On June 13, 1997, during an afternoon show of the war drama Border at Uphaar in Delhi, a fire broke out in the cinema’s transformer unit room. The conflagration led to 59 deaths.
The legal sentences for Uphaar’s owners, the brothers Gopal and Sushil Ansal, and the campaign to ensure compensation for the deceased were largely a result of the dogged efforts of the Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy. Among the most doughty campaigners were Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who lost their two teenaged children in the accident.
Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy, written by the Krishnamoortys in 2016, is the basis for a Netflix show of the same name. Directed by Prashant Nair, the series stars Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol as the Krishnamoorthys. The cast includes Rajesh Tailang, Ashish Vidyarthi, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak Shah, Shilpa Shukla and Shardul Bharadwaj. The show will be premiered on Netflix on January 13.
Trial By Fire marks the first completed book-to-screen project by Sidharth Jain, whose company Story Ink is involved with adapting fiction and non-fiction as films and web series. Jain has produced Trial by Fire through his company House of Talkies along with Endemol Shine India.
The series aims to remind the Indian public of the dangers of lax safety standards. “We go to public places like theatres and assume that people are following the rules and doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Jain observed. “This show highlights how important it is for every person in the system to do their job. It’s a reminder that we should not take things for granted.”
Jain met the Krishnamoorthys in 2018, the year Story Ink was set up. He almost brokered a deal between the couple and an outside producer, but changed his mind after his conversations with them.
“I started my usual practice of finding the right producer for the story,” Jain told Scroll.in. “The Krishnamoorthys were close to doing a deal with me through another production house. Meeting them was an eye-opener. I had heard about the incident, but understanding the pain and the human cost of justice not being given was so immense that it became a personal mission to work with them and take this to the world in the best possible way.”
The long-form format provided the best possible route to explore the Uphaar disaster. “A two-hour movie cannot do justice to a tragedy like this,” Jain said, pointing to the show Chernobyl, which examines the accident at a nuclear reactor in Russia in 1986.
“The series format is important to tell this story and understand its depth,” Jain added. “If the story went with the usual Bollywood lens, it would lose its sensitivity. We are not selling entertainment but so many other things – the life and environment in which we live. In Prashant Nair, I found the right director. Netflix has also been in sync as to why we should tell this story. I am glad we didn’t sell the rights and move on.”
While Jain is in producer mode with Trial By Fire, the rest of his time is spent on buying up the adaptation rights for books and hawking them to producers. Through Story Ink, Jain claims to have facilitated at least 200 deals.
“Ninety per cent of what I have done in the past four years is about connecting the dots,” Jain said. “It’s the producer’s job to develop the stories. We are helping in at least 20-odd projects. Obviously, a lot of options expired because of Covid and a lot of deals will not go through, but then that is how the development process is. A 10 per cent strike rate is pretty good.”
A web series can take 12 months-18 months to fructify. Producers prefer comedies, romance and crime. “Most producers want something ready, and will go for low-hanging fruit, which is often crime,” Jain said.
The development process for streaming services is different from traditional Hindi film industry practices, he added.
“A director would typically spot a story, hire a writer, narrate the story to an actor and would then go a producer,” Jain said. “The producer would get a developed project, look at the market viability, negotiate the terms with the actor and director, finance it and sell those rights with distributors and then release the film.”
With series, the story is what matters the most. “What we are trying to do is give producers a book as well as a script and go through the process of going to a streaming service,” Jain explained. “Development has become more focused and lean after Covid. The free money has gone out of the system. Producers are hoping they will get a writer and have a script they will love, but writers need to get paid too.”