Trial by Fire review: Netflix series based on 1997 Uphaar tragedy is a triumphant reminder of the cost of resilience
Trial by Fire review: Led by a pitch-perfect performance by Rajshri Deshpande, Trial by Fire, which is based on the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy, is piercingly raw and intimate.
In June 1997, a fire broke out in Uphaar Cinema in Delhi, killing 59 innocent people, who were there to watch JP Dutta’s Border. Yet there was zero accountability from the culprits of this man-made tragedy, hiding a hushed agreement between the owners and the management. Among the victims were Unnati and Ujjwal, children of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, whose lives would change forever as they fought for justice in a system, where nothing can change overnight. Trial by Fire, the new Netflix series created by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, details this real-life tragedy that turns into a fight of people versus the system, which refuse to take blame. It will take the Krishnamoorthy's two decades, and some more. (Also read: Kuttey movie review: An entertaining, raw and wild tale of bloodthirsty people)
Based on the titular memoir by Shekhar and Neelam Krishnamoorthy, Trial By Fire begins its story on the day of the tragedy and takes shape over the years. This is a story that spans decades, juxtaposed between the crossroads of personal tragedy and systemic negligence. Civil lawsuits, court proceedings, and countless verdicts pile up. When a story cuts this far and deep, where does it draw the line? Trial by Fire begins resolutely by fixing the focus on the Krishnamoorthys. We see the events unfold through the perspective of Neelam (Rajshri Deshpande) and Shekhar (Abhay Deol), who decide that they want to file a police complaint against the culprits- who are the Ansal Brothers, the owners of Uphaar and almost half of the infrastructure in the Delhi of the late-Nineties. The first two episodes are fixed on the immediate pattern of events that reveal that this will be a tough battle. From the third episode onwards, Trial By Fire opens up to supporting characters, parallel timelines, and shift in perspectives that lie wounded by the tragedy years later.
What works so triumphantly for Trial by Fire is how the writing uncharacteristically allows its viewers to stay focused on the lives ravaged by the tragedy. Trial by Fire is a show about the power as well as cost of resilience. As Neelam and Sekhar uncover the smallest of clues and gather evidences to fight for justice, we see two people whose lives will never be the same. Trial by Fire never feels the need to sensationalize their lives as seen through the numerous interviews given on TV with big, dialogue-heavy moments. Rather Nair is interested in digging out the quieter moments of loss and desperation that can never be expressed. Later, in a scene when Neelam and Sekhar visit a friend's house, and see their child all grown up, the devastation in their eyes require no additional cue.
Piercingly raw and intimate, Trial by Fire also dares to take a few narrative swings. Although not all of them land where they should. There is the dry-fruits trader Suri (a terrific Ashish Vidyarthi) who serves the managers and bribes the families of the victims to stay away from the association. An entire sidetrack is focused on a retired captain and his wife (played by Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah) whose lives lead back to the tragedy- yet the digression ultimately feels forced. Meanwhile there is the debt-ridden Umesh (Shardul Bharadwaj), who is constantly on the run- whose character does not quite live upto the ambition of the narrative. Then arrives the biggest gambit of all, in Episode 6, where a decade is cut through the interiors of a tiny hut that belongs to the technician who was at work that day at Uphaar, Veer Singh (the ever-reliable Rajesh Tailang). Paired with the stunning cinematography by Soumyananda Sahi and editing by Daniel Hajlang, these sequences of Trial by Fire are blisteringly powerful.
Abhay Deol is quite effective as a man whose tenacity and unbridled support for his wife is undercut in the smallest of gestures. He knows there's no escape once the years pass by, yet he will not give in- gathering his resources in bits and places. Except for the brief encounter with an old friend that takes the form a drunken detour akin to DevD-esque territory, Deol cuts a finely tuned performance. Yet, even with the numerous turns that the narrative takes along the way, Trial By Fire shines the brightest when the frame rests on Rajshri Deshpande. As Neelam, Deshpande is so magnetic and believable, that it feels like nothing in the world should matter when she makes her case. There is a quiet rumination of anger and frustration of a bereaved mother that churns up within Neelam over the years that precisely works as the hook that pins the attention in the later episodes. Most of the time, she is aware of what's happening in the room- before anyone else. Note the precision in her delivery of "parvah kijiye," to the lawyer who is restless to munch on his egg roll rather than dig deep into the opposition's case. Her performance is pitch-perfect.
Trial by Fire is an urgent and important work that urges the viewers to sit up and take notice of a decades-old tragedy that has been passed from one verdict to another. Rather than bridging the trials and calculations of a court-room investigation thriller, this is a controlled, heartbreaking drama that looks back in order to ask what has changed. In the last episode, when it finally draws back to the tragedy which unfolds in real time, you dare not look away. In a system that manipulates and tampers the truth to disregard the disenfranchised, what is the cost of hope? In a man-made tragedy of such devastating proportions, is resilience the only key to resolution? Trial by Fire asks, circling back to that ingenious fourth-wall breaking shot of Deshpande's piercing gaze- the answers to these questions.