The Challenges Of Writing Trial By Fire: 'Always Tough With Lawyers Looking Over Your Shoulder'

Co-creator, co-writer and co-director Prashant Nair talks about the show's meditative pace, the notes he got from Netflix and not wanting the Krishnamoorthys to watch
The Challenges Of Writing Trial By Fire: 'Always Tough With Lawyers Looking Over Your Shoulder'

While most shows distill the essence of their subjects to fit within narrative constraints, Trial By Fire, a seven-episode Netflix series about the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire, expands to accommodate its characters’ all-encompassing grief. It’s a slowly unfurling, meditative series that, through long takes and lingering close-ups, underlines the necessity of seeing and confronting, especially for a tragedy defined by the perpetrators' insistence on looking the other way. The filmmaking is empathetic — during a scene in which a call ends, the camera stays with the person at the other end left holding the phone to his ear, listening to the beep of the dial tone. By not cutting away, the show traps viewers in time and trauma with him a little while longer.

Death has a way of simultaneously becoming the focal point of the characters’ lives and even then, arriving at their doorstep as a series of painful reminders — four toothbrushes sit in a glass at a house that has lost two occupants to the tragedy, a birthday cake is delivered after its recipients’ death. The episodes leap forward in time to follow Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Despande and Abhay Deol), who lost both children to the fire, but also travel sideways to track the other major and minor characters caught up in the tragedy. Through the Krishnamoorthys, whose furious struggle to see the perpetrators of the fire punished reveals the stasis their own lives seem to have settled into, Trial By Fire asks how much overlap there is between justice and revenge. And if there even is a satisfying answer.

Prashant Nair, who co-created and co-wrote the series with Kevin Luperchino, who he met while collaborating on a writing project in the US, also directed or co-directed every episode of the show. He spoke about the show’s measured pace, the challenges of pulling off several long takes in episode 6 and why figuring out how much of the fire to depict onscreen was the hardest decision he had to make:

The show is meditative, its pace is measured. Even though it’s about an investigation and a fight for justice, it unravels slowly and is tense only in parts. Tell me about arriving at the mood of the show.

From the start, there were multiple challenges that made it very clear to us this couldn't really be your linear courtroom drama. The case is still ongoing, the Krishnamoorthys haven't really received the justice that they expect or that they believe they deserve. So the conclusion itself was something that we knew we had to account for in the treatment. The other thing was just the span of time and the complexity of the case. There were multiple cases in multiple courts going on simultaneously. The way the system is designed — it's very much about stagnation. It's about delays, it's about inaction. So we immediately knew that we couldn't approach this show the usual way in terms of the structure, pace and flow. At the writing stage itself, we were very clear that we had to treat time differently. 

The Challenges Of Writing Trial By Fire: 'Always Tough With Lawyers Looking Over Your Shoulder'
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The victory at the end isn't really a victory. The victory is a refusal to accept defeat, it’s the fact that the Krishnamoorthys are still showing up every day. What came to mind for me was the end of Raging Bull (1980), when he just refuses to go down. There’s a shot of him looking at the camera and I felt like, in a sense, that was really what the Krishnamoorthys were.

The Krishnamoorthys’ book, Trial By Fire, was our primary source but we didn't want to take everything in it at face value. We wanted to really treat the book like it was our main character who had sat down and told us everything they thought, and then it was up to us to read between the lines and build a show around it. So while we had the Krishnamoorthys’ perspective, we also wanted to revisit or visit all the other people that had been involved to try and provide multiple points of view. 

Since this is an ongoing case, how and at which point did you figure out what the show’s conclusion was going to be? 

We struggled with it for a long time. When we got the book, the first question we asked was, ‘How can we make a series about this?’ The series that everyone would've wanted us to make would've been a courtroom drama, which would've been fast and full of twists and turns. But the story didn’t really give us that opportunity. At least not in an honest way. So we struggled for a long time. We knew early on that we wanted to have this approach of multiple stories and new characters and then to build to the ending being the fire. But for a long time, we didn’t know how we were actually going to end and what the final images were going to be.

And that was quite nerve-wracking. We were writing it and were like, ‘Where's the ending?’ The tampering of evidence that happens in episode 5 — the judgment in that case was delivered when we were close to the last day of shoot. But if we’d known what was going to happen beforehand, that might’ve made for a more classic, but uninteresting story.

The Ansals got convicted when we’d finished the show. And then six months later, when we were in the process of editing the show, they were released. So we said, ‘Okay, here's the ending. That's the card we're going to have after an image of Mrs. Krishnamoorthy looking into the camera.’ Them getting convicted was a happy ending. But when they got released, we understood that there was never going to be a happy ending. So that’s what we went with.

Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande in Trial By Fire.
Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande in Trial By Fire.

Tell me about the fire itself. You initially only see the outside of the theatre on fire. Later, you see these images of people trapped by smoke, news reports of people being carried out, but it’s only in the last episode that you go into horrific detail. How did you decide how you wanted to parcel out these details and also how much to show? It’s a balance between conveying the full scope of the tragedy but also not lingering too long on the sheer suffering. 

This was our hardest decision and one we all questioned for a long time. We didn’t want to be exploitative, we wanted it to be sensitive and respectful. And so when it came to showing the fire, we went back and forth for a very long time. It was just: Do we show it? Do we not show it? Is it right to show it? What about the people who have lived through it? Do they need to see it again? But we knew we were not making it for the people who had been through it. We’ve met members of AVUT (Association of The Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) and we’ve told the Krishnamoorthys, ‘We’d prefer it if you never watched this. Because our job is to make people feel what you felt, but you don't need to revisit that.’

The big structural challenge was to withhold showing the actual events of the day till the end. While it would've been logical to start with the event and move chronologically, we just felt that the details and the experience would be more harrowing and impactful if you knew all the people beforehand and you had a sense of what happened, and then by showing the day of the fire at the end, we were able to help audiences connect a few dots. We also wanted to give images to the words that you already heard. It was a powerful ending, and then we juxtaposed that with the image of them going to court again like they do every day, just to make it clear what they were still fighting for. 

By the time we get to the fire, you’ve heard a lot about it. And I feel like words are fleeting and we forget them, so we needed images. The right thing to do was to show it at the end because it was horrifying. It shouldn't have happened. That’s the kind of outrage we want you to feel when you're watching it. I thought the horror was important, especially when juxtaposed with the image of the Krishnamoorthys going back to court. We would’ve never ended on just the fire. 

Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol in Trial By Fire.
Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol in Trial By Fire.

We also struggled with how long we should stay on the fire for. We kept asking, ‘Is this scene too long? Too short?’ In the end, we just wanted to make people feel horrified so that everything would connect emotionally.

So when you're clear that you're making a show that you wouldn't want the Krishnamoorthys to watch, what kinds of conversations are you having with them and how is what they're saying informing the show? 

So I first read the book when Sidhharth Jain brought it to me. I was horrified by the story, but I didn’t know if we could turn it into a show. The book doesn't present itself as something that would make a compelling series because there are no mysteries, there are no twists. So the first thing I did was to meet the Krishnamoorthys in Delhi. They took us around and introduced us to all the people that were involved in the case. We went to the courts, we met retired CBI people, the police — all unofficially. We went to an AVUT meeting, which was very moving. I was very clear that I wanted to use the book, but I also wanted to bring in new perspectives and come to our own conclusions. So we hired a research team. Then we got some government reports and all the court reports that are in the public domain, but we knew that we didn't really want to make a courtroom drama. We were more interested in the emotional aspects, the toll of this tragedy. My idea was to stay in touch with Krishnamoorthys through the process, but then at some point, I couldn't do it because it was too much. Their loss is so overwhelming. So I said, ‘I just need to go away and make this and then come back to you later.’ And they were very generous about that. They said, ‘We'll give you whatever support you need.’

I needed to go away because my co-writer and I would've been too burdened by the responsibility of telling the story the way that they would've wanted us to tell, getting swept up in the agenda of it, versus taking a step back and trying to be as balanced as possible. We were trying to ask ourselves why the Ansals were guilty, what really happened that day. Which we hopefully also answer in the series. I didn’t want the actors to meet them because they had to experience these heavy, primal emotions and I didn’t want them to be thinking about how the Krishnamoorthys would’ve reacted in those situations. I wanted them to be free to react as anyone would. When you find out that your child has died, it's so intense that you shouldn’t be thinking about anything else.

The Challenges Of Writing Trial By Fire: 'Always Tough With Lawyers Looking Over Your Shoulder'
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I want to ask about breaking each episode into chunks of time. There are these time jumps between each episode. Episode 5 is a detour into this story of a couple (Ratna Pathak Shah and Anupam Kher) before the fire. How did you arrive at that non-linear structure? Were you wary at any point of it being abrupt? Or were you confident people would settle into it?

We were not confident about anything. The pilot is explosively fast and you only get to know the characters after that. The pace changes drastically from the pilot to the second episode. The tonality shifts in the fifth episode. Then the sixth episode is us talking about time and versions of the story and subjectivity. And then the seventh is 40 minutes of action. Everything was a big, big, big risk. 

The Krishnamoorthys’ journey spans 25 years so obviously we had to jump in time. We thought about how they’ve changed, the world has changed, technology has changed, but they're still fighting. So the only way we could do that was to take these bold jumps in time. It became about finding what those points were in their 25-year struggle and then kind of building around that with the B stories. We knew that the B stories didn’t have to be linear, but the challenge was connecting them emotionally to the A story, which is the Krishnamoorthys’ track. 

So, for example, in episode 2, Neelam and Shekhar wonder if  they can do this alone. He's trying to solicit a group of the victims’ families. And so the B story is the story of the first member of that group, the chacha who also has to rely on his community to solve his problems. So thematically, the two tracks are about strength in numbers. In the third episode, the Krishamoorthys and the fixer, Suri (Ashish Vidyarthi), are caught between the past and the present. You see the person Suri was, who he has to be now, and how he’s tried to leave that behind. And the Krishnamoorthys are confronted by the birthday of the son they just lost. The next episode is about trust. The idea that’s being explored in court is whether the Ansals are truly guilty.  And the answer, at least for me, is that they are because they violated the trust of the people who walked into their cinema. And in the B story, you have this character who nobody trusts and who lets everyone down.

The theme of the Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah episode is, ‘What if?’ They’re looking back on their lives and thinking about what they could’ve done. Meanwhile, Shekhar meets a friend who has no idea what's happened to him, which he enjoys because he’s able to switch off from his fight for a while and find relief. Unfortunately, both sets of characters realise that there's no escaping who you are. The sixth episode is called Villains. It’s asking bigger questions, like ‘What's the difference between revenge and justice?’ It’s a grey area and I wonder if it will divide viewers. 

Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah in Trial By Fire.
Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah in Trial By Fire.

You mentioned the birthday cake, and that was something that stuck with me while I was watching the show, the idea that death is not just this huge thing that's looming over them. It's also these tiny painful details that build up, like a cake that gets delivered after the intended recipient is dead. Or the shot of four toothbrushes in a bathroom jar after two of the house’s inhabitants have died. Did you get all of these details from the Krishnamoorthys? 

No, we took a lot of things from one-liners in the book. When Shekhar goes to the cinema with his friend in episode 5, the inspiration was a line that said, ‘We never stepped into a cinema ever again after that.’ So I turned that into a story.

With the cake, I’d read in the book that her son’s birthday was in August and the incident happened in June. I just couldn't imagine what that day would’ve been like. It’s funny you mentioned that because that was one of the episodes I got the most notes on. People were like, ‘You can't have a whole episode about cake.’ In the OTT space, there’s a lot of pressure to make the episodes fast and gripping. The entirety of that episode is them hiding the cake, then eating the cake. So there were some raised eyebrows and some questions like, ‘Are you serious? Do you think this will actually work?’ Credit to them for letting us do it. 

A still from the cake episode of Trial By Fire.
A still from the cake episode of Trial By Fire.

This is probably one of the few Indian shows I've seen where people's names have been retained. From a legal perspective, was there anything you were worried about? Were there any no-go areas? 

We needed to work with what's in the public domain, in the book and in court records. So, for example, we don't even see the Ansals until the end. We had two sets of lawyers that were constantly reviewing the scripts and making sure that whatever that we were saying was verifiable in the public domain. There were a lot of restrictions. But those same restrictions are sometimes what force you to make choices that give the show character or make it unusual. But it’s always tough to write with lots of lawyers looking over your shoulder.

There are several long takes in episode 6, that span a wedding, a father being released from jail. What made you decide to do them and how much of a challenge were they to pull off?

 The episode is loosely based on the man who repaired the transformer and who served the most amount of time. To me, he was a scapegoat. More than that, he lived with this case looming over his head for all these years. So we thought this was an interesting opportunity to revisit the entire timeline of the series in a sense, and to see how the events that we had just witnessed from another perspective were also affecting this family.

Rajesh Tailang in Trial By Fire.
Rajesh Tailang in Trial By Fire.

So we thought, ‘Okay, let's not leave the room, let's stay with them.’ We were very conflicted about that choice because we didn't want it to look flashy. We didn't want to do it just for the sake of it. So we asked ourselves if it was justified. It felt right to us because we were looking at the passage of time. We used a combination of long takes. We had built a big model and worked out all the blocking and then we brought in the actors and rehearsed it with no cuts. We built a set with trap doors so characters would run out of one door, then change and come back through another while the shot was going on and the camera was still there. So it became like this theater piece. We shot it on a soundstage. All the windows are VFX obviously. 

Sometimes, the actors would need to change in the shot. So they would go out one door, then go behind a stage, the costume team would get them ready in 20 seconds and then they'd come back in. 

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