Netflix Indian original Trial by Fire dramatises the 25-year court battle fought by one couple after dozens of people died in a devastating cinema fire. Showrunner Prashant Nair discusses the effects of the real-life tragedy and the task of bringing a fictionalised version to the screen.
In June 1997, a devastating fire in India claimed the lives of 59 people and injured more than a hundred others. The tragedy at Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema was later attributed to poorly maintained electrical equipment, which caught fire and led to chaos as cinemagoers attempted to escape the blaze and resulting smoke without adequate safety measures in place.
Among those who lost their lives were the two children of Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, 17-year-old Unnati and 13-year-old Ujjwal, whose deaths sparked a lengthy legal battle led by the couple to hold the cinema operators accountable.
It’s a fight that continues to this day, 26 years later, and one that has exposed the intricacies and complexities of the Indian legal system. Those themes and the Krishnamoorthys’ fight for justice are now explored in a Netflix miniseries called Trial by Fire.
Produced by Endemol Shine India and House of Talkies, the seven-episode series takes viewers through the aftermath of the fire as the parents learn of their children’s deaths and set about tackling those who should be held responsible. The final episode then flashes back to dramatise in real time the events of that fateful day.
The series is written and directed by showrunner Prashant Nair, who says he has been encouraged by the local response to the drama since it debuted on Netflix in January. “It’s tough subject material and the incident was really tragic, so we weren’t entirely sure how people would respond,” he tells DQ. “The couple at the centre of it, they’ve been struggling for 25 years to get justice, so it’s definitely a challenging story. We’re heartened that people have had the appetite for it. In this day and age of easy watching, you’re never quite sure how a really tough story will land.”
Nair describes the fire on June 13, 1997, as a tragedy that struck one of India’s most prominent cinemas, creating a scandal that stunned the entire country. “But the thing that shocked everyone was that it was really avoidable,” he explains. “The safety measures that were put in place weren’t adequate. There was negligence on multiple levels, so the fact that it was avoidable and that it happened in a place like cinema – where you leave your kids and you allow yourselves to get transported when the lights go down because the assumption is that you’re safe – really shocked people at the time.”
In the aftermath, Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy organised other victims’ families to create The Association of Victims of Uphaar Tragedy and went to court to seek justice – a process Nair says should have been “obvious and immediate.” But nearly three decades later, they are still mired in the judicial system.
“There are 45 million cases stuck in the courts in India, and public safety should also be a basic right,” Nair continues. “[Justice and safety] are two pillars of any functioning society, and the fact they’re still fighting and struggling, we felt was indicative of larger problems I think people can relate to, in India certainly, but all over the world as well.
“That these two people, with their resilience after suffering such a devastating loss, have been able to fight for so long against a system that’s almost designed to wear you down has inspired people to see if they might have that same courage within them.”
The decision to tell the Krishnamoorthys’ story as a drama, rather than a factual series, also came from Nair’s desire to explore the personal side of the tragedy. In fact, it is based on the couple’s own book, Trial by Fire: The Tragic Tale of the Uphaar Fire Tragedy.
“When I first read it, I was struck by the toll it took on them and what it demanded of them to keep fighting,” he explains. “That’s what we really wanted to explore, because there’s a lot of great work in the documentary field about the judicial system, about public safety and so on, but there’s very little about what it really takes out of you. Especially in India, if you want to affect any kind of change, you have to have this crazy belief. You have to just get up every day and keep showing up, no matter what the outcome.”
It was the show’s producers who first brought the book to Nair, and he immediately saw a project that was “rife with complications.” But after he met the couple, they introduced him to more people connected to the fire and showed him the 45,000 documents they had amassed in their home.
Nair subsequently took the decision to step back from their personal connection to the story and look at it from a distance, with their support on hand whenever he needed it.
“In the beginning, my idea was to work hand-in-hand with them. But the thing is, it just became so overwhelming, what they’ve gone through,” the showrunner says. “Our intention was to make the audience feel what they felt as much as possible. But for them, they didn’t need to revisit that.”
