In June 1997, a fire spread through South Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema. Smoke engulfed the pitch-dark hall. Most of the exits were sealed. The management fled. The fire brigade was delayed by traffic. Panic-stricken people were pinned by the theatre’s safety and structural violations. A space that regularly served as an air-conditioned escape into worlds of fiction offered no escape from its broken facts. Fifty-nine moviegoers died that day. Trial by Fire, though, is about the hundreds of lives that were ultimately lost – asphyxiated by faulty legal and law enforcement systems, squeezed by the illusions of closure and catharsis, trapped by a culture of unaccountability and apathy, and scarred by the vagaries of time and tide. The seven-episode Netflix series is based on a book by protagonists Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, a couple who lost both their teenage children in the fire. Through them, it details the journey of the victims’ families, who form an association and fight for justice over the next two decades.
Trial by Fire is a difficult story to tell. The tragedy is boundless, with no beginning or end. The case is endless, with the Ansal brothers – the powerful owners of Uphaar and practically half of Delhi’s late-Nineties infrastructure (including India’s first luxury mall, Ansal Plaza) – riding a wave of delayed convictions, shortened prison sentences and civil compensation suits. The void is nameless; the perpetrator is everybody and nobody. Even the victories are tinged with defeat; every verdict against the Ansals arrives with a rider that it isn’t set in stone. In other words, there’s no real resolution to this journey. To the makers’ credit, the storytelling doesn’t pretend to suggest otherwise. The tone manages to remain hopeful and hopeless at once.
Much of the film-making is defined by the cruel irony of the incident: People perished in a theater named Uphaar (meaning “gift”) during a packed screening of J.P. Dutta’s Border, a violent war blockbuster that celebrates the ideas of sacrifice and state-sponsored killing in pursuit of glory. Everyone in the hall was essentially rooting for a nation that is rigged to work against them. This potent metaphor is never spelt out, but it chips away at our perception of what constitutes a gritty underdog story. The writing resists exploitation; it remains rooted in a picture of middle-class grief, rarely letting the perseverance of the battle conceal the pain. As a result, it makes resourceful narrative choices – parallel timelines, nifty transitions, peripheral characters – within the constraints of life. It manages to be ‘engaging’ as a story without compromising on the tedium of the fight.
The first few episodes focus on the immediate aftermath, when Neelam and Shekhar’s existence is upended by a grave act of institutional negligence. Their rage is stranded at the border between justice and revenge, even as they assemble the AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar fire Tragedy) against all odds. Episode three onwards, Trial by Fire expands its perspective and voice, juxtaposing the couple’s era-leaping resilience with the offshoots that shaped that fateful day. There’s a debt-riddled hustler (Shardul Bhardwaj from Eeb Allay Ooo!, 2019) who is revealed to be one of the careless Uphaar employees at the screening. There’s a dry-fruits trader (Ashish Vidyarthi) moonlighting as a goon who intimidates the bereaved families into settlements. An episode titled ‘Villains’ is centered on a modest technician (Rajesh Tailang) who is made a scapegoat for checking the transformer that sparked the fire. An episode titled ‘Heroes’ features an army captain (Anupam Kher) whose long-time regret of choosing his wife (Ratna Pathak Shah) over the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war is triggered by the release of Border.
The choice of these stories is clever, if not perfectly executed. Time is a ghost in the series; its passing is felt, rarely seen. The “villains,” in particular, are presented as cogs in a corrupt wheel. They’re common strivers suffering for the cowardice of those above them. The concept of being a victim, then, is determined by the weakness of being human. For instance, the imposing dry-fruits trader is someone who wants to leave his shady past behind – he has a young family, a new home, a decent business. He has willed himself to grow a conscience, one that’s tested when he’s hired to do the Ansals’ dirty work. He does it reluctantly, like an addict wary of relapsing. Vidyarthi is so moving in his depiction of moral conflict that he makes you wish for a broken-assassin sort of spin-off. As is Tailang, whose track is filmed with fable-like ingenuity in his tiny flat. His family’s journey becomes a collection of long and unbroken takes, where the fluid editing makes it seem as though the camera is not just traversing space, but time itself. A pan here and he’s arrested; a tilt there and he’s out on bail to attend his daughter’s wedding. This visual ‘seamlessness’ exists to prove that families like his, too, are caught in an unending loop of collapse and consolidation. All through, we don’t see the faces of the Ansal brothers, until a courtroom sequence late in the series. The idea is to convey that puppeteers rarely pay the price for running a bad puppet show. And when they do, it’s never enough.
