kind of (social) work I do. They were happy with the show. For me, seeing them, my real-life heroes...I have done two biopics before, Ismat Chughtai and Savitribai Phule. I have never seen them, this is the first time I’m seeing someone whom I had the honour to portray. How much bigger can it get?
There are so many moments when you expect Neelam to lose her calm, but not once does that happen. How did you manage that?
Cinema is a medium that doesn’t need that much. The moment you do a little more or a little less, the camera will catch you, and it shows that you are acting. They catch your expressions very fast. You have to understand that you are part of the screen. It’s so internal that the expressions and feelings should come from within. You have to find that balance. You have to keep doing that riyaaz (practice) every day. Of feeling, not acting.
Was there a scene you were eager to perform?
I was excited about everything. The last scene, it’s an interview that she (Neelam) gave. It was the toughest one, ki how will I get that courage to say something like this, to find that truth. It’s in everyone’s mind that this is how Neelam did it. I was thinking (about) how I will do it. … I constantly think about what kind of thought process she must be going through. I don’t just go do the scene. I have an inner monologue going on.
In the scene where the lawyer is framing you as an opportunistic mother, what was going on internally?
This one was tough because I was just trying to understand…in fact, I had spoken to Prashant also ki, “How will I do this scene? Will I scream and shout at her?” See, it’s very easy to go overboard with facial expressions or even your voice. I like to understand the inner journey at that time. I told Prashant, “I feel both ways and I’m confused.” There’s a part where I’d like to cry and tell her, “Listen, I’m not that kind of a mother.” And the other part, “She’s found a little…ki theek hai, agar main yaha pe kathghare main apne bachche ke liye kuch maang rahi hoon, toh main galat kari rahi hoon kya? (If I’m in the docks already and asking for something on behalf of my child, am I wrong?)” Then he said, “I like the other part.”
What kind of societal expectations do you think an actor has to deal with?
Being an artist is to live vulnerably. We live in a world of technology where people are constantly selling brands that make you look good, fair and thin. We are living in such a world. It’s very easy to get distracted, and very difficult to get out of that filtered life. It’s not just this world, it’s everywhere. The [film] industry is more of it because it’s a glamorous place. People talk about it more. We have to keep ourselves sane and balanced, spiritually and mentally. It’s very important that we keep learning and unlearning and keep making sure that we breathe. There is no formula, ki yeh kar diya toh ho gaya tumhara kaam (There is no formula to succeeding).
Trial By Fire is available to stream on Netflix.