Review of Trial by Fire: A Study in Love and Loss
Trial by Fire offers a powerful exploration of the lesser known victims of a well-known tragedy
It is a truism—and a cliché—that many time periods live alongside each other in India. But for those of us who have a clear memory of 1997, it feels like that was a particularly strange, transitional time. Most city-dwellers were encountering the internet for the first time, via noisy dial-up connections. Quaint pagers were making way for bulky ‘mobile phones’. Just a few years into economic liberalization, there was much promise of glitzy consumerist things to come (such as First World-level malls), but the execution was slow. The country’s first multiplex did open in south Delhi’s Saket that year, promising to glamorize the big-screen experience; and yet, just a few kilometres away, a much older single-screen hall—poorly maintained and lacking basic safety procedures—was about to see a grisly tragedy unfold.
The new Netflix series Trial by Fire is about the Uphaar fire which claimed 59 lives in June 1997, told through the tribulations of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (deeply felt performances by Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol) who lost both their children that day and have spent the last 25 years trying to hold powerful people accountable for the many lapses. This is a narrative that constantly expands its canvas. First it gives us a glimpse of a single family doing everyday things, a few hours before being torn apart; then the numb grief of two people in a house that feels empty; then it moves on to show the wider world, as Neelam and Shekhar become proactive and form a group for healing and for justice. All of which makes for a hard-hitting show that understands how time seems to stand still, or coil back on itself, for people whose lives have suddenly been petrified. The urgency of the first few episodes, where the Krishnamoorthys still hope for quick results, yields to a shift in pace as they realize this will be a long-haul fight.
The show focusses on little details, such as Shekhar and Neelam each trying to hide painful reminders of their loss from the other: a birthday cake, extra toothbrushes in the bathroom. It is about middle-class concerns too: “Kharcha kitna hua?” (How much was the expense?) Neelam is asked when she brings home photocopies of dozens of important files), and about systemic rot.
These themes are also explored through the stories of other key people who were in different ways consumed—or scarred—by the Uphaar fire. This makes Trial by Fire structurally challenging in its later episodes, which move back and forth in time: between the Krishnamoorthys as their fight continues into the new millennium and others who, in a sense, are still frozen in 1997. Episode five, for instance, introduces us to an embittered former soldier and his wife (Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah). Then there is the marvellously directed episode six, in which an electrical engineer, Veer Singh (played by Rajesh Tailang), is implicated as the search for easily prosecuted people gets underway.
In the Veer Singh narrative, long takes are artfully employed to span different events: he goes to jail, comes out again, goes back, while his family lives in a state of suspension, waiting, hoping, despairing. Here is a view of what the fight for justice can do to the truly little people who are scapegoats. Even the episode title—‘Villains’—is telling: from the perspective of this poor family, the Krishnamoorthys are the ones who have indirectly caused their misery. One beautiful shot gives us Veer Singh and his wife reflected like pale ghosts in a TV set after they have watched Neelam and Shekhar give an interview in a posh newsroom. It’s a suggestion that in a country where class privilege is so distressingly pronounced, the lines between victims and villains can become blurred.