It is true that tragedy can strike without a moment’s notice. A person just needs to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for things to take a dark turn. Some tragedies, especially those that have to deal with the designations of nature, have no explanation at all, other than, it was the moment for it. However, in some other tragedies, there is certainly a level of causality that explains everything that happened in very simple steps. Trial by Fire, a new Netflix series, brings forth all these complexities in a fantastic examination of tragedy and culpability.
The series is created by Kevin Luperchio, and Prashant Nair, who also serves as the director of all episodes. The series stars Abhay Deol, Rajshri Deshpande, Ashish Vidyarthi, Shilpa Shukla, and Anupam Kher. The series is based on the real-life tragedy of the Uphaar Cinema fire, which occurred on Friday, June 13, 1997. A fire ignited in the cinema, and 59 people died of asphyxiation, while more than a hundred were wounded by the fire, the smoke, and the subsequent stampede while trying to exit the building.
The series contains seven episodes where we follow Shekhar and Neelam, parents of two kids who perished in the fire. The death of a child is something that feels completely unnatural. The order of things should have the children saying goodbye to their parents, not the other way around. So, the couple becomes the perfect anchor for the story, as their pain is completely understandable. We might not feel their pain, as it is too great to comprehend, but we can imagine it and understand it.
Deol and Deshpande carry the entire series on their shoulders with performances that feel genuine and which hide an incredible power behind them. As they are two different people, the characters suffer in their own way. Neelam succumbs to the despair almost immediately, while Shekhar tries to be as strong as his condition as a man forces him to be, to then just stumble and succumb to rage and despair as well. Their suffering later becomes just as strong as their conviction to take the ones responsible for the fire to court and to make them know that they cannot get away with it.
The series comes with controversy, in India, of course, as the Ansal brothers, who in the show, are depicted as responsible for the fire, pleading to the courts of the country that the series cannot be released in cinemas. Which was the original plan. It is understandable, but futile, as the series is being released on the biggest streaming platform in the world, and their name will be forever tainted for their negligence. The Ansals have a lot of money though, so it is normal that they try to defend themselves by using, which has been a target for criticism in India and very soon outside of it.
On a technical level, the series is very well-directed. Nair knows exactly where to point the camera and how close it should be so that we can get close to the characters on a more psychological level. The series is superb at translating the despair and anxiety that the characters are feeling. In its closing hours, the show also becomes quite haunting as we visit some events that should have never happened in the first place. It is a commendable effort and just another proof that the Indian cinema industry has so much more to offer than just Bollywood.
The pacing is also quite good. None of the episodes really overstay their welcome, which is something many series have been doing as of late. Sometimes TV shows extend each of their episodes to an hour and beyond. When, in reality, there is not enough story to fill all those minutes in a way that feels satisfactory or substantial. Trial by Fire’s episodes go as far as 45 minutes on average, and that is enough to tell the story in the way that it should be told.
The series might feel one-sided when it comes to the event, but it has to be. The tragedy is of such magnitude, and the Ansals’ behavior is so despicable that they are doing nothing but feeding the image of the evil millionaire that has become so prevalent in recent years. The series really fuels you with enough curiosity to make do research on your own once the episodes are done, and this is a sign of a truly amazing story. The show is really one stepping stone toward making this tragedy and its aftermath an event that is known around the world. As it should be.
Trial by Fire is an excellent adaptation of a terrible tragedy. It makes you feel as close to the characters as possible so that you can understand how these people feel and are still feeling after so many decades. The performances by Deol y Deshpander are award-worthy, and they should receive recognition in any way they can. The series becomes a perfect binge-watch thanks to its pacing and the quality of its filmmaking. It is really one of the best Netflix offerings for this month.