Based on the book by Neelam Krishnamoorthy and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, ‘Trial by Fire’ takes a deep dive into the 1997 Uphaar cinema tragedy. Starring Rajashri Deshpande and Abhay Deol as bereaved parents of two victims, it presents a harrowing account of this national tragedy and the crooked nature of several things that plague the nation. What makes it truly stand out is not leaning into following the events like an archaic procedural drama. Instead, it focuses largely on presenting different facets of a system that allows such injustice go unpunished.
This Netflix miniseries, created by Kevin Luperchio and Prashant Nair, is sure to pluck your heartstrings amidst its cerebral exercise.
Trial by Fire (2023) Netflix Miniseries Episodic Recap:
Episode 1: Trial by Fire
On 13 June 1997, the Krishnamoorthy family begins their day like any other. The couple – Neelam (Rajashri Deshpande) & Shekhar (Abhay Deol), soon gets confronted with a shocking revelation. Both their children die in a tragic fire accident. The event happens in Delhi’s Uphaar cinema during the afternoon screening of Border. While in shock by this sudden loss, Neelam is restless and, thus, decides to find out what actually happened at the cinema. Upon seeing the video footage from the time of the incident, she comes across a person named Arora, the manager of Uphaar Cinema.
From her son’s friend, who was supposed to accompany him for the movie, she learns that he could not enter since by the time he reached there, the door was already locked from outside. Neelam realizes that this might be the reason why the victims couldn’t escape the hall. Petrified by this revelation, she reaches the manager’s address to confront him. While he is not present, his wife defends him by stating that he was only following the orders of his seniors. Shekhar, who is worried by her absence during this time, learn these new details from her. He confronts the cinema owner, Mr. Ansal, at his office while his guards pin him down on the ground.
Episode 2: A.V.U.T.
Mr. Ansal’s attorney tries to dissuade Neelam from pursuing her case against Ansals. Besides the Krishnamoorthys, we see the story of the cinema’s elderly guard, who suffers from the loss of his four family members during the fire tragedy. While stating its futility to Neelam, the attorney also makes every effort to silence the underprivileged guard. To intimidate him, he fetches Neeraj Suri (Ashish Vidyarthi), a middle-class man who works for him. All this while, the elderly guard suffers from gathering enough funds for the final rites of his loved ones.
Meanwhile, Neelam keeps hitting a roadblock in every attempt she makes to get closer to the truth. As the owner of the establishment, the blatant lack of responsibility shown by Ansal troubles her the most. She expects owners to be at least decent enough to convey consideration for the lost souls. As a result, she soon breaks into a wedding with a neighbor Shalini (Shilpa Shukla) to persuade some influential guests to expedite the process of justice. After getting turned down by these people who are more loyal to their accumulated wealth than to even an ounce of humanity, the couple eventually forms Association of The Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (A.V.U.T) along with other victims of this brutal incident, including the aforementioned bereaved man.
Episode 3: Memorial
About three months after the Uphaar incident, around 12 suspects, including Mr. Ansal and Arora, are taken by the police into their custody. These arrests were made due to the A.V.U.T.’s consistent efforts. However, since they are charged with non-bailable offenses, Ansal’s attorney tries to persuade Neelam to ease the process for their release by noting that Mr. Ansal shows remorse toward the victims. Since they do not respond amicably to their persuasive efforts, intimidation attempts are made not just against them, but also against other A.V.U.T. members to drop the charges.
Another middle-aged couple is threatened by instilling fear into their daily lives by cheap acts like suspending their kid from school for no reason or getting the man fired from his job. All of these acts are carried out by Neeraj, appointed as a goon-like executive to expedite the release of Ansals. This middle-class man only hopes to get a better life for his family through his monetized loyalty. With the hope of social mobility, he ends up being responsible for terrible actions, which in turn, puts him in a cycle of guilt and remorse for those he mistreated. Meanwhile, wealthy Ansals get out of jail and are welcomed into their outside world with corporate cordiality.
Episode 4: Uphaar
Ansal’s lawyers make a case for him by stating how the accusations against him irreparably tarnished his reputation as a charitable philanthropist. They try to shift the blame on the Electricity board for the negligence in fire safety. All this while, prosecutor Mr. Gaur appears meek, floundering, and proceeding without any emotional involvement in the cause. Neelam confronts him about his lack of passion toward the bereaved & the victims and asks him to pursue it by thinking about why it matters.
Meanwhile, Neeraj is still on his task to intimidate the Krishnamoorthy couple. Since he notices Neeraj following him with the same intent, Shekhar retaliates to convey that he won’t back down, no matter what. We also get a glimpse into the life of Uphaar cinema’s ticket collector – Umesh (Shardul Bharadwaj), who looks at his earnings as a means to clear his debt. This slum-dwelling hustler looks for every other opportunity to earn and make ends meet.
In the court, Mr. Gaur makes a case against the theatre employees for betraying the trust of innocent civilians in the cinema hall. And seeing their unflinching resolve, Ansal’s lawyers try to malign Neelam’s public image while painting her as a fame-seeking individual whose lack of visible emotion is conveyed as her stoic interest in popularity. She retorts to bring back attention to the case and why one needs to be made against the cinema owners. She notes the locked door of the cinema hall and constant attempts at denying any blame by the owners, even when no one has accused them of any wrongdoing.
Episode 5: Heroes
We meet a middle-aged couple on the day of the Uphaar tragedy – Captain Hardeep Bedi, who left the service due to his wife’s request, along with his wife, who had unmet ambitions. Even after many years, he still holds resentment for not letting him move further on the steps of heroism. He hates the lack of dignity and respect in the new generation while treating the likes of him. Perhaps he sees it as a painful result of years of not serving a nation. He speaks about Border, a film made on the war in which he couldn’t partake. He takes the blame out on his wife, who struggles on her own for not being able to pursue her dream in her youth.
