Don’t be misled by the Indian and British credits and seemingly realistic subject matter. “Provoked” is largely Hollywood hokum as it dramatizes the ordeal of Kiranjit Ahluwalia — the Punjabi London housewife who fought back, lethally, against her abusive husband and then took on the courts that convicted her of murder.
Suggesting a mix of “The Burning Bed” and “North Country” or any other female triumph-over-hardship “true story” fictionalized into falseness, the drama presents the legal and personal journey of protagonist Kiranjit (Aishwarya Rai), a passive immigrant who, in an opening scene, pours petrol on, and ignites, her sleeping husband, Deepak (Naveen Andrews), who’s beaten her viciously for years. Unable under 1989 British law to plead self-defense, she receives a life sentence for murder.
The behind-bars life proves sweeter than the marital prison for Kiranjit, who, with the support of tough but compassionate cellmate Ronnie (Miranda Richardson, stealing the movie), starts believing in herself. She also, assisted by a determined activist (Nandita Das) and a top-notch attorney (Robbie Coltrane), gets a retrial. This time, the judge issues a landmark ruling: The killing ofDeepak was not murder but the act of a battered spouse who was provoked. Kiranjit is freed and becomes a symbol and spokeswoman for abused women.
There’s enough of a good story in Kiranjit’s transformation to make it impossible not to take an interest in what transpires. And when it sticks close to reality, as when addressing what constitutes “provocation” in people too beaten up to think conventionally or rationally, the film is worthy.
But largely, it’s a superficial, formulaic issue-of-the-week soaper filled with cliché scenarios and “composite” characters that surely don’t appear in the autobiography it’s based on. As a legal drama, the film degenerates into courtroom corn; as a look at the effects of abuse and at a woman fighting back, it pales next to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” or “The Accused.”
The top culprits are director Jag Mundhra (“Kamla”) and screenwriters Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta (adapting Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s book), who, rather than exploring the psychological states of Kiranjit and Deepak (who appears in flashback as a one-note brute), deliver silly minidramas involving, among other things, Ronnie’s spats with the prison’s token lesbian bully. And while Bollywood superstar Rai is earnest, she’s not the powerhouse this role demands. Kiranjit’s story should, well, provoke you. Here, it’s a good movie still waiting to happen.
Starring Aishwarya Rai, Miranda Richardson, Naveen Andrews, Nandita Das
Written by Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta, based on the book “Circle of Light” by Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Rahila Gupta
Directed by Jag Mundhra
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes