In India, we are inured to injustice, resigned to the fact that the rich will go unpunished. And yet, in 1997, a group of people fought a legal battle for a quarter of a century to demand accountability from those who were responsible for the fire at the Uphaar cinema in Delhi. They took on the Ansal brothers who owned the theatre; even when the hurdles seemed insurmountable and the outcome predictable, they did not give up. Their story is as inspiring as it is depressing, reveals the Netflix series Trial By Fire.

Created by Prashant Nair and Kevin Luperchlo, the seven-episode series is based on the book of the same name by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who lost their two teenage children in the fire. Fifty-nine people died and many more were injured when a faulty transformer started a fire in the theatre during an afternoon show of Border.

The series has been co-directed by Nair and Randeep Jha. It is told mainly from the point of view of the Krishnamoorthys (brilliantly performed by Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande) since they led the fight for justice.

But it is the devastated face of a man who lost all seven members of his family, including a month-old baby, which shakes up the viewer. Kishan Pal (Yashwant Wasnik) lived in a slum and had no money to cremate the bodies, but had the self-respect to turn down an offer of compensation from Niraj Suri, a slimy fixer (Ashish Vidyarthi), reportedly sent by the Ansals’ lawyer to make the problem go away.

Trial By Fire (2023).

After getting over the shock and grief – the scenes handled without any melodrama – Neelam sets out to find out what actually happened. From TV footage, police and municipal reports, she discovers that not only was there no fire-fighting equipment in the theatre, but also the exits had been blocked by extra seats and the doors to the balcony locked from the outside to prevent anyone from sneaking in without a ticket.

Despite being culpable, Sushil and Gopal Ansal (their faces are not seen) place an ad in the newspapers, eschewing their responsibility. Their team is shown to unleash the fixer on the victims’ families to either pay them off or terrorise them into silence. No lawyer wants to take the case because everyone is somehow connected to the Ansals’ vast real estate empire. One of them tells the Krishnamoorthys that they will need an army to fight the Ansals, and that is what they put together.

While Neelam channels her anger towards collecting evidence, the quiet Shekhar goes about meeting the victims’ families. With sheer persistence, they get a few people to form the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy – their “army,” which stays united all the years that it takes to fight the case under the guidance of the lawyer KT Tulsi (Kuljeet Singh). Their lives are put on hold and their resources depleted, while the Ansals have the financial and legal power to keep stalling. (They were represented by Ram Jethmalani, whose name is changed to Keswani in the series).

While staying with the Krishnamoorthy couple’s struggles, Trial By Fire also goes into the homes and lives of others connected with the tragedy – the upwardly mobile Niraj Suri, electricity board worker (Rajesh Tailang), who had repaired the transformer, a regretful ex-military man (Anupam Kher) and his wife (Ratna Pathak Shah), the money troubles of an usher (Shardul Bhardwaj). Some of these digressions are worthwhile, while hold up the real story.

The show also captures the poignancy of small moments – Neelam suddenly noticing that her kids’ toothbrushes are still by the basin in the bathroom; a birthday cake being shoved into the arms of Shekhar; the stoic-looking Neelam exploding because she heard Shekhar humming.

The tragedy of the survivors – caught in stark close-ups – is heart-rending. Can they ever laugh, or even smile, again? A snarky defence lawyer asks Neelam why she shed no tears while giving all those TV interviews. When Shekhar runs into a former classmate, who is unaware of the incident, he can act ‘normal’ for some time.

Trial By Fire is also a tribute to the investigators who did not sell out and uncovered the facts. The series stands out among the gangster dramas, family battles and romantic comedies on streaming services for its earnest and non-sensational portrayal of an avoidable tragedy.

Trial By Fire (2023).

Also read:

In show about the Uphaar cinema fire, ‘a reminder that we should not take things for granted’