Dir: Jag Mundhra
Aishwariya Rai, Naveen Andrews, Miranda Richardson, Nandita Das
One always tries to go into critic mode with an open mind, but you know a film must be approached with due apprehension when the first point of discussion about it among all one’s friends is that said film contains a shot of Naveen ‘Lost’ Andrews’ bare bottom. Though I am certainly not one to tut-tut anyone’s naked whatsits, it does throw a smidge of a spanner in the works when the cinematic venture in question is intended to be a somber, humbling indictment of silent suffering in the face of domestic abuse, and inspired by a true story, no less.
Kiranjit Ahluwalia (Rai), an Indian Punjabi expat living in London, is jailed for setting fire to and killing her violent, alcoholic husband Deepak (Andrews) after enduring ten long years of abuse and torture at his hands. The British legal system fails to see grounds for self-defence or provocation but a group of activists called the Southall Black Sisters, led by Radha Dalal (Nandita Das) vows to fight for her release. Meanwhile, Kiran is befriended by cellmate Ronnie (Miranda Richardson) who helps to build her self-esteem and coax her out of her shell.
Falling prey to the same hiccups that plagued the Charlize Theron vehicle North Country, the melodramatic script of Provoked employs gross stereotypes to stack the emotional decks unmistakably in Kiran’s favour. Here then, for your consideration, is the nasty, chauvinist SOB of a police detective who decides to hate Kiran for no apparent reason; the scowling, unsympathetic male judge who pretty much directs the jury to convict her, come what may; the achingly earnest activists who all but have haloes hovering above their noggins; the requisite butch lesbian tormentor in the prison whom Kiran eventually stands up to in one of the film’s several contrived (but rarely rousing) rah-rah sequences. The scenes surrounding these one-note characters are so ploddingly rote that they not only make for cringe-inducing filmmaking , but also end up trivializing the gravity of the issues at hand (a criticism also leveled at the film by the real-life Southall Black Sisters).
The biggest problem with the script however, is the fatally underwritten character of the protagonist. Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta’s collective pen reduces Kiran to a purely reactive, mere wisp of a person. She may spout the obligatory pearls of acquired wisdom at the end, but we never see her growth, her transition from victim to toughened survivor. As essayed by Rai, she stays the same whispery, mousy person, all moist-eyed and pensive from start to finish.
To be fair, Mrs. Junior Bachchan makes a valiant effort and strikes an emotional chord in a number of otherwise maudlin scenes. But ultimately her performance only serves to confirm what one has suspected for some time: that our Ash is not an instinctive actor or one who has an innate mastery over the craft. Rather, her style is an amalgam of gestures, expressions and mannerisms acquired by observing other (superior) actors. That is why all her performances, even the more credible ones, end up looking like cliched imitations of other performances. Like a print of a masterwork, it may adorn many walls but nobody’s going to mistake it for the real McCoy.
Jag Mundhra’s pedestrian direction doesn’t help. Otherwise known as India’s king of soft-core porn, the director has attempted to tackle more clothed fare before, most notably with Bawandar, but his skills are functional at best. Under his captainship, the film looks and feels like a low-budget made-for-Third-World-TV movie, with uninteresting camerawork and an awkward, leaden screenplay. However, most of the film’s supporting cast acquits itself commendably, in particular the always brilliant Richardson.
The bottom-line is that apart from the novelty value of seeing a South Asian movie icon treading water in an English-language film, Provoked doesn’t have much on offer. Sure, there are times when one is really in the mood for a film about a poor, downtrodden woman getting the living daylights beaten out of her by her rat-bastard husband, and then getting her own back (after all, there were people willing to shell out the dough to see Julia Roberts getting kicked around by Patrick Bergin in Sleeping with the Enemy), but is Provoked the one that would satisfactorily gratify that jones? There are of course many great films which espouse the same message, namely that life is crap and there but for the grace of God go I. But they say so in far subtler and cinematically compelling ways. There is one thing, though, that the film does inspire one to do: read ‘Circle of Light’, the real Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s story in her own words.