It is perhaps not easy to recreate any tragic mass event for the cinematic screen, especially in India. A court plea by Sushil Ansal, one of the two main accused in this particular case, seeking a stay on Netflix’s new drama show “Trial by Fire,” bears evidence of this. Yet, “Trial by Fire” is a bold attempt to portray the horrifying accident where a fire broke out in Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema, killing 59 people and injuring 103. Through the perspective of the Krishnamoorthy family, who lost their two children in the accident, the show delves through the innumerable acts of negligence and the responsibility of the higher-ups in the whole incident. Despite having its shortcomings, most notably the lack of detailed court scenes, “Trial by Fire” is effectively driven by powerful performances and definitely deserves a serious watch.
‘Trial by Fire’ Plot Summary: What Is The Series About?
On the 13th of June 1997, Delhi residents Shekhar and Neelam Krishnamoorthy allowed their teenage daughter Unnati and adolescent son Ujjwal to go watch a movie with Ujjwal’s friend Arjun. It was for the afternoon show of “Border,” the popular Bollywood patriotic film, and June 13 was also the day this film was released. Naturally, a star-studded film on the topic of patriotism and nationalism was bound to create hype in India, so the massive crowds at the Uphaar Cinema were not unexpected. However, the events that follow were beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Tragedy struck when a faulty transformer at the theater caught fire and spread flames all across the parking lot. By the time the fire reached the unaware crowds inside the hall, it was too late to control it. With the whole place plunging into darkness, accompanied by the deadly fumes and smoke from the fire, the Uphaar Cinema Hall turned into a death chamber for fifty-nine innocent people who remained trapped inside and died of asphyxiation. Those who rushed out to desperately save their lives were hurt as well; the official count of injured people was 103. The Krishnamoorthy children, Unnati and Ujjwal, also tragically died that day, pushing Shekhar and Neelam towards unbearable grief and an immense urge to bring justice. Netflix’s “Trial by Fire” is an interesting blend of truth and fiction, based on the book written by Shekhar and Neelam Krishnamoorthy. This is the story of the two parents’ fight to find out who was responsible for this fire tragedy and their effort to ensure justice.
What Were The Actual Reasons For The Fire?
Like any mother Neelam was unable to bear the loss but what set her apart from everyone else was her urge to know more about the incident and to understand what had actually happened. She visited Arjun’s house and spoke with the young boy, who had somehow survived the tragedy. From Arjun, Neelam learned that the only reason he had survived was that he had reached the theater late. Unnati and Ujjwal had already entered the hall, leaving Arjun’s ticket at the counter. When he arrived at the place, the film had already begun. However, Arjun could not enter the hall because all of the gates had been locked from the outside by the time, and he could not find anyone with the keys. Naturally, when the fire broke out, he was one of the first to know of it and being very close to the exit, he fled the scene. As much as Neelam has trouble listening to the whole account, she holds on to the information that the doors to the hall were locked from the outside, as this meant that the people could not leave the place when the fire struck. She also visited her friends, who were journalists by profession, and from the footage the media had collected on the day, she learned of the manager of the cinema hall, Arora. During the time of the fire, Arora was caught on camera walking away from the place with a bag, most likely containing money. By this time, Neelam had also gotten her husband Shekhar involved in her amateur investigation, for everything she had found so far indicated that there had been massive negligence on the part of the theater officials. The two grieving parents decided to pursue this endeavor full-time, but within a few months, they realized that they were up against a corrupt system that bestowed all power on the rich and influential.
The Uphaar Cinema theater was owned by the Ansal Brothers who were major industrialists in Delhi at the time. Around the very same time, the Ansals were constructing a massive shopping mall complex in Delhi, claiming it to be the first shopping mall in the region. Not only did the Ansals never publicly apologize or express grief over the matter, but they also published an official notice in all daily newspapers claiming that they had nothing to do with the fire and instead blamed every other organization they could. However, what was found in the investigation, which spanned over two decades, was that the owners of the place pushed for profits very hard while turning a blind eye to the safety and emergency protocols. The public safety announcement systems were not working on the day, and therefore no announcement of the fire could be made. Empty spaces that were supposed to be emergency routes were all blocked by unauthorized seating extensions and shops for the theater to earn more profits. But what this meant was that there was no space for the crowd to come out of the theater in time. There were no emergency lights, footlights, or exit lights in the place, which are necessary to guide people out of any building in an emergency. Only two fire extinguishers in the whole theater were in working condition. Finally, and probably worst of all, was the fact that the owners, through the manager Arora, were tight on ensuring that nobody could watch a popular film like “Border” without a ticket. In order to do so, they had instructed the guards and workers to lock up most of the doors in the theater once the movie began so that nobody could sneak in. This and all of the other negligence led to the massive tragedy, and yet the Ansals refused to take accountability for it. In fact, Gopal and Sushil Ansal even started to claim that they had left the board of operations of the theater before the accident in June, which was later found to be false. It was also revealed later on that instead of informing the fire brigade, manager Arora spent the initial few minutes of the fire gathering all the cash that was there at the place and taking it away to a safe place so that he could hand it over to the owners without a problem.
