Based on the Uphaar cinema tragedy in Delhi in 1997, Trial By Fire, directed by Prashant Nair and Randeep Jha, is a story of tragedies that follow the bigger tragedy told through a deeply personal lens.
The first episode opens with a gas burner being lit and we go on to see two young boys playing a video game in which the idea of fire and mortality have been reduced to pixels on the screen.
These ideas then become the overarching themes in the show, along with a suffocating mix of loss and bereavement.
At first, the audience is following Shekhar Krishnamoorthy (Abhay Deol) and Neelam Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande), the authors of the book ‘Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy’. The Krishnamoortys lost both their kids, a son and a daughter, to the fire that broke out in Uphaar.
In Trial By Fire, Neelam and Shekhar fight for justice while also grappling with the grief of losing their children. As Shekhar, Abhay Deol embodies the body language of a broken man who is still trying to keep it together and go through the bureaucratic loopholes, well. But the real star of the show is Deshpande.
Deshpande plays her role as Neelam in an almost mechanical fashion, making all of Neelam’s actions seem like clockwork towards one goal. Deshpande lets herself be consumed by her character’s grief giving the role the touch of brilliance it needs.
Both Neelam and Shweta Tiwari’s Sheel in Mai have the same tone but for the former, resolution and closure act like the horizon – no matter how much distance she manages to cover, she doesn’t get any closer to actual justice.
Other than the endless spools of red tape, the victims of the tragedy are facing their Goliaths – the owners of Uphaar, the tycoons Sushil and Gopal Ansal.
For any true crime show or one exploring tragedies, there are multiple routes a maker can take. For example, the way Meghna Gulzar wove Talvar is distinctly different from Rajkumar Gupta’s storytelling in No One Killed Jessica. Trial By Fire is a story rooted deeply in the common people affected by the tragedy.
Other than Neelam and Shekhar, we also see the way a technician (Rajesh Tailang) is affected by the tragedy – since he’s made into a scapegoat, his experience of the tragedy is different from that of the parents. Then there’s the elderly man who lost his entire family but can’t afford their funeral rites.
It’s an interesting and unsettling realisation that the people we’ve developed empathy for already are some of the privileged ones and even then, are underdogs in their story.
Within these subplots, we also meet a retired defence personnel and his wife, played by Anupam Kher and Ratna Pathak Shah. Somehow, they also find themselves a part of the Uphaar tragedy but the story that is being explored is of marriage and resentment. Yet, these multiple threads don’t threaten to unravel Trial By Fire.
The actual fire is only seen towards the show’s end which is a sign of how sensitively the makers of the show have portrayed tragedy. The audience isn’t forced to cry and there is little to no exposition.
While the show does suffer in pacing towards the end, sometimes spending too long on an arc, Trial By Fire is one of the best examples of telling such a story. As the ending credits roll, there is a deep, unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction and that is ideal.