Trial by Fire also takes the intense lane. It cuts out a lot of sensationalism and external noise, and therefore, a lot of narrative crutches. For starters, the media coverage and timeline jumps aren’t amplified. We often see Neelam and Shekhar as an isolated couple consumed by the case; it never feels like they are newspaper headlines. Their fame is barely implied, let alone shown. They simply soldier on, from one episode to another, growing older and wiser in their relationship with loss. Similarly, the only sign of the couple having a job comes in the first five minutes of the series, before the tragedy. After that, there is not one hint of a work-life imbalance, and no nods to what they do for a living. We only encounter them through the lens of their crusade; beyond this, they cease to exist as people. (Except for the one phase where Shekhar ‘strays’ and seeks solace in the boozy company of a college mate). While this tunnel-vision is a nod to the couple’s recalibration of living, it might have been useful to explore how their business experience – their interactions with foreign clients – aided their activism.
But most of these decisions work. Like trading pagers for clunky cell-phones in 1997 for dramatic impact. Like avoiding a religious parent’s descent into atheism. Lofty themes such as heroism and bravery are not allowed to hijack the story. For example, the track of the retired Captain – whose actions in the hall actually saved several lives – could have easily been played up. Especially in the final episode, when we see the tragedy unfold in stunning detail. But that might have made the series resemble Border, the film so many died watching, where mini-tales of courage distract from the futility of war. It might have also punctured the chaos of a moment that was years – of systemic failure, of post-colonial capitalism, of corporate myth-building – in the making. Across the series, there are echoes of a country in the choppy throes of globalization. Like an incompetent lawyer drinking Pepsi. Like a housewife unable to recall the “place with a joker” whose burger her son is eating. Like the trendy TV ad of India’s first mall, starring a nuclear family who very much resemble the Krishnamoorthys. Or even the opening scene of foreboding – where a kitchen stove is lit, and a new video-game in the Krishnamoorthy home has turned ‘dying’ and ‘fire’ into casual living-room lingo. The series gets that it’s these echoes of modernisation – and the prospect of an India struggling to keep pace – that set this tragedy in motion long before it happened. The culpability extends beyond individuals, to an economy scrambling to reframe needing as wanting and surviving as thriving. Why else would a theatre manager rescue a box of cash receipts rather than dying humans? Why else would owners with multiplex-sized ambitions neglect the upkeep of their single-screen halls? Why else would courts assign justice the finiteness of numbers?
The central performances get this, too. Abhay Deol isn’t known for his voice modulation, a flaw that’s deepened by him playing a Tamil man here. At one point, Shekhar is supposed to express mild incredulity at something while praising his wife in the same breath. The way he speaks, though, makes it hard to tell one emotion from the other. But Deol excels in the body language – the silences, the brooding support, the stoic beta masculinity – of a father ceding ground to a mother’s story. He looks the part when Shekhar flounders as someone who’s both envious and inspired by how single-minded his wife is. Because Trial by Fire is very much a mother’s story, and Rajshri Deshpande is devastatingly good as Neelam. Her physical and mental transformation over the two-decade period is not obvious, almost undetectable at first. But it’s only in the last episode that the changes creep up on us, evoking an optical illusion of seeing a family member after ages despite living with them all along.
In Deshpande’s hands, justice becomes more of a coping mechanism than an obsession. There’s a mundanity to her sense of trauma, the toll of which is as audible as it is visible. Most of all, she makes her character easier to fathom. Her performance reveals how Neelam’s marriage, and overall functioning, starts to depend on their shared trauma. Or how her only indulgences are haircuts – her short hair going from a stylish crop to a statement of intent – and the occasional glass of wine. It looks like Neelam is always on the verge of turning this into a vigilante thriller, but flouts her instincts at the last moment to follow due process. It is, for lack of a better term, a long-form performance defying the frills of a short-form one. Perhaps it’s only fitting that she’s the heart in the heartbreak of Trial by Fire – a story about long-form smoke rebelling against short-form fires.