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Is Trial by Fire based on a true story?

In the first episode of the latest Netflix India show trial by fireNeelam Krishnamoorthy (Rajshri Deshpande) has a heart-to-heart with her late childhood friend Arjun, who is visibly devastated after surviving a terrible fire at a movie theater. Neelam’s goal is to understand exactly how her beloved Ujjwal (Abhishek Sharma) and Unnati (Poorti Jai Agarwal) perished in the fire and how Arjun managed to get out alive. However, the answers she gets from the boy are not exactly what she expected. According to Arjun, the only reason he didn’t succumb to the smoke was because he wasn’t in the theater at all. Arriving late, he found the doors to the auditorium were locked. Neelam, of course, is shocked by this information. But little does she know that this is just one of the many horrific details that make up the tragedy that took her children’s lives.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy, trial by fire tells the story of two parents fighting for justice after losing their son and daughter in a terrible catastrophe. The event in question is the Uphaar cinema fire that killed 59 people in the Indian capital, Delhi, in 1997. Across seven episodes, the miniseries chronicles the family’s long struggle in the Indian justice system over the pain of losing their children in such a horrific, unexpected way. The Uphaar cinema fire and ensuing legal battle is considered a landmark case in India and is not as well known outside the country. Among other things, trial by fire aims to raise global awareness of the tragedy and the many precautions that could have prevented it. But what exactly happened in the fire in the Uphaar cinema? Here’s a brief account of the events so you can get some background before you watch trial by fire.

What is the real tragedy that inspired “Trial by Fire”?

Rajshri Deshpande as Neelam Krishnamoorthy in Netflix Miniseries Trial by Fire
Image via Netflix

Located in the affluent Green Park neighborhood of Delhi, Uphaar Cinema had a busy day on June 13, 1997. First of all, hundreds of people bought tickets for the first day of screening of the patriotic blockbuster Borderdirected by JP Dutta. Second, but perhaps most importantly, a transformer gave signs of malfunctioning, threatening the day’s meetings. Very early in the morning, the larger transformer on the first floor of the theater exploded. There was a small fire which was quickly brought under control and repairs were made to the guy ropes damaged by the blast. By noon, the transformer was up and running again, ready for a full day. At least that’s what the authorities and the theater said.

It turned out that repairs had not been carried out correctly, and later in the afternoon one of the transformer’s cables became detached. Sparks flew, igniting a pool of radiator oil which then spilled into the theater’s parking lot, setting all the cars on fire. Smoke billowed to the top floors, where the theater’s auditorium and balcony were located, completely taking the guests by surprise. When the firefighters finally managed to get to the scene, delayed by the heavy traffic, it was already too late: 59 people had suffocated and 103 were seriously injured in the onslaught to flee. It took firefighters about an hour to put out the flames.

Although a fire is always a dangerous, life-threatening event, what happened at the Uphaar cinema was no accident. Guests were killed not only by smoke, but also by numerous violations of safety regulations. For starters, there are the locked doors that Arjun mentioned in Episode 1 of trial by fire. To make matters worse, access to existing exits was blocked by the addition of additional seating to increase the theater’s capacity. In addition, the desperate victims were not warned of the fire, nor did they have any help exiting the theater: personnel did not come to their rescue, and the public alarm and emergency lighting system was out of order. This hell on earth lasted about 15 minutes.

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People looking at photos on the wall of Uphaar Fire victims in the trailer for the Netflix mini-series Trial by Fire
Image via Netflix

All of these violations were uncovered through an investigation into the causes of the fire, but some were already known to local authorities. Therefore, not only the theater management was blamed at first, but also the Delhi Vidyut Board, the Municipal Fire Department, the Delhi Police Department Registration Office and the Municipality. Brothers Sushil and Gopal Ansal, owners of the Uphaar cinema, were also taken into custody. At the time, the two were regarded as the largest developers in Asia.

The brothers’ great wealth and influence, as well as cases of lack of evidence, led victims’ families to believe a cover-up was afoot. The investigation was taken from the 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 were held over the course of seven years. During this time there were repeated attempts to adjourn the trials of the accused. Only in 2007, ten years after the tragedy, was the first verdict in the case. The Ansal brothers were found guilty of various charges, including involuntary manslaughter. They were sentenced to two years in prison and a fine for the many violations of the cinema’s safety regulations. Others, including the theater management staff and the porter who locked the doors, were sentenced to seven years in prison.

But that was far from the end for the victims and families of those who died in the Uphaar cinema fire. Gopal’s sentence was reviewed by India’s Supreme Court in 2017 and changed to a one-year prison sentence. Sushil, who had already served five months, escaped another prison sentence because of his old age. He was then 77 years old. In 2021, the brothers were sentenced to seven years in prison for tampering with evidence. The case is still ongoing as both Gopal and Sushil have appealed their convictions. According to Indian Express: “On July 19 last year, Sushil and Gopal Ansal left prison. While the court found that nothing could compensate the victims’ families for their loss, it found that the order was based on a consideration of the brothers’ ages.” Sushil also sought distribution of both the Netflix series and the Krishnamoorthy -Memoirs and claimed that he and his family had been slandered, but his request was denied.

In parallel with the criminal lawsuit, the Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT) filed and won a civil redress case against the Ansal brothers and the Delhi government in a case considered seminal in Indian law. The Ansal brothers disputed the amount owed, and in 2011 a Supreme Court decision cut the amount owed by the brothers by almost half. Nowadays, the association tries to keep the memory of the victims alive and to help prevent similar tragedies. They have managed to erect a memorial across the street from the cinema and have a website dedicated to raising awareness of the lack of public safety in India.

the trial by fire Miniseries is now streaming on Netflix.


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