Trial By Fire
Cast: Rajshri Deshpande, Abhay Deol, Ashish Vidyarthi, Shilpa Shukla, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak, Rajesh Tailang
Direction: Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha, Avani Deshpande
There are several moments in the first episode of Trial By Fire when I wanted to turn away, switch it off, change the channel to calm the rising unease inside.
The Uphaar tragedy that occurred on Friday, June 13th, 1997, remains seared in the hearts and minds of most Delhiites, including me, as a feeling of deep anguish and shock mixed with that shoulder-shrugging, fatalistic acceptance of man-made calamities we have learnt to live with.
But as we stood on the sidelines and watched the long-winding court battle for justice for the victims of the fire, the Uphaar tragedy settled into two images for most – the burnt, blackened facade of Uphaar cinema at the right-hand corner of Green Park Extn market, and the face of Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the mother of 17-year-old Unnati and 13-year-old Ujjwal, who were among the 59 people who died that day while watching the 3.15 pm show of Border.
Both the images were heavy, one way more than the other.
Like many, I too have walked or driven past the hollowed-out, gaping Uphaar cinema, and felt a dark chill envelop me. I have looked at it to look away, because looking was just too much. But there was something about Neelam, who would sometimes be on the television screen, at times in the newspaper, that was much more disturbing.
For almost two decades many of us have looked at her with uneasy helplessness because she seemed to demand something of us that we couldn’t muster up: A dogged spirit, a will to fight, instead of words of commiseration.
Indian culture abounds in stories of mothers who have risen like Durga and Kali to avenge harm done to her children. We know how to play that part and have imagined that we too would set ourselves on fire to extract revenge if our loved ones were ever harmed.
But Neelam Krishnamoorthy, this file-clutching, court-going woman, made tears and rage feel like an idle luxury, a fantasy, a comforting lie. Her presence seemed to say that anger and grief that cannot be channeled into a two-decade long fight to keep knocking on the apathetic doors of courts for justice were meaningless.
We bowed to her spirit and knew that if a tragedy like this were to ever befall us, our kids, we would want her by our side. But we could never be her. So we looked away.
Now, more than 25 years later, Netflix and writer-director Prashant Nair have brought us back to that moment to make us look at Neelam Krishnamoorthy in the eye, and we can’t look away.
Based on the book by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, Trial By Fire is a sharply written and directed seven-part series whose moral core is Neelam Krishnamoorty, played by Rajshri Deshpande.
Rajshri is an exceptionally talented actress who has managed to do the impossible. She plays the real-life Neelam with an equal measure of honesty and humanity. Her Neelam is a woman bereaved, besieged by rage, but Rajshri brings warmth to her personality that makes us finally look at her without feeling shame or guilt. Through her we meet a woman who has decided that she will pursue justice, and a mother who can’t but do what she is doing, and somehow our own anger, sorrow doesn’t feel pointless.
The series foregrounds Neelam, often with a crumpled dupatta hanging low around her neck, and her husband Shekhar (Abhay Deol), who is trying to keep pace with her as they battle the mighty construction giants, the Ansals. And it doesn’t for a second minimize what happened, nor does it make the battle for justice look easy. Their court fight is costly, daunting, and heart-breaking especially because the Krishnamoorthys and others were up against the Ansals who took 15 years to apologize for the fact that their greed and negligence had killed 59 people.
Rajshri plays Neelam with a lot of certitude, and manages to cradle in her face and her middle-aged gait, even when shot from the back, and Neelam’s righteousness, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a whip slapping our face.
Apart from Rajshri and the series’ writers, a lot of credit for this goes to Abhay Deol who represents our desperate need for normalcy, and makes the mundane act of living, breathing and laughing around Neelam feel less obscene.
Rajshri’s Neelam remains the ideal, a difficult, tough woman who seems to be breathing only so that she can fight, but Abhay’s Shekhar makes it easy to be around her, and that’s why the series often lets us access Neelam through Shekhar.
“Mere donon bachche Uphaar fire mein mar gaye,” Neelam says often in Trial By Fire, and every time she says it, we die a little. But apart from a few such unbearable moments, the series steers clear of using emotions and sentiments and stays focused on two things: the fight for justice, and the impact that corruption has on our lives.
In Trial by Fire we meet others who lost their children, parents, grandparents, and those who were responsible for the fire, apart from the Ansals – a fire-department official, a cinema-hall manager, a guard, a worker in the generator room.
It shows the impact that the Uphaar tragedy had on the families of men who are part of a system that is rotten. And through all of this it exposes the full extent of the malevolence of the Ansals and our criminal-justice system, and brings us face to face with what it really means when systems are compromised and officials are corrupt.
The only segment in Trial By Fire I didn’t care for was the starry one with Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak. Kher plays the real-life Capt. Manjinder Singh Bhinder of the Indian Army who managed to leave Uphaar, but then went back in to help people and died. Pathak plays his wife.
Both Kher and Pathak struck a filmy, artificial note with their “acting” and made it difficult to connect with the tragedy of the Bhinders.
Despite this, Trial By Fire is one of the finest Indian series I have seen on streaming platforms to date. Especially because it makes us complicit as well in the Uphaar tragedy because, it says, that a few extra rupees given to get an NOC, to cut a line, to make an official look away, to speed up a clearance will erupt in our face again, like it did 25 years ago.