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With powerhouse performances by the lead cast and the supporting cast in the many subplots, Netflix series Trial by Fire about the 1997 Uphaar tragedy is a must watch.
Trigger Warning: This article on Netflix series Trial by Fire speaks of violent death, loss and grief, which may be triggering for survivors.
There are a few tragedies that scar you forever even if they didn’t happen to you, and consciously or unconsciously, you follow up on the developments as they come in the news. The 13th June 1997 Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy is one such. I remember reading in the papers about how there were many children who lost their lives, and for a long time I had trouble breathing easy in a cinema hall.
Yesterday, a limited 7 episode series was released by Netflix, based on a memoir written by the parents of two teenagers who died in this. Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy have published their book Trial by Fire in 2016 that recounts their fight from the day of the incident up to 19 years after.
The series is a dramatised version of the same name, by Endemol Shine. Rajshri Deshpande absolutely lives the role of Neelam Krishnamoorthy in an extraordinary performance that is very respectful of the loss, ably supported by Abhay Deol as Shekhar Krishnamoorthy.
There are other sub-plots that make you think and empathise, especially the ones about the electrician who is blamed for the fire breakout played by the talented Rajesh Tailang, and the even more extraordinary and memorable role of his wife played by Kiran Sharma who dazzles – I looked her up and realised that her talent has until now been wasted in soaps. There is the episode with the old, poverty beleaguered office guard, who loses his entire family of 7 members in the fire, including a 6 month old granddaughter.
As Firstpost says in its review, “Trial By Fire is a remarkably honest and objective look at a ghastly human tragedy which was suppressed by money and muscle power.”
There is a scene in the first episode of Trial by Fire.
Shekhar and Neelam, along with close family, have just completed the last rites at the crematorium. The women are speaking to her but a dazed Neelam isn’t registering anything. Just then, she sees her friend Anisha, whose son had gone with her children for the film. Even in her grief, Neelam walks towards her, love and understanding in her eyes for Anisha’s equal loss.
Until she realises that Anisha’s son Arjun is traumatised but safe at home. The camera is focused on Rajshri’s face which shows the minuscule changes from care to bewilderment to disbelief in a matter of seconds.
Neelam is unable to relax or let go of this thought – WHY did Anisha’s son Arjun stay safe while MY children died? They were together that day. At home later, she is roused only by a news item that speaks of a possible reason for the fire, reacting with disproportionate anger when her young nephews disconnect the TV to watch a video. And early next morning, as soon as there is some light, she goes to Arjun’s place to speak with him, because she MUST have an answer. Rajshri’s Neelam displays a mixture of disbelief, anger, and a need to know – when she faces Arjun’s parents at their door, who promise her they will call her when Arjun, still in shock, says anything.
This is a tiny yet powerful foretaste of the powerhouse performance by Rajshri that brings alive Neelam Krishnamoorthy and her fight for justice as the series proceeds. The denial, anger, and then the resolve that carried her and her husband through the long, empty years that followed, filled with getting a community of those bereaved to gather together to form the A.V.U.T. – Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy – which registered and fought the case in court against the owners of Uphaar Cinema – the Ansal brothers – and also supported each other through it all. The way their lives change irrevocably, even their relationship, even as the very real love they have keeps them together through everything that tests the best of relationships. The way they find themselves alienated from almost all friends and family who don’t know what and how to say anything to them, and find their community in those fighting with them.
Abhay Deol’s performance in Trial by Fire is worth a mention here – he surprised me with his nuanced understanding and restrained portrayal of Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, the quieter husband who supports Neelam through everything.
On 9th September 2014, my 23 year old niece was killed in a completely preventable road accident despite having followed the rules, because of a bad, potholed road, and I have been with my cousin and sister in law through the many years since from day one. I could see both of them in the faces of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy all the time I watched this series. I have seen the exact same expressions on their faces as they struggled to make sense of what happened, as they have tried to cope over the years, as I visited them every week since, until the pandemic struck.
My sister in law Dr Shubhangi Tambwekar has written about it, and as the more vocal of the couple, she has been the spearhead for all the fight for not letting my niece’s death be in vain, and they have set up The Arundhati Foundation in her name so that others don’t go through what they had to go through.
Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy are fighting for the same thing. Even as political connections and money muscle has protected those who were responsible as much as possible, they have also been fighting for policy change so that others don’t have to go through what they have been through.
I immediately picked it up, and have made some headway. Every word of the feelings Neelam expresses rings so true; I have heard almost exactly the same words from Shubhangi.
In the book, she says, “There can be no greater sorrow for parents than to witness the death of their children. We experienced intense anger, disbelief, guilt, denial, sorrow and fear—all of it affecting us in turns. We often felt hopeless and isolated, and it took a toll on both of us. Our lives had changed forever and, until today, we cannot say we have gotten over the grief… Over time we also learnt that some people cannot speak compassionately to bereaved parents. What many believe to be a comforting statement is most often not. People have told us that time is a healer, that we should move on with life and that whatever happens, happens for the greater good. They do not realize that the loss of a child is a wound that never heals completely and that living without your children is like living with a wound that bleeds forever. How can bereaved parents move on with their lives when they have lost their most precious treasure? The only things we hold on to are the memories of our children and our love for them. By doing so, we are moving forward, but we never really move on. When someone tells us that whatever happens, happens for the greater good, it makes our blood boil. This is sheer insensitivity! How can there be any good in children dying before their parents? Such unsolicited advice and platitudes offer no comfort to us.”
Trial by Fire is a must watch series, and as one review I read says, possibly the best offering in this space by Netflix. There’s graphic portrayal of the tragedy in the last episode, so this could be watched on fast forward for those who may not be able to do so.
If you’d like to pick up Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy written by Aayush Puthran, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US. It is available in Hindi too for those who want.
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Image source: Netflix and book cover Amazon
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Rajshri Deshpande, who played the fiery protagonist in Trial by Fire along with Abhay Deol speaks of her journey and her social work.
Rajshri Deshpande as the protagonist in ‘Trial by Fire’, the recent Netflix show has received raving reviews along with the show itself for its sensitive portrayal of the Uphaar Cinema Hall fire tragedy, 1997 and its aftermath.
The limited series is based on the book by the same name written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, who lost both their children in the tragedy. We got an opportunity to interview Rajshri Deshpande who played Neelam Krishnamoorthy, the woman who has been relentlessly crusading in the court for holding the owners responsible for the sheer negligence.
Rajshri Deshpande is more than an actor. She is also a social warrior, the rare celebrity from the film industry who has also gone back to her roots to give to poverty struck farming villages in her native Marathwada, with her NGO Nabhangan Foundation. Of course a chance to speak with her one on one was a must!
“What is a woman’s job, Ramesh? Taking care of parents-in-law, husband, children, home and things at work—all at the same time? She isn’t God or a superhuman."
The arrays of workstations were occupied by people peering into their computer screens. The clicks of keyboard keys were punctuated by the occasional footsteps moving around to brainstorm or collaborate with colleagues in their cubicles. Most employees went about their tasks without looking at the person seated on either side of their workstation. Meenakshi was one of them.
The thirty-one-year-old marketing manager in a leading eCommerce company in India sat straight in her seat, her eyes on the screen, her fingers punching furiously into the keys. She was in a flow and wanted to finish the report while the thoughts and words were coming effortlessly into her mind.
Natu-Natu. The mellifluous ringtone interrupted her thoughts. She frowned at her mobile phone with half a mind to keep it ringing until she noticed the caller’s name on the screen, making her pick up the phone immediately.
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