Netflix drama 'Trial by Fire' begins with a scene depicting a normal morning at the Krishnamoorthy household. This domestic normalcy is soon shattered by the fire that breaks out at South Delhi's Uphaar Cinema which claimed 59 lives and injured more than a hundred.
Rajshri Deshpande and Abhay Deol play real-life couple Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy who lost their teenage children Unnati and Ujjwal in the fire. In the first 40 minutes of the drama, Deshpande and Deol's grief—each borne alone—is palpable, and heartbreaking. However, in the end, one can see the grief and anger—which is now shared—and a joint resolve to hold those responsible for the tragedy to justice.
"Seeing the reel version of my kids on screen was the most traumatic thing for me to see," Neelam Krishnamoorthy told BOOM. "I had to close my eyes. I am reliving that day every day, but then to see it on screen was very painful," she said.
Netflix drama 'Trial by Fire', adapted from Krishnamoorthys' 2016 book of the same name, was released on Friday a day after the Delhi High Court refused to stay the release on a plea filed by Sushil Ansal, one of the convicts of the 1997 fire tragedy.
25 years journey compressed in less than six hours
Days before the official release of the seven-episode drama, BOOM caught up with the Krishnamoorthys at their Noida residence. The couple is in between calls and interviews in the run-up to the official release.
Neelam and Shekhar told BOOM the series was very difficult for them to see.
She could see only the first 10 minutes of the rushes before switching it off. "It was only after a week that we saw all the episodes," Neelam said sitting in the armchair next to a bureau filled with photo frames of their children's pictures.
Neelam confessed she saw the past 26 years of her life compressed in less than six hours. "Of course there was a lot that was not added but whatever I saw, it was very difficult for me," she added. "I have gone through worse than what's shown on screen. In fact, I went into heavy depression for 10-15 days (after seeing the drama)…It's not like it has been any less difficult since it happened…it is very traumatic for any mother," she said.
Initially reluctant to dramatize my story, but have a message to share
Two years after their book was published, Sidharth Jain, chief storyteller at Story Ink – a production house, approached the Krishnamoorthys seeking permission to adapt their story on screen. But at the time, the Krishnamoorthys' confess they were initially reluctant to allow the screen adaption of their 2016 book.
"You see, my children died while watching a movie, and I haven't watched one since. But this (our struggle) is something that needs to reach a large number of people," Neelam said. "We are averse to films. We have never seen a Hindi film, haven't gone to a theatre since," Shekhar added.
Neelam confessed her husband Shekhar, family friends, and the show's promoter Sidharth Jain were instrumental in convincing her to get the book adapted on screen. But Shekhar felt differently. He said he was that though the book was important and many would have read it, their story would reach a wider audience through the visual medium. "People have to know what happened," he added.
On the other hand, Neelam was also swayed by Jain's empathy and conviction in their story. "His (Jain's) approach was very sensitive. I was further convinced because after he met us it was his idea to wait and allow the series to be made by someone who would treat the subject more sensitively and emotionally," she added. "I completely trusted Sidharth because I did not want my story to become a Bollywood masala movie," Neelam said.
"But this is a message that needs to reach a large number of people. It is when you put up a fight, you need to inspire others. That you should have the patience and perseverance to fight against the system, the so-called rich and powerful lobby."
"I want the people to know that you can get together and fight. And that is why this story needed to be told," she added. "Through this film I wanted people to know about their rights when it comes to public fire safety," he said. "If you ask me it was an open and shut case. We only came to know when we started to get into the thick of the trial and go through 40,000 pages," Shekhar said.
Alluding to the long-drawn trial and the horrors of the criminal justice system—real estate barons Sushil and Gopal Ansal were convicted in 2007 for the 1997 fire—Neelam said, "All I see is the killer of my children scot-free just because they are rich and powerful. I feel so ashamed that I am in a country where we don't get justice."
Referring to recent and old public safety disasters like the 2022 Morbi bridge collapse, the 2016 Meerut Fire, and the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy, Neelam said nothing has happened and that's why her story must be told.
Neelam said that in this country people only get justice if there is a media campaign and public outcry the likes of the Nirbhaya and the Jessica Lal murder case; or the rich and powerful who can engage the best of the lawyers. "Perhaps it would be different for me too if there were social media in 1997," she added.
Recalling their trauma, Shekhar and Neelam both concurred that what they got was "a judgment, not justice."
"When we went to court, we wanted justice. But what we got was a judgment, not justice," Neelam said.