On June 13, 1997 when a blaze snuffed out 59 lives in Uphaar, one of the biggest cinema halls of Delhi, it also consigned to flames an unwritten agreement between the patrons and the theatre management that the audience are in a safe space when the magic of cinema transports them to an alternate reality. Amongst the victims were Ujjwal and Unnati, children of Shekhar (Abhay Deol) and Neelam Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande), an ordinary urban couple working to give a good future to their kids in the bustling metropolis.
As media reports suggested that it was a man-made tragedy caused by the callous attitude of theatre management, the Krishnamoorthys decided to take on the mighty Ansals, the owners of Uphaar, who refused to take the blame, by forming an association of the victims’ families. Their monumental struggle to move the slow wheels of justice comes alive in this seven-episode series that is drawn from Shekhar and Neelam’s memoir, Trial By Fire.
Directed by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, it is a minutely-observed study of the fight for rights by the parents of the victims affected by the tragedy that shook the nation, and the smoke that continues to choke our collective conscience as to how so many people were left to die because the self-seeking management chose to block and bolt the exits. With no public address and alarm systems in place, the cinema theatre turned into a crematorium within minutes. Its soot sullied the white collars of government and private players for whom self interest and a pristine public image is paramount. Despite humongous resources, the management chose to remain in denial after the disaster and worked towards passing the buck on government agencies.
The series painstakingly unravels the unholy nexus. From the delay in registering the FIR against the Ansals to threats and enticements to the victims’ families, the makers don’t flinch in exposing the underbelly of a system where the rich and powerful could tamper with evidence, buy witnesses, and delay court proceedings.
There is not only a sense of urgency in depicting the excruciatingly slow wheels of justice, but the makers scan and treat material with sensitivity without losing sight of the demands of the medium.
The impact of this series cannot be captured through throwaway adjectives like ‘gut-wrenching’ and heart-rending.’ It opens with a blunt sound and the shot of the flame of a gas burner in a kitchen, and goes on to narrate how one of the biggest discoveries in mankind could burn its kind in a man-made disaster. It deals with the inner turmoil of the protagonists with little passages of silence that convey more than the dialogues. Apart from the trial, Prashant also quietly captures how grief changes people, and for how long one could nurture it for a purpose.
When Neelam comes to know that Arjun, a friend of Ujjwal, who was also expected to watch the film, survived the accident by the quirk of fate, a streak of bitterness envelops her for a moment. The writers subtly convey how innocuous statements rankle when they turn out to be prophetic; on the day of the accident, when Neelam rags Unnati on going out alone, Shekhar says, in a few years they will be gone.
The strands depicting the struggle of a committed guard who lost his family in the fire, the cunning ways of a mysterious dry fruit merchant Suri (Ashish Vidyarthi) who buys and bullies the family members of the victims on behalf of his masters, and the helplessness of a foreman (Rajesh Tailang) of the electricity department who repaired the transformer that caught fire are equally powerful and provide an insight into how courage and material resources are not always directly proportional. Trial By Fire goes on to reveal the machinations of a wretched system that is eager to cover up the stench of the rotten flesh; in between, the writers also slip in a message of divine justice as Suri also loses his son in an accident.
Delivering a flawless performance that will remain etched in memory for years, Rajshri makes us forget that we are watching a dramatic adaptation of true events, and Abhay plays a perfect foil as the sedate Shekhar. His occasional outbursts and cynical ways make Shekhar absolutely relatable. But the series is essentially driven by Rajshri who doesn’t get a note wrong as she portrays the steely resolve and fractured soul of Neelam with grace. More importantly, the gleam in her eyes captures the honesty of purpose.
On the flip side, as the series sees the events from the point of view of Shekhar and Neelam, it hardly gives us an insight into the minds of the Ansals. There are references to the concert of a celebrated artiste, but one expected the makers to give us a little more detail on how the couple financially coped with the struggle and how their personal equation changed over the years while living through the trauma.
There are stretches, like the one involving a retired army officer (Anupam Kher) and his wife (Ratna Shah Pathak) where it seems the narrative is meandering or digressing from the main plot, but eventually the dots join to complete the circle of truth.
Trial by Fire is currently streaming on Netflix