Along with this intentional flouting of safety protocols, there was also the issue of the faulty transformer, which started the fire. This transformer, which had been installed and maintained by the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB), the capital’s electricity board, had caught fire earlier that very same day in the morning. As the DVB had been informed after this fire had been brought under control, it had sent an engineer to resolve the issue. Later during the court trials, the DVB admitted that there were faulty practices used by this engineer to treat the issue, including the removal of a fuse, which could have theoretically prevented the fire from breaking out. However, it was also well established that electricity boards all over India use such faulty practices to treat such problems, and so it was not uncommon for the engineer to make amends in this manner. There were also claims of mismanagement and lack of maintenance on the part of the Uphaar theater administration as well.
Who Were The AVUT? How Did They Keep Fighting For Their Cause?
After realizing the full potential of the industrialists that their fight was against, Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy decided to join hands with suffering family members of the other victims, who were in a similar plight as them. Many rejected their approach too, but finally, a few of the families came on board to form a group intended to provide support to each other while also officially seeking justice. This group, named the Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy, or AVUT, became instrumental in a court case that went on for almost two decades. Their fight in court began and ended with only one intention—that the Ansal brothers be punished for their negligence and the resulting accident that took place on their property, killing fifty-nine innocents in the process. During the initial years, there were multiple and various attempts to harass and sometimes even hurt the AVUT members. A character by the name of Soori is shown in “Trial by Fire,” who posed to be a dry fruit merchant but was actually a henchman appointed by the Ansals. Soori’s job was to reach out to the families of all the victims and ensure that they accepted the monetary compensation that was being offered. In return, the families were expected to remain silent about the case and never raise questions about it anywhere.
When the AVUT was formed, and some of the families who had accepted the compensation money still joined the association, Soori was again appointed. This time, he was expected to make the families feel threatened enough so that they would ditch the Krishnamoorthys and their group. Indirect actions like getting one child and his father evicted from their school and office, respectively, and direct actions like physical assault were all used to scare the victims’ families. Shekhar Krishnamoorthy had a number of run-ins with Soori directly, with direct death threats coming his way, but Shekhar held his ground. Together with his wife and a team of victims and lawyers, he fought hard to bring out the evidence and proof needed for their case. Neelam also testified in court to present her side of things and her findings, which pointed to gross negligence on the part of the owners and authorities. Throughout this whole time, Shekhar and Neelam had various distractions and other commitments coming their way, but they ultimately held on to the fight they had been so determined to win. The acceptance of the fact that they would never be able to see their children again, no matter what the court decided in the case, was very difficult. But perhaps it was also this acceptance that pushed the two to keep fighting for justice and, in the process, ensure that such tragedies do not occur again.
‘Trial by Fire’ Ending Explained: What Was The Court’s Decision? What Happens To Neelam And Shekhar?
Despite the case that was being fought by the CBI prosecutors and AVUT members, getting Gopal and Sushil Ansal to accept their faults seemed impossible. The brothers kept using all their money and influence to avoid getting caught as the courts kept coming up with decisions that kept changing their previous decisions. For example, the Delhi High Court, in 2003, decided to award certain monetary compensation to the victim’s families, which was then largely reduced by the Supreme Court in 2011. In 2007, the authorities of the Uphaar Theatre, including the Ansal brothers, were found guilty of mass negligence and were given a prison sentence of two years. But soon, in 2008, this sentence for the Ansals was reduced to one year, and then, in 2009, the two were granted bail. Sometime during 2003, Neelam and the junior lawyer she was closely working with realized that important documents were being removed and changed from court custody, and they decided to work on it. Evidence tampering case was also filed against Gopal and Sushil Ansal, which finally came to a verdict in 2021. Almost 25 years after the tragedy, the brothers were sentenced to prison on charges of evidence tampering. However, they were also once again released just six months later.
The Krishnamoorthys, meanwhile, continue to seek justice in the matter, and “Trial by Fire” also leaves us with a close-up of Neelam as she prepares for the next court sessions. The couple has always maintained that they were never interested in any monetary compensation, no matter how large it was, and it has always been about punishing the offenders. There had been multiple attempts to slander the two in court by the opposing defense lawyers, including calling them vengeful maniacs and tainting Neelam as a tearless mother who was only fighting for the sake of it. But nothing could ultimately undo their efforts, as they held onto their beliefs and principles. Towards the later stages of the case, Neelam and Shekhar became active propagators of fire safety. Turning into fire safety activists, their struggle ensured that the government and the municipal corporation took fire emergencies seriously. Perhaps it won’t be too wrong to say that the awareness regarding fire safety in India today is largely due to their actions and the tragic loss in the Uphaar accident. “Trial by Fire” remains a great reminder of this, being both effective and enjoyable in equal measures.
“Trial by Fire” is a 2023 Drama Thriller series created by Prashant Nair and Kevin Luperchio.