How Does Netflix Series ‘Trial By Fire’ Compare With The True Story Of The Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy?


Netflix’s drama miniseries “Trial by Fire” is an interesting mix of fact and fiction, adapted from the book written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, of the same name. 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 has 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.

How Had The Fire Broken Out On 13th June 1997?

The reasons for the accident that have been presented in “Trial by Fire” are accurate depictions of what actually transpired in reality. On the morning of 13th June, a faulty electrical transformer on the ground floor of the Uphaar Cinema theater caught fire due to what was later revealed to be internal parts being completely burnt out. Since the transformer was installed and owned by the city’s electric agency, the Delhi Vidyut Board, engineers from the DVB, soon reached the place to look into the matter. After repairs were done, the transformer was put back into service, and it was declared to be alright once again. However, there were reportedly flaws in this repair, some of which apparently left loose connections, which caused sparks and then the fire later on. While the show ‘Border’ had started at 3pm, the devastating fire broke out at some time around 4:55 in the evening. 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.

Which Are The Fictional Characters Added By ‘Trial By Fire’ Series?

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 Krishnamoortys 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. That’s because the show itself keeps it away until sometime mid-way when it is revealed that Shalini has given personal information about Neelam to the defense lawyers in a very twisted manner. What Neelam had said very jokingly and plainly was now presented in court in a very serious manner by the defense lawyer, and she claims that this information has been procured from Neelam’s neighbor Shalini. What happens to Shalini as a character after this, and whether Neelam has any confrontation with her, is not given any mention at all. Shalini is no longer seen, and it only seems logical to assume that Neelam refused to keep any contact with her after this.

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. For the first few minutes, Suri’s character almost reminds one of the unassuming LIC agent Bob Biswas from “Kahaani,” who was actually a murderer in plain clothes. But Suri here gradually keeps changing, and there is a feeling that he himself does not want to be in the profession that he is stuck in. There is even a direct mention of his frustrations at one point when he is livid at the fact that his hired goons have beaten up one of the victims’ families instead of just verbally threatening them. 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 Krishnamurthys 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, Captain Hardeep Bedi, and his wife, Mrs. Bedi are also fictional characters created by the show. Captain 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. The couple ultimately reconciles, with the husband and wife apologizing to each other for a recent argument, and they decide to go watch the film “Border” on its day of release at the Uphaar Cinema theater. When the fire broke out in the hall, the two were seated inside watching the film, and it was Mrs. Bedi who first noticed the smoke. Ultimately, the ex-army official was pushed by someone in the panic-stricken stampede, and he lost his life by falling into the fire. Mrs. Bedi survived the accident, but she never became a part of the AVUT organization.

Captain Hardeep Bedi seems at first to be a representation of Captain Manjinder Singh Bhinder, who was actually inside the cinema hall along with his family on that day. Captain Bhinder was an off-duty Indian Army officer who had gone to watch “Border” at Uphaar on 13th June along with his family members. They had apparently safely made it out of the hall after the fire had started, but like a real hero, Captain Bhinder and his family then rushed back into the theater to help others escape the place. While it is stated that Captain Bhinder and his group managed to save almost more than a hundred people from the tragedy, they themselves lost their lives in the process. It is hard to understand why such a major figure as Captain Manjinder Singh Bhinder was excluded from “Trial by Fire” series, and the most probable explanation might be that his family did not want to be included in it.

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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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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