Based on a book of the same name by Shekhar and Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the 2023 Netflix series ‘Trial by Fire’ wastes no time introducing the primary tragedy and theme to its viewers – two parents rush to the scene of a cinema fire where their two teen children were watching a matinee show. Rajshri Deshpande is arresting as Neelam Krishnamoorthy, a mother possessed to find out what led to her children’s deaths.
Created by Kevin Luperchio and Prashant Nair, ‘Trial by Fire’ is spread over seven episodes and tells the tale of the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze which snuffed out 59 lives and several others injured. Rajshri Deshpande is arresting as Neelam Krishnamoorthy, a mother possessed to find out what led to her children’s deaths and to ensure those responsible for the avoidable deaths face consequences. Abhay Deol plays her stoic husband Shekhar and together the Krishnamoorthys fight an uphill battle for justice against the rich and powerful Ansal brothers, the men who owned the cinema hall where several safety rules were flouted.
The first episode is gripping and does a fantastic job of setting the pace for the rest of the show, which is about an ordinary middle-class couple’s fight against the system and its sluggish judiciary processes. Rajshri Deshpande’s Neelam is the driving force of the story, who has her moments of despair but is bolstered by her husband to rise each time she falls. From chasing cops for leads, govt officials for documents and fellow victims’ families for support, the lead couple is inspirational in their steely determination that fuels them for over two decades of court-drama, media scrutiny and multiple hurdles. To the credit of the creators, they also put some spotlight on the kind of mental toll such a trial can take on a person.
Largely seen from the point of view of the victims’ families, episode six titled ‘Villains’ was the only weak link, where the story slows down a little and the focus shifts to a small pawn who is made to take the fall for the fire. With just seven episodes to boot, a few characters are simply forgotten or given hasty conclusions. The cinematography and screenplay were simple, sharp and without frills. The actual Uphaar fire is shot in a way that makes the viewer feel like they are watching news footage of the blaze; the focus is never on the flames, but on the struggle of those trapped in the inferno, making it a gut-wrenching to watch.
A lot of actors play smaller parts with aplomb, like Ashish Vidyarthi who plays a goon-like Neeraj Suri who is tasked by the Ansals’ legal team to buy the silence of all those who could pose trouble for them. Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah play Captain Hardeep Bedi and Mrs Bedi, on the surface their roles might not seem too crucial to some – they play an old married couple who go to watch ‘Border’ together on the unfortunate day – but their brief sub-plot gives faces to the daily lives of the victims. The creative team has obviously dramatized some incidents for emotional effect and does bring about the desired catharsis.
The Krishnamoorthys didn’t get the kind of justice they were hoping for, but they achieve far more than anybody around them expected them to with their limited means. Stream the series on Netflix for a gritty drama symbolic of a common man’s unbreakable spirit.
It’s an 8/10 from me.
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