An Unending Trial By Fire
Directors Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha, and Avani Deshpande have made a sensitive film on a tragedy of inhuman proportions
This is a thriller. But it is a thriller which draws from a real life human tragedy that does not belong to any genre of ‘entertainment’. It forces the viewers to watch a real-life genocide, a massive human tragedy where criminal negligence by the powerful owners of a cinema theatre snatched away the lives of 59 unsuspecting, innocent, happy and hopeful audience. The audience had gone to entertain themselves with an action centered war film from Bollywood at Delhi’s Uphaar cinema, located in Green Park, an upper-class neighbourhood in the Capital.
Trial By Fire, the seven-part series premiered on NETFLIX on January 13 is perhaps the best show on real-life tragedies till date. More than a man-made tragedy that took, in its wake, 59 lives, this series is more about the long crusade for justice taken by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy who lost their two kids, Unnati (17) and Ujjwal (13) in the tragedy.
Instead of wallowing in an ocean of self-pity and grief, the two take on the fight to get justice, not only for the children they lost but also for the others who lost someone close in this tragedy.
The series is inspired by the book Trial By Fire authored by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy that was published in 2016. The fire blazed on Friday, July 13, 1997, destroying the lives of all those who lost their children, parents, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters and friends in the tragedy.
While on the one hand, the series details the reality of how a single moment is enough to devastate our otherwise normal lives, on the other, it portrays the tremendous grit, determination and focus in a young couple which decides to bring the criminals to justice.
Do they get justice for their kids’ sudden and scary death by fire? That is less important here than the fact that knowing that their kids will never return, they still keep fighting for justice. They carried on their struggle through law courts, through the formation of the AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy) for families who lost their near and dear ones.
They find a fair lawyer, search files and documents to provide evidence of criminal negligence on the part of the Ansal brothers, the owners of the ill-fated Uphaar theater who are never present during the court hearings. The Krishnamoorthy couple wards off agents approaching them with heavy compensation as “bribes” which a few might be tempted to accept.
The Krishnamoorthys’ lives are reduced to a single aim – punish the wrongdoers, never mind their clout, money power, ability to threaten AVUT members, even physically at times till one couple is forced to move away to a different flat.
The wonderful way the three directors Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha, and Avani Deshpande have sustained the dynamism of this action thriller based on a tragedy of inhuman proportions, has to be seen to be believed. The pace does not slow down at any point. The dynamism is electrically charged in every single scene and intensified within every single character.
The acting not only by the lead pair, Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol as the Krishnamoorthys, but the other characters such as the elderly actor who plays the poor man who has lost his entire family of seven, including a six-month-old grandchild, offer examples of finely nuanced performances that invest the film with the flesh-and-blood reality of a documentary.
The actual incident of the audience trapped inside the theatre, with the door locked from outside, slowly and dying either through suffocation due to the rising smoke, or in the fire that begins to engulf them from all sides, or, one of two friends falling off the narrow cornice to his death, scenes of dead bodies piled one upon the other, the manager running off with the money from the ticket proceeds to hand it over to his boss, ushers trying to help the people escape while at the same time, helping themselves of the goodies in a forgotten ladies’ purse, bring out small nuggets of how quickly, suddenly and tragically, lives can change.
This is not just for those trapped inside the theatre but also for those they leave behind to grieve over them. There is a scene in the court when a woman defense lawyer asks Neelam that no one ever saw her shed a tear after this great tragedy. Neelam remains silent.
The three characters this critic feels the series could have done without are the one portrayed by Ashish Vidyarthi, and that of an elderly couple played by Anupam Kher and Supriya Pathak. Vidyarthi plays an agent employed by the powers-that-be to pressurise the surviving families to accept the compensation the Ansals are offering, and withdraw the case. Though his performance is very real, the series did not need this intrusion.
Anupam Kher who portrays an ex military officer forced to retire before time, who keeps quarelling with his wife Supriya Pathak. She keeps arguing with him for not being able to become an artist. This is superfluous. The only relevance lies in that Kher dies in the fire while Supriya survives, left to mourn her husband’s tragic death.
The tragedy is shown in three installments, focussed on the incidents prior to the tragedy, then the aftermath and finally, the most horrific of all, the tragedy itself. The audience is forced to watch through the carefully manipulated script by Prashant Nair, Kevin Luperchio, Avani Deshpande, Sandeep Shrivastava, Athar Nawaz, and Aryan Jain. As a viewer, you often feel like turning away from the screen but this will fill you with a deep sense of guilt and at the same time, warn you against missing out on the most heinous moments of the tragedy brought ‘alive’ for you 27 years after it happened.
Why was the door locked from outside on the orders of the manager Arora? He gives the excuse that people often enter without tickets. But how can anyone step into any upmarket theatre like Uphaar without a ticket?
The electrician who is called in to repair one of the two faulty transformers is made a scapegoat by the “agents” of the Ansals. The Ansals’ legal team fund the electrician's daughter's wedding and also give him a promotion so that he becomes a surprise witness in the court case to weaken the case for the petitioners, led by the Krishnamoorthys and other members of AVUT.
The scene following the deaths of seven members of the poor man’s family as he has no money to give them a proper cremation, so his neighbours from the slum gather around to pass the hat while one unfeeling neighbor reminds us that it takes all kinds, is brilliant. A little later, you can see the bodies covered in white sheets awaiting cremation.
There are some flashbacks too, into the lives of the Krishnamoorthy family with the kids fighting with each other, the mother trying to squeeze in as many chores as she can while feeding the kids and seeing them off to school. These spell out the tragic absence of a normal life for the Krishnamoorthys who grow old over the course of the film. The two put on glasses, their hair slowly turns grey, their gait slowed down but not their energy that keeps driving them to reach the end of a seemingly endless journey.
Rajshri Deshpande as Neelam is more convincing than Abhay Deol, not because her performance is better than his, but because she does not carry the halo of a star around her head. Free of make-up, she gives a power-packed performance that is as demanding as life itself.
Her visit to her son’s friend Arjun when she learns he had gone with her son but survived the tragedy, is sad, angry and surprised at the same time. It is a masterful performance. There is no melodrama, no attempt to draw the audience to tears by the tragic scenes shown but just horror at the unfairness and the injustice of it all.
The cinematography, editing and background score is enriched by the brilliant soundtrack. It has the horns of fire engines, screams for help, dying cries, whimpers, sirens of speeding ambulances that keep reminding us that what we are seeing is death in installments that happened in this country just through criminal negligence.
The production design is excellent as it offers glimpses of what an upper-middle-class home in Delhi looks like in normal circumstances ,and when things have changed for the worse. It shows a Delhi slum, courts, offices piled over with files, and the Krishnamoorthy’s home that is spilling over with files and records that Neelam tries to keep track of, while her husband follows other tracks.
The end shows that though the Krishnamoorthys and other members of AVUT won the case on grounds of the Ansals having falsified evidence, one of the two brothers was sentenced while the other was set free as he was already over 80 years of age. But even the sentenced brother was set free after six months. The original compensation levied was also halved later.
Abhay Deol as Shekhar Krishnamurthy has given the most outstanding performance of his long career. He brings out the pathos, and fear of what this long struggle is doing to his wife’s mental state and expressions of pain when he finds that his children’s friends have grown up while his children will not.
He stands stolidly behind his wife even when convinced that nothing will happen in the end and the cycle of criminal negligence leading to death, of corruption in high places, and that justice conspicuous by its absence will continue to rule the world through people like the Ansals. Hooligans, agents, lawyers, and affluence had empowered the Ansals beyond limits in the Capital city of the world’s largest democracy.