Public safety basic right, things haven't got better: 'Trial By Fire' team on show's relevance
Twenty-six years after a fire in Delhi’s Uphaar cinema hall killed 59 people, public safety isn’t any better, say the stars and director of “Trial By Fire”, hoping their retelling of the tragedy will spark a discussion on accountability and institutional justice.
The critically acclaimed Netflix show, which runs over seven episodes, is based on Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy’s book of the same name and revisits the incident to showcase the victims' long struggle for justice and closure. The Krishnamoorthys lost both their children on June 13, 1997 after the fire broke out in the theatre during the screening of “Border”.
For director Prashant Nair and actors Abhay Deol and Rajshree Deshpande, who play the real-life couple, the show puts a spotlight on the need for change in the justice system.
“The incident happened 25 years ago, public safety hasn’t got better… People need to be safe. That's a basic right. And people need to be able to rely on institutions that are there primarily to protect them. They can't be afraid to approach those institutions. And if you don't have faith in those institutions, then what does the future look like?” asked Nair.
"It's not just the story of our country and culture. It's a story of almost every country in every culture because tragedies unfold everywhere. So it just kind of gives you a bleak view of the human condition,” Deol added in the Zoom interview with PTI.
Deshpande, who has got praise for her portrayal of the grieving mother who doesn’t give up, said Neelam through her fight for justice “kept telling people that you please care for what’s happening”.
The hope is that show, which has done well, prompts people to move conversations to issues of public safety.
It was the hardest role of his career, said Deol.
“We were inspired by their (the Krishnamoorthys) journey and hope others are too and there would be talk of systemic change after watching the show. But the fact that it happened to someone kind of remains with you and you start thinking about the system and justice...
"It's not just the story of our country and culture. It's a story of almost every country in every culture because tragedies unfold everywhere. So, it just kind of gives you a bleak view of the human condition,” the actor, known for his roles in "DevD" and "Manorama: Six Feet Under", said.
Deshpande, whose credits include film “S Durga” and Netflix series “Sacred Games”, said “Trial By Fire” was not just another acting assignment.
"Her (Neelam) journey inspired me. It moved me to the core. She gave me courage to get up every day and say, ‘OK, what you’re doing is very important and stick to it because it is a long fight and you cannot get tired’. It’s not easy to understand 25 years of someone's life. Throughout the one year of shooting, Neelam gave me courage.” Deshpande and Deol said they found it easy to get into their characters but struggled to switch off.
“It was easy to get into it because it was a true story but because it was so traumatic and sad... I can't imagine myself going through this so my empathy automatically took me there. But the same empathy that took me there, also stopped me from getting out of it because it's so hard to accept it," Deol said.
“I wanted to find the emotional truth and that’s what Prashant had briefed us about... I was constantly juggling with understanding her physical, mental and psychological space,” Deshpande added.
In 2017, the Supreme Court directed the Ansal brothers, who owned Uphaar , to pay a fine of Rs 30 crore each. The top court had then released Sushil Ansal, now 83 years old, taking into account the period he had already spent in jail. Gopal Ansal is now 74.
The Ansal brothers and two others were later held guilty and sentenced to seven years imprisonment in an evidence tampering case by a Delhi court. The court also imposed a fine of Rs 2.5 crore on each brother.
In July last year, another trial court ordered the brothers to be released with their punishment of eight months set off against the period they had already spent in jail.
Delhi Police has challenged the trial court's order. The Delhi High Court recently sought the response of real estate tycoons to the police's plea seeking enhancement of punishment for allegedly tampering with evidence.
Nair, who co-wrote the series with Kevin Luperchio, said the goal was to “make everyone feel outraged” about what happened.
“Our job was to make the audience feel what Neelam and Shekhar felt, so we needed to maximise its emotional impact. But at the same time, you're very aware that these people don't need to ever revisit that. We struggled with how much to show and what to show,” the director said.
The cast and crew also wrestled with doubt over whether or not they should show the fire.
“In the end, we came to the conclusion that we should show it because words are words... So our decision was to show the fire at the end after you have spent time with everyone so you care about them when they walk into the cinema.” Once they decided to do the project, Nair said they spent time with the couple, but the responsibility was such that the team decided to maintain “some distance”.
“They made their documentation available to us… They have over 45, 000 documents. They have gone through the case for 25 years, so they know everything. "They made everything available. But because of the conflict and the responsibility, I found it easier to kind of take some distance. We asked them, ‘Would it be ok, if we just went away and made and then we consulted you’. And they were very gracious about it. They said, ‘Yeah, go and do your thing. We trust you’.” Sushil Ansal moved Delhi High Court against the release of the web series, claiming it directly attacks his personality but the court declined the plea.
How challenging was it to write a series that has such legal ramifications? Nair said they worked with two sets of lawyers who reviewed everything. He said the Delhi High Court’s decision that allowed the release of the series on January 13 was inspiring.
"I don’t think we have said anything that’s not out there. Obviously, it’s a fictionalised version so there are certain things, like changing the details out of respect for people who were lost in that fire... But it was something that we approached with a lot of caution and care,” the director added.
“Trial By Fire”, also starring Anupam Kher, Ratna Pathak Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi, Shilpa Shukla and Rajesh Tailang, is currently streaming on Netflix.
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