Asian dramatic sensibilities bring color and emotion to “Provoked,” a battered-immigrant-wife drama that, in British filmmaking hands, could have been merely a downbeat, right-on trawl. Mixed Indian and Western cast — with Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai surrounded by stalwarts like Miranda Richardson, Robbie Coltrane and Rebecca Pidgeon — turn the true story of a case that changed British law into an old-style melodrama (in the best sense) complete with a feel-good ending. With strong reviews, solid business looks likely, with some crossover beyond the curry belt. Pic also opens the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles on April 17.
Largely English-language pic goes out in India in a variety of regional-language versions, but will mainly appeal there to metro auds. Much will depend on Rai’s local pulling power (not necessarily guaranteed in the past), though the current hype surrounding her upcoming marriage to actor Abhishek Bachchan won’t hurt one bit.
Main surprise is that pic was directed by veteran journeyman Jag Mundhra, whose 20-odd-year career has encompassed direct-to-vid soft-porn schlockers (several with “Provoked” co-scripter Carl Austin), as well as occasional, more serious movies (2000’s “Bawandar,” aka “Sandstorm”). Working from a screenplay that adheres pretty closely to the facts, Mundhra delivers a work that plays like a toned-down version of mainstream Indian cinema, with d.p. Madhu Ambat’s saturated lensing and well-composed widescreen visuals bringing a South Asian feel to the U.K.-set material.
Pic gets straight down to business as, on the night of May 9, 1989, British-born Indian Deepak Ahluwalia (Naveen Andrews) is horribly burned in the bedroom of his suburban London home. Kiranjit (Rai), his Punjabi wife and mother of two, is found in shock outside.
Not denying the charge of incinerating her spouse, Kiranjit (who speaks little English) is accused of attempted murder when her prints are found on the gasoline can. Though her body shows evidence of regular beatings, her barrister Miriam (Pidgeon, with a slightly wobbly English accent) says she can’t claim self-defense, as Deepak was asleep at the time. Case is also taken up by sparky Indian-born activist Radha Dalal (Nandita Das).
When Deepak finally dies from his burns, Kiranjit is charged with first-degree murder, brought to trial in December and sentenced to life in prison.
Multiple story strands keep the pic moving without focusing solely on Kiranjit, a gentle, passive soul who tells Radha she feels “free” in jail after years of spousal abuse. Early on, flashbacks to the early years of her marriage start punctuating the narrative. And in a smart dramatic move, the script also sketches Kiranjit’s jailmates in some detail, especially tough but tender cell companion, Veronica “Ronnie” Scott (Richardson), and prison bully Doreen (TV’s Lorraine Bruce).
With Rai dignified in a largely reactive role, it’s the playing by thesps like Richardson and Das, both excellent, that broadens the pic’s emotional palette. As Radha and lawyer Anil Gupta (Raji James), build a case for appeal, and sympathetic ex-cop James O’Connell (Nicholas Irons) gives crucial new evidence, the movie becomes a genuine heartwarmer, with a rousing court perf by Kiranjit’s new barrister (Coltrane).
Main weakness is that, in the flashbacks, Deepak’s role has little backgrounding, and his violent outbursts are given no psychological underpinnings. Picture is more a quality meller, with clearly defined heroes and villains, than a slice of social realism. But for viewers prepared to go with the flow, it works at a gut, movie-movie level.
Technical package is smooth, with a warm score by star Indian composer A.R. Rahman. For the record, Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s case was instrumental in getting U.K. law to recognize battered-wife syndrome.