Both have reached middle age without living a life they wished they had, and with the same realization, they reconcile and head to watch Border, not knowing what awaits them. Meanwhile, after nine years of tragedy, the Krishnamoorthys are still struggling to find peace in their lives. While Neelam goes out with the new prosecutor’s assistant to check for the missing documents from their testimony, Shekhar meets his college friend and gets a taste of what his life would be like, if he did not suffer the pain of loss of losing his children.
Despite their perseverance, they grapple with the loss and years of dissatisfaction. Upon seeing the evidence tampering in Ansal’s favor, the assistant thinks it is better to present it in the court as a way of finally inching closer to the truth. She suffers from a lack of respect and attention shown by her male superior. Neelam sees this young lawyer disregarding her personal life amidst this endless pursuit. Not just her, but the A.V.U.T. members stay firm in their support of Neelam’s tireless attempts despite the wealthy parties trying to weaken it.
Episode 6: Villains
We then see events 18 years after the incident, where the Ansals were still not prosecuted for their crimes. While they were roaming free, a city worker called Veer Singh (Rajesh Tailang), who last checked the transformer before the fire – was made a scapegoat by his superiors. His destiny was decided by powerful men and the law, while he was merely following their orders. During his years of prison time, life flew by for his family, and he could not witness his children grow old despite having little fault of his own.
While Shekhar & Neelam grew increasingly impatient over the years, the grudge held by Veer’s son against them grows stronger for making his family spend their lives fatherless. Years passed by, and Veer needed to feel the brunt of all the ups and downs, to even not experiencing his daughter’s wedding as an on-and-off felon, simply because of powerful men who had the keys to the justice system. He was made out to be a villain by the law. Meanwhile, all of it made his family lead an inconsistent life. The episode begs us to ask the question – who do we consider to be villains in the story?
Neeraj, whose job was to intimidate the victims to not speak against Ansals, comes up to the Krishnamoorthys to apologize after losing his own child. It’s funny how black-and-whites are decided by the ones who have power and wealth, making everyone else ponder about their greys.
Episode 7: Border
The episode goes back to the colossal event that shaped the lives of those related to it in one way or the other. On the day of this Uphaar tragedy, we are presented with all the crucial details that became a part of the ordeal. All the characters we see before come together with the hope of having a few hours of escape from their regular lives. The audience enters the cinema hall, and then the door gets locked from the outside.
Soon after, fire breaks open in the basement leading to smoke inside the cinema hall. Yet everyone is so engrossed in the film to notice it. While the cinema’s manager, Arora, calls the police to inform them, the projectionist tries to inform the audience to escape through the fire exit but fails due to a failure in the PA system. All this time, Arora deems it important to prioritize taking his black money out before leaving, only to see the terror that this establishment under his control has fallen prey to.
Trial by Fire (2023) Netflix Miniseries Ending, Explained:
The audience gets terrified and tries to make every effort to get out, which creates havoc inside the dark room, where the only light is that of Umesh’s torch. Over 900 audience members tried to rescue themselves, and while some of them succeeded, 59 of them get perished in the fire. Meanwhile, Neelam & Shekhar wake up with the belief in their mission, despite all the perils they have faced. He goes to the A.V.U.T. meeting and interacts with the members with a sense of cordiality.
Neelam goes to the court for a verdict on an evidence tampering case where she and the prosecutor present the pieces that were missing before to prove the moneyman’s crime. We learn about the impact Neelam has created with her awareness and influence. While the judge praises her contribution and proceeds to speak about the verdict, the voice slowly fades, and the camera fixates on Neelam’s face, where she looks directly into the viewer’s eyes. Perhaps it is a sign for the viewers to introspect upon the nature of money and power in this country that lets powerful men get out of the retribution for their crimes within just six months.
Trial by Fire (2023) Netflix Miniseries Review:
A riveting series that investigates a crooked system that enables unaccountability
‘Trial by Fire’ benefits from the rich subtext that is neatly tucked under its incidents, character motivations, and social positioning of its characters. While the series is primarily about the devastating incident of the Uphaar cinema tragedy, it touches upon the issues of several lives that got destroyed in the fire.
Instead of making it an archaic procedural drama, the miniseries highlights several aspects that determine our way of looking at the event, its aftermath, and the people involved in it. From its intelligently titled episodes, it leans into an introspective side upon who we consider our heroes and villains – how we define heroism and who we consider being the villains in the story.
Whether it is Umesh, Neeraj, Veer, or the retired Captain, it begs us to ask ourselves how we define these individuals and their characters. It presents how money or power dictates several elements of all of its characters’ decisions and how social mobility pushes them to do things without thinking of the implications. Its denial to resort to needlessly expositional writing makes up for an intelligent viewing. While glancing upon the systemic issues, it manages to marry grit with a humanist approach.
Not just the cerebral, but the creators take care of cinematic narration just as potently. The episode titled ‘Villains’ shows the life of a scapegoat and innovatively conveys the passage of time to reflect the lack of change in their life despite all the life events. Despite the number of events happening in the lives of Veer’s family members, the hopes for betterment remain just hope.
The last episode brings back all the characters whose stories we hear about throughout the series. It is a rare feat to create a visceral impact despite having such a varied set of narratives and perspectives. The episode stands out not just due to the masterful depiction of that terrifying incident but by understanding the seriousness of the lives at stake. ‘Trial by Fire’ knows by all accounts that its job is not just about creating the thrill of a tragic incident and thus becomes a mature and sensible drama, elevated by its layered acting performances.
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