Given Netflix India’s success with the crime anthology Indian Predator (for good or for worse), the Uphaar Cinema tragedy of 1997 could have been turned into an easy cashgrab of a docu-drama. However, the streaming service opted for a seven-episode miniseries instead, a decision that works in its favour.
Based on the book by couple Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (who lost their children to the fire), the series could have played out as a sensationalist battle of good versus evil. Trial By Fire finds the Krishnamoorthys and the AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy) rounding the courts for decades, seeking justice for all those who died in the theatre as a fire raged inside the locked doors. The perpetrators are the Ansal Brothers, magnates in the land business who were responsible for Delhi projects such as the city’s first mall Ansal Plaza and the aforementioned movie hall.
With such a premise and all the media attention it generated, Trial By Fire showrunners Kevin Luperchio and Prashant Nair still maintain enough sensitivity and nuance to tell this story instead of resorting to blatant shock value and tear-inducing sentimentality. The episodes keep on changing the characters and settings but all of them share a common grimness. It’s obvious that no matter what the court rulings would be, the Krishnamoorthys and others wouldn’t get back their loved ones.
This sense of cynicism isn’t lost on the audiences at all even on the other end of the spectrum. On the one hand, we see Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol fighting the good fight as the Krishnamoorthys but then we also see that the ones who are hounded as the “bad guys” (there’s literally an episode titled The Villains) are also just low-level employees who are thrown in in the drama as scapegoats by the larger villains like the Ansals.
Not to delve too much into spoilers, but watch out for Rajesh Tailang and Ashish Vidyarthi’s characters. As the mystery behind the fire unravels, the grey areas behind such apparent villains only come out further. Tailang plays a technician who is tasked with checking the transformer that started the fire in an establishment that already didn’t have a good track record with security checks. As for Vidyarthi, we have seen him play one baddie after the other in Hindi films but over here, he finally gets to put his dramatic prowess to good use as he plays a morally complex “enforcer” who is employed by the Ansals to put pressure on the ones protesting against their negligence. Balancing a brutish personality with emotive eyes, Vidyarthi is definitely a standout amid the talented ensemble.
Also joining the cast are Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah. While both might never look each other in the eye when it comes to their real-life politics, the two veterans shine as a former Army Captain and his wife, a couple that seems to have aged quicker with the central tragedy. Again, much like the show’s general tone, the two play out their emotional trauma with an air of gloominess that haunts you even without an overdose of “rona dhona”.
Talking about couples, both Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol are perfectly cast as it is their chemistry that largely anchors the narrative. Struggling with their personal tragedy, their characters can be seen dwelling in hopelessness while also clinging on to some desperate hope, both moods perfectly captured by the two stars, particularly Deshpande.
It is good to see Abhay Deol shedding his “cute dimpled guy” image for once and looking and breathing like a common man while Deshpande nails the scenes of her silent breakdowns. While the Sacred Games alumna gets enough screen time to shout and cry, she grabs your attention even in scenes that require restraint. For instance, the second episode finds her neighbour asking her character if she can do anything for her, a question to which Deshpade’s Neelam replies with a counter-question, “Can you bring back my children?” The resulting silence can be deafening.
With its acting and direction hardly getting tonedeaf, the respect for the real-life victims seems genuine in this Netflix original. Yes, the court proceedings can be cinematically dramatic at times but it still wouldn’t ruin the overall viewing experience.
When it comes to limited series delving into real-life tragedies, HBO’s Chernobyl seems like a prime example from recent years. It would be an overstatement to compare Trial By Fire with Chernobyl (or rather insensitive to place two historical tragedies side by side) but the Uphaar Cinema tragedy isn’t an easy event to film; more so when the legal cases themselves never offered any easy answers.
In this sense, Luperchio and Nair have shown great restraint at choosing what to explore in this tragedy that affected hundreds of people in Delhi. Maybe, if Netflix and others try experimenting with more such depressing yet significant chapters of Indian history, then the Indian OTT space might finally step out of the familiar trappings of the khaki-wearing police dramas or the morbidly graphic criminal profiles.
We’re going with 4 out of 5 stars for Trial By Fire.