'Trial by Fire' Has Refreshed Public Memory Of 1997's Tragic Upahar Cinema Fire

The Upahar cinema hall after the fire
The Upahar cinema hall after the fireIndia TV News

There is a saying that the public has a short memory and that definitely holds true. Be it the world of showbiz, business, politics, or any industry, the failures or atrocities of powerful people are quickly forgotten or overlooked and they retain their power like nothing’s changed. The lives of the victims are often viewed as minuscule by society compared to their powerful perpetrators. Such was the case with the Uphaar cinema fire in Delhi in 1997, which is one of the worst fire tragedies in recent Indian history.

During the three o’clock screening of the movie Border, there was a fire that spread because of the ill-maintenance of the electric transformer by the business conglomerates who owned the cinema hall. It resulted in fifty-nine people being trapped inside and dying of asphyxiation, while 103 were seriously injured in the resultant stampede. Like in most other cases, the business tycoons responsible for this tragedy were about to walk scot-free owing to their wealth and power. In the case of this tragedy, the families of the victims of the fire formed The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT), which fought tooth and nail to file a landmark civil compensation case. It won ₹25 crores in compensation for the families of the victims and the case is now considered a breakthrough in civil compensation law in India.

A tragedy of such magnitude and its repercussions have been forgotten by many and those born after 1997, are largely unaware of it. Netflix’s latest seven-episode television series, Trial by Fir,e does a brilliant job in reminding people of the incident and wonderfully portrays the struggles of the victims’ families in securing justice from the Indian judiciary system and holding the perpetrators responsible. The show brings out a heart-rending real-life story that has been waiting to be told for more than two decades.

The show is aided by pointed writing by Prashant Nair, Kevin Luperchio, and the rest of the crew, with unflashy yet effective execution, and splendid performances from the main actors. It cements into public memory a tragedy in Delhi that people are unlikely to forget now. The series subtly and piercingly, captures the story through the lens of a traumatized but tough and tenacious Delhi couple (Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy) who lost their two children in the Uphaar cinema fire on June 13, 1997. With the support of lawyers and the relatives of the other victims, they fight relentlessly against the bureaucratic wheels of justice to bring those responsible for the tragedy to book.

In form, substance, and approach, Trial by Fire lends the narrative a kind of universal relevance and turns it into a cautionary tale that is not time-bound or case-specific. It points to the shocking culture of callousness and impunity that shows the way public facilities are often run in this country. The series realistically portrays the response of the victims spearheaded by the Krishnamoorthys and the combination of legal stonewalling, veiled threats, financial inducements, and tampering with evidence that the powerful owners of the cinema hall resorted to in order to save their skins.

The loss and sorrow that a mother feels upon losing her children is brilliantly portrayed by the powerful performance of Rajshri Deshpande as Neelam. Abhay Deol, in the role of Shekhar, is stunning too, but everything falls short when compared to the raw emotions portrayed on screen by Deshpande. The actress portrays a wide spectrum of emotions and the camera often focuses on her face, whose expressions are a mixture of deep bereavement upon her loss and imploding anger towards the loop-hole-ridden judiciary system. There are several other stories of loss and grief of the other families interviewed within the narrative which the rest of the cast also masterfully enacts.

Trial by Fire is a heart-rendering tale of lives cut short and the repercussions of an event that have been as agonizing and unsettling as the tragedy itself. All seven episodes are currently being streamed on Netflix. This is a must-watch!

You can watch the full series here.

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