On June 13, 1997, a fire broke out from a faulty transformer at the Uphaar Cinema hall in New Delhi's affluent Green Park area. It was screening the patriotic Bollywood film Border on its opening day. It was a full house, and exit doors were locked to prevent people from sneaking in without tickets.
While about 750 people on the first floor managed to escape the fire, those seated in the balcony seats were trapped and a private box for the Ansal family, which owned the cinema, had been added, further blocking access to the exits.
Fifty-nine people died due to asphyxiation and suffocation, and more than 100 were injured in the stampede that ensued. Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy lost their two teenage children, Ujjwal, 13, and Unnati, 17, in the fire.
Trial by Fire, a seven-part Netflix series, is based on the memoir written by the Krishnamoorthys and delves into the couple’s 26-year fight for justice against the Ansal brothers, who owned the cinema hall. Thanks to this landmark case, awareness regarding fire safety in India has slowly changed for the better, ensuring the government and municipal corporations have since taken fire emergencies more seriously and put measures in place, such as evacuation plans.
Although, even today, no concrete laws have been framed.
Uphaar Cinema was owned by two brothers, Gopal and Sushil Ansal, who were famous real estate barons in Delhi. The fire was caused by two faulty transformers that had been shoddily repaired. Public alarm and emergency lights systems were out of order and there were only two fire extinguishers available. Fire engines and ambulances were delayed and inadequate.
The grieving couple recounts how they realised they could not fight this battle alone, but most lawyers would not help them as they were unwilling to go against the Ansals. They sifted through the names of victims, noting down the numbers of affected families and following up with them. Finally, they formed the Association of the Victims of the Uphaar Tragedy on June 30, 1997, with nine families. Today there are 28 and it is a registered society.
The couple started by filing a civil writ with other people who had lost loved ones in the accident, helped by senior advocate KTS Tulsi, who agreed to help them pro bono.
“Our whole journey has been about no other parent having to go through what we did, and to get justice for our kids," Neelam tells The National. "It is a sad fact that in spite of a quarter of a century having passed, no one cares enough for fire safety even today, not the government agencies, policymakers nor the ordinary citizens.
“The Netflix series is a sensitive portrayal of our story without melodrama. But, of course, our journey of 25 years had worse struggles than the series could show — from intimidation and being threatened to fearing for our lives.
"Why is the law special for people like the Ansal brothers and why is my suffering inferior? I feel that everyone, especially youngsters, should raise their voices against shoddy standards and enforce better fire safety laws and standards. Only those cases that evoke public outrage like the Nirbhayaa case [a 2012 case in which a girl, 23, was severely sexually assaulted on a bus] have got justice in a short time. Otherwise, cases like ours take years and don’t deliver justice."
Randeep Jha, co-director of the series, says they were careful to present the incident in a non-sensationalist way. “We had to fictionalise how the families of the victims must have felt and lived their lives since the day of the incident with sensitivity, without being judgmental.
"Apart from that, the series was shot during Covid, especially the deadly second wave. Some of the scenes were shot in really crowded places and that was a bit scary and extremely exhausting."
The cases filed went through many ups and downs, twists and turns, as the series recounts. It was taken from the Delhi authorities and transferred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. In 2015, the Ansals had to pay Rs 30 crores each towards a trauma centre. In 2021, the brothers were sentenced to seven years in jail for tampering with evidence but they walked free last year, when they were in their seventies, after eight months based on consideration for their "age-related complications".
The Netflix series, created by Prashant Nair and Jha, has actors Abhay Deol and Rajshri Deshpande playing the roles of Shekhar and Neelam with dignity. It follows the story in a non-linear fashion, going between timelines and portraying the conviction, resilience and patience that the couple had in fighting endless litigation, extensive money power and influence, evidence tampering and attempts to stymie their efforts.
The show also portrays death and loss in a respectful manner, whether showing a pre-ordered birthday cake that arrived after the son’s death or four toothbrushes in a bathroom. In one poignant scene, a nurse recites the names and ages of the six dead people — all family members of a watchman, including his granddaughter. It also tells the story of the electrician who is blamed for the tragedy because he repaired the transformer.
Naveen Sawhney, 78, lost his daughter Tarika when she was 21 in the tragedy. Sawhney has been part of the AVUT, fighting for justice ever since. “It’s never been about compensation, but about putting the guilty behind bars so that other business tycoons like the Ansals take care about safety standards. When you lose loved ones, money has no value. Even today, fire accidents are rampant in India, and that is something that has to change, besides not being lenient with the rich and powerful,“ he says.
AVUT continues its work on issues of fire safety and ambulance services, conducting inter-school debates, educating children in schools and helping to enforce laws. They have also met with policymakers to deal with prevention of man- made disasters such as this.
“Series like this need to be made to bring to light the fight for justice by victims, to know what injustice feels like, and to empower other people to demand accountability of the authority and the powerful people," says Jha.
"Most importantly, for people to value lives. We hope that no such incidents ever happen again and this would make people compliant with safety measures, especially in public spaces."
As one of the characters in the series puts it: “The movie hall is somewhere we go to escape reality and feel safe. What if that space is violated?”