Netflix series ‘Trial by Fire’ depicts Uphaar Cinema tragedy

Describing the Uphaar Cinema incident, Netflix’s drama miniseries “Trial by Fire” is an interesting mix of fact and fiction, which covers the tragedy claiming 59 lives and injuries to another 103.

It is an adaptation of the book written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy. While the primary characters are kept the same as their real-life inspirations, the series also introduces a string of fictional characters to lay emphasis on the effect that the accident had on various lives. It is also perhaps commendable that “Trial by Fire” names the actual perpetrators of the incident — businessmen Sushil and Gopal Ansal.

The series does actually paint the Ansal brothers as the ones most to blame, and rightly so, due to which Sushil Ansal had even recently filed for a stay order on the release of the Netflix series. However, the Delhi High Court turned down the request for this stay order, and the release of the impactful series should hopefully bring some more attention to the Ansals.

Despite being found guilty on charges of death by negligence and evidence tampering in two separate cases, Sushil and Gopal Ansal are currently out of prison.

The tragedy

On June 13, 1997, India witnessed one of the worst fire tragedies in the recent history. The fire started at Uphaar Cinema in Green Park, Delhi, during the 3pm screening of the movie Border. Fifty-nine people were trapped inside and died of asphyxiation, while 103 were seriously injured in the resulting stampede (suffocation).

In the morning that day, a faulty electrical transformer on the ground floor of the Uphaar Cinema caught fire due to what was later revealed to be internal parts being completely burnt out. It was repaired and put back into service immediately. However, there were reportedly flaws in the repair, some of which apparently left loose connections, which caused sparks, resulting in inferno around 4:55pm.

As the smoke entered the hall, people started to realize what had happened and panicked to get out of the place. The space inside the theater had been crammed up by an unlawful increase in seats and the unlawful establishment of shops, which were all done by the theater owners to increase profits.

While there was already a lack of space for more than two hundred people trying to rush out, the cinema hall also did not have any emergency lights or visible markings that would lead to the exit. This meant that those trapped inside also did not know where exactly to go, and amidst the darkness and toxic smoke, all they could do was panic and desperately keep trying to escape.

It must be mentioned that “Trial by Fire” deserves praise for its presentation of this tragic incident in the very last episode, as it is truly marvelous by the general standards in the country at this time.

Fictional characters

There are a number of fictional characters that “Trial by Fire” presents to tell its story in an effective manner. While some of them are well done in some aspects, this addition also gives away the series’ main limitations. The work seems to suffer from a habit of introducing characters, giving them a storyline and then keeping them out before then rushing through their stories.

For example, the character of Shalini is a neighbor of the Krishnamoorthys, who lives by herself in the same building. Gradually after the accident, Neelam becomes good friends with Shalini and learns that the latter was once happily married, but her husband had passed away a few years back. Shalini also provides support and confidence to Neelam whenever she is down. However, there is also something that seems amiss in Shalini, something that is odd from the very beginning, and yet it is difficult to understand.

Neeraj Suri, the man apparently involved in the trade of dry fruits all over the world, is initially quite interesting, with an air of mystery around him. Gradually, it is revealed that Suri is actually a henchman hired by the lawyers of the Ansals to ensure that the families of the victims sit quietly with some compensation money.

As “Trial by Fire” series suggests, the Ansals were directly paying money unofficially to the families to buy their silence over the matter. This compensation amount depended on the status and well-being of the family, based on their judgment of how much would be enough to keep a family quiet. Suri was the one going from one house to another, offering this money and also leaving behind his card with pictures of dry fruits on it.

Throughout the show, there are many instances when Suri tries to claim that he is not actually a bad person and that he does not really wish harm upon anyone. The introduction of his wife and son also stresses the fact that, despite not wanting to be a henchman, Suri is bound to work in this profession for some more time as he has to maintain a high lifestyle for his family.

As with Shalini, though, Suri’s character also disappears midway, only to then reappear towards the end for redemption and the end of his story arc. This redemption is not the brightest and even looks forced, as the man tearfully meets the Krishnamoorthys and apologizes to them for his earlier behavior. Suri then reveals that his own son was recently killed in a road accident and that he now understands the plight of all the victims he was working against. While Shekhar avoids the man completely, Neelam kindly expresses her condolences for the news and then walks away.

An ex-Indian army general, Capt Hardeep Bedi, and his wife, Mrs Bedi are also fictional characters created by the show. Capt Bedi had served in the Army for many distinguished years, but he seemed to have taken voluntary retirement right before the 1971 Indo-Pak War. This decision of his was pushed mostly by his wife, and even though the man had completely agreed with it at the time, he has kept complaining about it ever since. At his most bitter, Captain Hardeep Bedi believes that the only reason he could not serve his country properly and gain some more accolades for himself was that his wife and family asked him not to.

There are also a few other characters that have been added to bring some more color to the story. The DVB engineer who was made the scapegoat and sentenced to prison in order to save the reputation of the higher-ups has been presented in an episode too. The fact that the poor and lower officials in this country are the ones always held accountable for crimes is well presented in this manner. There is also the character of a staff member of the Uphaar Cinema who was supposed to pay off his personal debts on the day of the fire. This man also survived the accident, and during this time, he ended up with Unnati Krishnamoorthy’s necklace, which could have cleared off all his debts. But upon realizing who it belonged to, possibly from the news, the man decided to leave the necklace by the side of a memorial service held in honor of the victims who had been killed.

The extended court case that followed has also been presented in “Trial by Fire,” as the Krishnamoorthys and the AVUT members really had to struggle hard to ensure justice. The unresolved manner in which the series ends also is in line with the very real thought as to whether actual justice was ever served in this case. Despite being found guilty of the charges, the main perpetrators, Gopal and Sushil Ansal did not spend more than six months in jail. While times, governments, and society seem to have changed from 1997 to the present, the issue of the rich getting away with the unthinkable still remains relatable in India, unfortunately.

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