By Tackling What Cannot Be Said, 'Trial by Fire' Emerges a Show of Stirring Merits

Its storytelling is confident and controlled. Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol are both terrific, but Deshpande seems to be batting on a different pitch altogether.

Neelam (Rajshri Deshpande) and Shekhar (Abhay Deol) are used to condolences: “We’re sorry for your loss”, “it’s so unfair”, “let us know if you need anything”. They all sound the same; they all sound hollow. But can anything sound comforting to this pair? How do you comfort someone who has lost their son and daughter? They tell their names and ages to strangers – “Ujjwal, 13”, “Unnati, 17” – as if an extra detail, an extra anything, can somehow help. Help them remember, cope, unravel. But they know that all their attempts – their anguish, sorrow, and rage – can only reduce the loss’ margin, not meaning. Because one thing won’t change: Ujjwal and Unnati will never celebrate their 14th and 18th birthdays.

Based on the 2016 novel Trial by Fire – by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy whose children, Ujjwal and Unnati, died in the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire – the seven-part Netflix series, after a brief blissful stretch, plunges its protagonists in the blind abyss of parental grief. A monumental shock so early in a long story feels like a cruel condition upending the storytelling norms: the inciting incident feels like a climax; the fundamental conflict never gets unresolved; and the story – much like its real-life inspirations – runs in circles.

But filmmakers Prashant Nair, Randeep Jha, and Avani Deshpande (the trio has directed one episode, Nair and Jha three, and Nair three) don’t let this daunting challenge overwhelm them. Because, recognising the story’s heft, they don’t match its dramatic intensity but undercut it. Trial by Fire doesn’t pivot on flowing decelerations, charged confrontations, or obvious grievances. This isn’t a show about what characters say – but what they do not, what they cannot.

Take parental grief for instance. There are many ways to show such a charged emotion – what route does Trial by Fire take? A look and a silence. In the second episode, when Shekhar visits the Uphaar victims’ family members to form an association, they refuse to cooperate. Every house, same outcome. Shekhar strikes out that name, reaches another house, strikes out that… and so on. During one such trip, he sees a small movie poster stuck on a pole: “Border – Housefull”. Ujjwal and Unnati’s last film. Shekhar looks at it for just a few more seconds and the scene ends. His face says it all: A movie is alive while his children are not.

In the same episode, Neelam watches a news clip on TV. Earlier in the day, she met an investigative officer who told her that, despite the shocking security lapses in the theatre, nothing will happen to Ansal brothers, the business barons who own Uphaar. The news anchor talks about the Indian Prime Minister meeting a European wildlife conservation delegation for increasing tigers’ population. The same Prime Minister hasn’t uttered a word about the Uphaar tragedy. Neelam keeps watching the TV and keeps shaking her head: humans matter less in this country than animals. Just absorb what’s happened – two scenes echoing each other separated by ten minutes: two people, one grief, no dialogue, resounding implications.

Trial by Fire is filled with such memorable moments. Its storytelling is confident and clear-eyed, economic and controlled. So much rests on the leading actors, Deshpande and Deol, who are, in essence, playing ‘static’ characters. They’re both terrific, but Deshpande – to use a cricket metaphor – seems to be batting on a different pitch altogether. It’s not just how she shoots vacant stares – like a terrified ghost – but also how she moves, sits, retorts, looking raw, real, and vulnerable, producing a piercing mix of grief, melancholy, and protest.

A still from ‘Trial by Fire’.

Editor Xavier Box’s cross-cutting elevates the show. This choice not only complements the overall voice and tone – in a drama devoid of theatrics, it finds its own style to infuse drama, interrupting a scene and cutting to an equally tense moment in the same setting (a masterful example features a birthday cake and toothbrushes) – but also justifies its story: cutting across different settings, for it’s a show of pairs, hero and hero (Neelam and Shekhar’s parallel investigations), heroes and villains (an ordinary couple against powerful businessmen), victims and victims (justice eludes the families of Uphaar fire’s deceased – and punishment awaits the working-class scapegoats).  

The show becomes richer when it unveils its supporting cast. It comprises both fresh and veteran faces – Shardul Bharadwaj, Rajesh Tailang, Ashish Vidyarthi, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak Shah – who add layers to the story at macro and micro levels. Take Niraj (Vidyarthi), the Ansals’ henchman who terrorises (and bribes) the Uphaar victims’ family members. He’s ruthless but not cruel – a helpless pawn following his owners’ diktats. The filmmakers, however, continue to dissect his mindset, showing the intense clamour for a ‘gentrified’ Delhi life in the late ’90s: Niraj sends his children to DPS, wants to buy a house in an upscale locality whose owner judges him, and enjoys burgers with his family from the recently opened “Joker waali jagah” (McDonald’s).

Also read: Anatomy of a Tragedy: Remembering the Victims of the Uphaar Cinema Fire

The screenplay (by Nair and Kevin Luperchio – also the show’s creators) keeps you interested through constant meaningful surprises. Niraj’s wife, for example, a homemaker, obsesses over their class much more than her husband, ordering him to keep obeying the Ansals – despite their motivations and methods. When Trial by Fire cuts to the courtroom sequences, it doesn’t get more – but less – dramatic, with another twist aiding the original: the incompetent CBI lawyer lacks the blazing drive to argue his case. Similarly, Neelam’s friendship with her sympathetic neighbour (Shilpa Shukla) finds an unexpected conclusion. 

The series’ structure, too, embodies that quality, unobtrusively moving from linear to non-linear, juggling past, present, and future, telling a comprehensive story of diverse people battling this crisis. Sometimes characters implicate and surprise themselves, such as Shekhar wondering about the eventual meaning of legal victory – after bribing a cop the very same day to avoid jail – when it’ll only produce a personal, not a systemic, change.         

So with many stirring merits building up to a crescendo, it also feels baffling that the show’s weakest moments come in the last episode – especially because they arise from the same traits effective earlier. Trial by Fire’s seventh episode – not a spoiler but if you’re paranoid about these things (like me), then feel free to skip this sentence – recreates the Uphaar fire afternoon: the accident, the negligence, the panic, the helplessness, the deaths, the saviours. Like the rest of the series, it’s impressively filmed, cut, and performed. But it doesn’t seem to belong to this story – and stands out like an addendum – because of its separate narrative and thematic strands. It also ends up making some subplots (such as Kher and Shah’s) superfluous. Besides, the inclusion of two new characters – a young couple on a movie date – so late into the show further pulls this piece into a different direction, making it lose focus.

If the directors intended to convey that Trial by Fire isn’t just about the legal tussle (and the victims’ families) but also the victims themselves – presenting a horrifying snapshot of a day in regular Indian lives – then that approach needed a different structure. Its other flaw, the lack of rigour in the lawsuit segment, is more spread out. The makers do follow the evidence tampering charge to its last judgement but don’t integrate the case’s other crucial elements, such as the Supreme Court changing its decision several times, with the rest of the story.  

But Trial by Fire is so assured elsewhere that these failings feel like a quibble. It takes a horrific real-life incident to tell a much larger story about power, cruelty, impunity; despair, fight, and grit. Two subliminal questions mark the entire show – questions that get so haunting, especially in the Indian context, that they aren’t subliminal anymore – one drenched in innocence, the other drowning in fire: What can be the worst cost of watching a movie? What is the best chance of getting justice?