With no clear ending, “the theme became a refusal to accept defeat, in some way,” he adds. “It implies that you’ve got to fight for what you believe in regardless of the outcome. You keep waking up, keep showing up, you keep going to courts every day, no matter what. That’s not an easy thing to do but it was something I felt was important.”
Writing the series with Kevin Luperchio, Nair coupled the book with research and interviews with people who were there at the time. They also leaned on court documents and government reports to inform the fact-based drama.
The writers, who first met in LA while working on a project that was never made, then spent hours on the phone together discussing the story and shaping the scripts.
But very early on, they knew Trial by Fire couldn’t adhere to a traditional, linear structure, as the story demanded frequent time jumps to cover a 25-year period. Then they had the idea to put a reenactment of the fire at the end of the series, by which time viewers would have built up emotional connections with the characters affected by the blaze.
“We came up with this structure in every episode where, alongside the journey of the main characters, we introduce the story of another person associated with the incident and let the audience slowly discover how, and then leave something unexplained for the final episode when you actually see the re-enactment so that all the dots connect,” says Nair.
He also directs the series with Randeep Jha, and the visual language of the show was heavily influenced by the need to push time forwards through the series.
“We used a lot of tools to show how the couple went from being a normal family to being obsessed about the case and that being the centre of their lives,” he explains. “We changed the lighting and used texture and colour palettes to show time passing. Then in terms of the actual cinematography, we knew we really wanted it to be about these two people.
“We wanted to stay close to them in an almost in a claustrophobic way because they’re trapped in in this life where they have to pursue justice every day. Then when we introduce new characters from very different backgrounds, we wanted to contrast that with a different approach.”
The challenge of progressing time was also felt by the show’s cast, who had to change their posture, body language and mannerisms as the couple’s mood went from one of anger to resilience as they refused to concede their legal battle. Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol star as Neelam and Shekhar, alongside Rajesh Tailang, Ashish Vidyarthi, Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak, Shilpa Shukla and Shardul Bharadwaj.
“Even though we did the work of studying the actual couple and every department ensured that physically they resembled them as much as possible, we had to forget about all that,” Nair says. “The actors really had to be in the moment because in acting, when you hear about the loss of your child, that’s really something no one should ever have to go through. For us, it was about creating an environment where they were able to go wherever they needed to go to connect with that.
“The series is full of these very primal moments where you go to these very dark places, and we wanted to just let them be as free, protected and safe as possible so that they could go there without thinking too much about the real person.”
Production was further complicated by the pandemic and the intention to re-enact the cinema fire – a 12-day shoot that involved thousands of people and fire trucks, resulting in approximately 33 minutes of a real-time dramatisation of the fire, complete with smoke and stampedes.
“In the centre of Delhi, the burned remains of it are still there as a reminder to everyone. We had to recreate the entire thing, across four locations, and essentially the idea is that now that you’ve met all these people, you follow them into the cinema that day and all the things you’ve heard about, you see happening,” Nair says. “There was fire, explosions, smoke, stampedes, people falling off the balcony and jumping from windows. It was a huge operation.
“We storyboarded the whole thing, and the main challenge was not to get overrun by the action and really focus on the characters, never losing sight of them while all this is happening and making sure it was still very much about them and their emotions and still intimate despite all that scale.”
With series based on true events becoming hugely popular around the world, Trial by Fire is accentuating that trend in India, where Nair says the show stands out from other courtroom shows or dramas with very linear structures.
“What also differentiates this one is that the pacing is much slower, it’s more meditative, and we jumble up the chronology,” he notes. “It’s different from anything that’s out there, especially in India, and during the development process there were a lot of concerns and questions about if this would work. We’re hopeful it’s also a signal that the audiences in India and internationally are ready for something a little different.”
Since the series began, the Krishnamoorthys have received messages of support from around the world, including many from people who have gone through similar situations. Nair now hopes that raised awareness of the Uphaar tragedy will lead to reform of the country’s judicial system, as well as further discussions about ensuring nothing like it can ever happen again.
“The show has done really well in India and we’re hoping it also finds an audience internationally because there are many parts of the world where it’s similar,” he adds. “The story of these two people is inspiring, so we’re hoping it manages to go beyond the shores of India.”
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