India is a beautiful place, with its diverse cultures, people, colors, and languages, and from the tourist’s point of view, the country is the perfect getaway destination. But once you get a deeper look, you quickly notice that the bureaucracy, the chains of command, and the offices of the highest positions are marred with corruption and negligence, which often ends up claiming the lives of people. Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy of Delhi learned the true colors of this cankerous corruption on the evening of June 13, 1997, when a huge fire in the Uphaar cinema hall claimed the lives of their son and daughter, along with 57 other people. The Netflix series, “Trial by Fire” by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, is adapted from a book published by the Krishnamoorthys in 2016 and holds a mirror to the shabby state of affairs that caused the fatal accident. The series spans seven episodes and talks about the harshest of challenges that the couple had to face when they dared to go against the Ansal Brothers, who were the owners of the Uphaar cinema hall, and other similar people in powerful positions to seek justice for their dead children. “Trial by Fire” is the testimony to the astounding courage that the Krishnamoorthys and every other relatives of the victims demonstrated in the face of insurmountable odds and continued a 24-year battle. Here’s how tragedy struck the once cheerful home of the Krishnamoorthys.
Neelam Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande) is taking care of the house and business simultaneously, while her 13-year-old son Ujjwal is engaged in a video game with his friend Arjun, as Ujjwal’s father Shekhar (Abhay Deol) watches on with a smile. The computer that their 17-year-old daughter Unnati works on hints at the time frame in which the events begin. Arjun’s mother, Anisha, comes to pick the boys up for their swimming classes, and the mothers discuss that they will be picked up after the kids watch J.P. Nair’s newest release, “Border.” Unnati returns to her room, annoyed after Neelam chides her to finish her homework before she can head to the movies, as the couple tries their hands at the video game.
There is a dramatic change in scene, pace, and temper as Neelam and Shekhar’s car is stuck in traffic, and Neelam rushes out, pushing through the crowd. The couple is stopped at a police barricade along with countless other concerned and frightened people as Neelam begs to be let inside as her children are stuck inside. She manages to squeeze her way inside and is soon joined by Shekhar, and they watch with horror as a cinema hall is engulfed in flames. The firemen’s attempts to rescue people are halted by the massive explosions inside the theater that light up the night sky. Shekhar and Neelam find Arjun’s mother, Anisha, who informs them that everyone has been evacuated, according to the rescue workers. Cries of the wounded, screams of the family members, and the crackling of the fire can be heard in the background. The hapless parents scamper to find an autorickshaw to head to the hospitals where the patients are being transferred. Shekhar heads to Safdarjung hospital while Neelam leaves for AIIMS to look for their children. While talking to Neelam over the phone to find out what clothes Unnati is wearing, the nurse leads him somewhere, and we can see his blank expression and Neelam’s questions from the other side of the device while assuming the worst.
The bodies of Ujjwal and Unnati lie as Shekhar’s elder brother Madhav informs the heartbroken father that they need to leave, and Neelam spots that Unnati’s necklace is missing. As the funeral pyre burns, the Krishnamoorthys’ relatives arrive to offer condolences when Neelam spots Anisha. While speaking to her, Neelam makes the startling discovery that Arjun is at home, shaken and recovering from the shock. At the Krishnamoorthy residence, the house is packed with relatives as Neelam sits on the drawing room sofa. The news channel talks about the fire at the Uphaar cinema hall while two boys fidget with the video games that Ujjwal was playing so enthusiastically the day before. The names of Gopal and Sushil Ansal come up as the owners of the property at the exact moment when the boys switch on the video game. Neelam screams at the children to leave, although this misdirected anger is an outward expression of the hollowness she feels on the inside. Neelam heads to the washroom, where she cuts her hair with Shekhar’s razor, and the haphazard shape of her messy hair reflects the mess that her life is at the moment. Shekhar barely listens to a word that’s being spoken and joins Neelam on the courtyard steps a while later. A mother who has just lost both her children, Neelam, asks why Arjun survived while her children didn’t.
Early in the morning, Neelam sneaks out of the house and runs into her neighbor, Shalini Aggarwal, while heading to Arjun’s place. His parents are rather surprised to see her there and refuse her repeated pleas to let her speak to Arjun once. She requests that Anisha let Arjun know that she has dropped by. She then heads to the press offices to meet Siddharth – who seems to be a high-ranking official in a press agency – and she requests that he let her check the footage. Meanwhile, Shekhar wakes up, doesn’t find Neelam around the house, and calls her mobile phone repeatedly. As if deaf to every other sound other than the footage of the Uphaar cinema hall from the fated day, Neelam keeps requesting to rewind and pause multiple times to find anything of note until she comes across the footage of the manager of the hall, known as Arora. At the Krishnamoorthy residence, Shekhar’s elder brother Madhav’s wife, Devaki tries to console Shekhar, who asks her and everyone else to leave when Neelam returns. On the way to Arora’s place, she receives a call from Anisha telling her that Arjun wants to see her. Upon arriving, she learns that Arjun could never enter the hall because he got delayed and the cinema hall staff had locked the door from outside. Neelam arrives at the Arora residence, and it quickly turns into a heated argument between Neelam and Arora’s wife, who shuts herself inside. Neelam notices that Arora’s scared children are looking at her as Shekhar catches up to her finally; when Neelam reveals that their children suffocated to death just because the management didn’t want anyone without tickets to enter.
‘Trial By Fire’ Episode 1: Ending
Shekhar walks briskly into the Ansal headquarters and barges into their offices, demanding to see the brothers, when security nabs him. They try dragging the father out when he breaks down while shouting that the doors had been locked from the outside. The tears that had been wept in silence until now flow in streams as Shekhar bawls on the floor. Back at home, Shekhar cries audibly in the bathroom as Neelam begs him to come outside. The house, now empty, save the two parents sans children, watches with silent rage as an advertisement for the newest ambitious project by the Ansals plays on the television.
The first episode marks the destruction of not only the lives of 59 innocent people but also how the event destroyed the lives of everyone involved. Shekhar and Neelam, whose lives revolved around their teenage children, are left to fend for themselves in the world without them, as their lives have been ruined because of the greed of people who already have enough. Each parent grieves in their own manner, and Neelam’s outburst happens at the doorstep of Arora, while Shekhar breaks down on the floor of the Ansal headquarters. The realization that the deaths of their children happened not because of just some fire but due to the actions of the people who bore the responsibility to guarantee the safety of the cinema-goers hardens the hearts of the parents and helps them prepare for the battles to come. As the credits roll, their clenched jaws and furious eyes signal that they won’t let go until they have sought justice.