Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Miranda Richardson, Nandita Das
Direction: Jagmohan Mundhra
Set in London and based on a real-life story, director Jag Mundhra's film Provoked stars Aishwarya Rai as a battered Punjabi housewife and mother of two.
Aishwarya plays the role of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who sets her brutish husband on fire after suffering 10 years of abuse at his hands. Charged with first-degree murder when her husband succumbs to his wounds, Kiranjit is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite evidence of repeated abuse, the law doesn't allow her to claim self-defense as her husband was asleep when Kiranjit set him on fire.
In prison, it's with the help of a fellow inmate Ronnie, played by veteran British actress Miranda Richardson, that Kiranjit picks up the pieces of her life and learns to stand up to bullies.
Meanwhile, Nandita Das playing a female activist with The Southhall Black Sisters, a support group committed to helping victims of abuse, takes up her cause and persuades Kiranjit to make an appeal.
A little over three years after her arrest, Kiranjit is finally freed by the British judicial system in a landmark case that redefined the word "provocation" in the case of battered women.
Despite its many shortcomings, Provoked is engaging till its very end because it's such a dramatic story and because it avoids over-sentimentality, a trap that most films of this genre invariably fall into. Thankfully, we're spared all the Bollywood-style chest-beating and the shameless tugging at heart-strings that most Hindi films of this kind indulge in.
So, even though there are scenes in which Kiranjit begs to be united with her sons, there's none of that ‘I'll-die-without-them’ drama. That's not to say the script is all perfect, in fact it’s far from it actually.
Mundhra wastes too much time setting up those courtroom scenes, and there's little need to go into the back-stories of every inmate in that prison. Instead it might have helped if the character of Kiranjit's husband had been more fleshed out.
One moment you see he's surprising his pregnant wife with their new suburban home. Next thing you know, he's bashing her up and thrashing her around for no fault of hers.
Also, attributing his violent mood swings and his promiscuous lifestyle to his drinking habit is a little too convenient on the director's part.
In terms of production value, Provoked comes of looking like one of those filmed-in-your-backyard TV movies, and to be completely honest, Mundhra's direction is too basic, almost too amateurish to be taken seriously. But because it's entirely honest and well intended you're willing to overlook many of these flaws.
Instead, you're moved by those tender moments between Kiranjit and Ronnie, her protective new friend in prison. You're stung by the sense of empty loneliness that you see in Kiranjit's eyes even after she's released from prison.
In all honesty, Provoked wouldn't work if it wasn't for two performances that uplift the film considerably. Miranda Richardson plays Ronnie as a tought-but-tender woman who befriends Kiranjit when she's falling apart. It's Richardson who provides some of the film's most memorable moments, like the one in which she responds to Kiranjit's bear-hug with a comic line.
Of course, the real star of Provoked is Aishwarya Rai who delivers a performance that is appropriately restrained. I haven't exactly been a big fan of Aishwarya's acting, but I'll say here, she surprises you with what she strums up.
It's a performance that penetrates into your consciousness because she plays it with a slow-burning passion rather than an all-out flourish. This is easily one of her better acting jobs.
The film works because it's not preachy and it doesn't take itself too seriously. So I'll go with three out of five for Jag Mundhra's Provoked. It's a sensitive film about domestic abuse. It's not a great film by any standards but it's well intended and it goes about its job with sincerity, and sometimes, just sometimes, that's enough.