In the first episode of Netflix India’s newest show, Trial by Fire, Neelam Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande) has a heart-to-heart with her now deceased children’s young friend Arjun, who is visibly shaken after having survived a terrible fire at a movie theater. Neelam’s goal is precisely to understand how her beloved Ujjwal (Abhishek Sharrma) and Unnati (Poorti Jai Agarwal) perished in the fire, and how Arjun managed to come out alive. The answers she gets from the boy, however, aren’t exactly what she expected. According to Arjun, the only reason he didn’t succumb to the smoke was because he wasn’t inside the theater at all. He arrived late to find the doors to the auditorium bolted shut. Neelam is, of course, shocked by this information. But little does she know that this is just one of the many horrible details that make up the tragedy that took her children’s lives.
Based on the memoir of the same name written by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, Trial by Fire tells the story of two parents fighting to get justice after losing their son and daughter in a terrible disaster. The event in question is the Uphaar Cinema fire, which took the lives of 59 people in the Indian capital of Delhi, in 1997. Over the course of seven episodes, the miniseries chronicles the family’s long struggle in the Indian justice system, as well as the pain of losing one’s children in such a horrifying, unexpected way. Considered a landmark case in India, the Uphaar Cinema fire and the legal battle that followed it aren’t that well-known outside the country. Among other things, Trial by Fire aims to raise global awareness about the tragedy and the many precautions that could have prevented it. But what exactly happened in the Uphaar Cinema fire? Here’s a brief account of the events to help you get some background before watching Trial by Fire.
What Is the Real Life Tragedy That Inspired ‘Trial by Fire’?
Located in the affluent Green Park neighborhood of Delhi, the Uphaar Cinema was having a busy day on June 13, 1997. For starters, hundreds of people were buying tickets for the first day of screening of the patriotic blockbuster Border, directed by J.P. Dutta. Secondly, but perhaps most importantly, a transformer was giving signs of malfunction, threatening the day’s sessions. Very early in the morning, the larger transformer in the theater’s first floor exploded. There was a small fire that was quickly brought under control and repairs were conducted on the tension cables that were damaged by the explosion. By noon, the transformer was up and running again, ready for a full day. Or so the authorities and the theater said.
It turns out that repairs were not done correctly, and, later in the afternoon, one of the transformer’s cables came loose. Sparks flew and ignited a pool of radiator oil, which then leaked into the theater’s parking lot, setting all cars ablaze. Smoke billowed into the top floors, on which the theater’s auditorium and balcony were located, and caught patrons entirely by surprise. When firefighters finally managed to reach the scene, delayed by heavy traffic, it was already too late: 59 people had died of asphyxiation, and 103 were severely injured in the stampede to escape. It took firefighters about an hour to extinguish the flames.
Though a fire is always a dangerous, life-threatening event, what happened at the Uphaar Cinema was no mere accident. Patrons were killed not just by smoke, but by numerous safety code violations. For starters, there are the bolted doors mentioned by Arjun in Episode 1 of Trial by Fire. To make matters worse, access to existing exits was blocked by the addition of extra seats to increase the theater’s capacity. Furthermore, the desperate victims were not warned about the fire, nor did they have any help leaving the theater: staff did not come to their rescue, and the public alarm and emergency lights system were out of order. This hell on Earth lasted for about 15 minutes.
The Ensuing Legal Battle for Justice for the Victims
All of these violations were uncovered by an investigation on the causes of the fire, but some of them were already well-known by local authorities. Thus, blame was initially placed not only on the theater’s management, but also on the Delhi Vidyut Board, the city fire service, the Delhi police’s licensing branch and municipal corporation. Brothers Sushil and Gopal Ansal, the owners of the Uphaar Cinema, were also taken into custody. At the time, the two were considered the biggest developers in Asia.
The brothers’ extensive wealth and influence, as well as instances of missing evidences, led the victims’ families to believe that there was a cover-up going on. The inquiry was taken off the hands of Delhi authorities and transferred to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation. About 115 witnesses were heard by the Bureau before the case went to court, where 344 hearings took place over the course of seven years. During this time, there were repeated attempts to adjourn the trials made by the accused parties. It was only in 2007, ten years after the tragedy, that the first verdict on the case came out. The Ansal brothers were found guilty of various charges, including death by negligence. They were sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined for the cinema’s many safety code violations. Others, including those who worked in the theater’s management and the gatekeeper who bolted the doors, were sentenced to seven years.
But this was far from being the end for the victims and the families of those killed in the Uphaar Cinema fire. Reviewed by the Indian Supreme Court in 2017, Gopal’s sentence was changed to one year imprisonment. Sushil, who had already served five months, escaped further jail time due to his old age. He was 77 at the time. In 2021, the brothers were sentenced to seven years of jail for tampering with evidence. The case is still going on, as both Gopal and Sushil have appealed against their conviction. According to the Indian Express: “On July 19 last year, Sushil and Gopal Ansal walked out of jail. While noting that nothing could compensate the victims’ families for their loss, the court had, however, stated that the order was based on a consideration for the brothers’ ages.” Sushil also tried to halt the circulation of both the Netflix series and the Krishnamoorthy memoir, alleging defamation against him and his family, but his request was denied.
In parallel with the criminal suit, the Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT) filed and won a civil compensation case against the Ansal brothers and the Delhi government in a case that is considered a landmark in Indian law. The Ansal brothers disputed the amount owed, and, in 2011, a Supreme Court decision cut the amount owed by the brothers’ almost by half. Nowadays, the Association tries to keep the memories of the victims alive and help avoid similar tragedies. They have managed to build a memorial across the street from where the cinema was located and have a website dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of public safety in India.
The Trial by Fire miniseries is now streaming on Netflix.