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At Uphaar, a social contract is shattered
Movies are an integral part of the average Indian household. A popular movie brings people from across generations, class, gender, and religion, under one roof. For the duration of the movie, we leave behind our day-to-day stresses and surrender ourselves to the magic on the silver screen. Because somewhere deep down is an implicit understanding that this is a safe space to let go and enjoy.
On 13th June, 1997, however, this tacit agreement was broken. During the screening of the blockbuster “Border”, a fire broke out at Uphaar Cinema in New Delhi. Fifty-nine people lost their lives because of asphyxiation, while 103 people were seriously injured. This is considered to be one of the worst fire tragedies in India in recent years.
Decades long fight for justice
Netflix mini series (2023) “Trial By Fire”, created by Kevin Luperchio and Prashant Nair, is based on the true story of the decades-long fight for justice by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, played by Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol, respectively. Their children, 17-year-old Unnati and 14-year-old Ujjwal, were among the people who died in the Uphaar Cinema fire. They, along with the families of many other victims, formed an association called AVUT (Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy). Spearheaded by Neelam, AVUT filed a case against the owners Gopal and Sushil Ansal. The case went on for over twenty years.
Brilliant cast supports tight screenplay
The series–based on the book “Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy” by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy–plays to its many strengths, the biggest of which is the tight screenplay. It plunges the viewers straight into the events. The very first scene establishes the dynamics between the lead couple and what their personalities are like, something that becomes a key element in the later episodes. The next scene cuts to the immediate aftermath of the fire as the couple runs from pillar to post, trying to find their children. From here on, the series explores the complex mire of grief, rage, and the seemingly endless battle for justice.
Some excellent performances buoy the series, especially that of the leads. Rajshri Deshpande, in a career-best role as Neelam, is unrelenting, determined, and pursuing her goal with a bullheaded stubbornness. She simply never gives up. One can see the simmering rage and deep sorrow in her eyes. Abhay Deol’s Shekhar is a gentle soul who has experienced a loss so profound, he has moved beyond caring. He slaps a random stranger who cuts him off in a line, subtly threatens someone, and he barges into an office, screaming. Yet, amidst all this, the soft and sweet Shekhar still lives on. Deol sheds his glamor in favor of a more grounded look and a heartfelt performance.
The supporting cast is also impeccable. Ashish Vidyarthi’s Suri could have been a cardboard character as the goon that is trying to stop people from joining AVUT. But the character has an unexpected depth and Ashish plays the role to perfection. Rajesh Tailang, Nimisha Nair, and Shardul Bharadwaj are stellar in their small but impactful roles. Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah are reliable actors and almost always do justice to whatever roles they choose to play. This series is no exception.
I must mention the soulful song, Jahava se aayo, in Shubha Mudgal’s voice. It is just as stunning and gut-wrenching as the narrative of the series.
A masterclass in narration and camera work
Episode 6 requires a special segment of its own as it is something so unique, it leaves the viewer in awe. Long single shots are used as a storytelling technique, as the narrative flits back and forth in time. Most of the episode happens in one small house where Rajesh Tailang’s character lives. He is the city electrician who had checked the transformer of Uphaar theater earlier in the day. He becomes the scapegoat, and this episode chronicles the impact that it has on him and his family in the years to come. This episode shows what good staging and deft camerawork can achieve.
Exploration of grief, silence, and love
There is no one way to grieve. Nor is it a linear process. What is inevitable, however, is that the ones left behind continue to live. Sometimes, losing a loved one is an abstract concept in the back of our minds as we carry on with our day. But then, suddenly, something happens, and their absence leaves a whole new wound in our hearts.
“Trial By Fire” explores that beautifully, when Shekhar gets a cake that they had ordered for Ujjwal’s 15th birthday. The reaction of each parent to the cake, their deep understanding of each other’s sorrow, and the way they talk their issues out were beautifully shown. But the portrayal of grief doesn’t end there. The hollow, uncomprehending look in the eyes of the old man who lost seven family members in the fire is going to haunt me for days.
With the children gone, silence weighs heavy in the Krishnamoorthy household. They break down in the bathroom’s solitude. They hide away the toothbrushes that remind them of the people they lost. Neelam sees Shekhar come home drunk, and despite being clearly annoyed, she chooses to stay quiet. Shekhar sees Neelam get obsessed with her goal, but stands next to her, offering silent support. And this is how they love.
To love in grief
This is a mature examination of grief and silence, and their role in love. There are no big promises or declarations of love here. Love is understanding that one’s spouse is a human who makes mistakes. It is to realize where the partner is coming from, to know what may have triggered a poor reaction, and the ability to forgive. Love is quiet support, the silent insight into each other’s wounded hearts. Most marriages do not survive a blow this big, but the Krishnamoorthys stick with each other through it all. And that is their love. Strong and silent.
The series is near perfect. However, I have a couple of issues, the first being the storyline around Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah. While the veteran actors are spot on, it’s their story that I have a problem with. It feels forcefully shoehorned into the narrative. I would have preferred to see more of the courtroom instead.
It is in the final episode that we see, for the first time, the actual fire and the chaos that ensued. It was a tad too dark; I had trouble keeping up with what was happening. I understand they wanted to portray the horror that the people trapped inside might have felt. But the realistic portrayal was too hard for me to watch and follow the events.
Finally, this is one of the best Hindi series that has come on Netflix, and I would recommend a watch. But, because of the subject, this is not an easy watch. The emotions are real and raw. Please use your own discretion while watching.