You’re supposed to be horrified at the goings-on in Provoked. As the tag line (“based on a true story”) trumpets, the drama is based on the experiences of a Punjabi woman named Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who was wed to a British Indian through an arranged marriage and spent the next 10 years physically and mentally abused by him. Until, that is, the night in 1989 when she waited for him to fall asleep, doused his legs with gasoline, and set him on fire. Ahluwalia was arrested on attempted murder charges; when her husband died from his injuries, she got handed a life sentence. The case is most notable, though, because it became a landmark in British criminal law, the first time (in Ahluwalia’s 1992 appeal) that “battered woman syndrome” became an acceptable defense for murder.
Unfortunately, director Jag Mundhra takes these truths and fashions them into sub-Lifetime material. Written by Rahila Gupta (the woman who helped Ahluwalia write her memoir) and Carl Austin, Provoked offers a simplistic portrayal of the ordeal that irritates more often than it elicits sympathy. Aishwarya Rai, famously declared the world’s most beautiful woman, proves that she’s far from the world’s most talented actress in her turn as Kiranjit. It’s understandable that her character would be traumatized after the incident and, considering she spoke little English, shy about communicating. But Rai’s widdle-girl voice when Kiranjit does peep—“He sleep with other womans!”—is perpetually grating. And combined with her go-to expression—blank stare, occasionally tweaked with frightened-animal anime eyes—Rai grows nearly intolerable to watch, dialing up Kiranjit’s passivity to caricature levels better suited for, well, maybe a production by Waiting for Guffman’s Corky St. Clair.
Provoked begins on the night of the crime. After an off-camera person torches Deepak (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), we see Kiranjit sitting outside her home with her two children, unresponsive to the authorities on the scene. She remains largely mute throughout questioning and even after she’s sent to jail, where guards mispronounce her name and a fellow inmate calls her “Asian Barbie.” But Kiranjit begins to open up thanks to her cellmate, Ronnie (Miranda Richardson), the Henry Higgins of the prison yard, who not only teaches delicate Kiranjit to stand up to ruffians but also encourages her to get a new look and dramatically improves her English as well. (“I need ‘U’?” Kiranjit asks Ronnie when she misspells “shoulder” during a Scrabble game. “Yes, you need me!” Ronnie responds, in case you weren’t hip to her magic.)
Mundhra, who’s mainly known for directing erotic thrillers, is terrifically awkward with Provoked’s material, persistently cueing flashbacks by using things as generic as a meal to set off Kiranjit’s memories. Besides Deepak’s brief hospital stay—in which he mutters to a nurse, “Bitch tried to kill me”—these scenes are our only exposure to the character, and they’re not exactly well-rounded. Deepak threatens, yells, throws his wife down stairs, etc., all without any indication of what drives him to such violence. Andrews, therefore, can’t help but come off as a paper-thin villain. Also ineffective is Nandita Das as the head of an advocacy group that helps Ahluwalia, acting shrill instead of passionate and throwing school-play tantrums when something doesn’t go their way. Provoked does get better in its last chapters, helped by Robbie Coltrane as a member of the Queen’s Counsel guiding Ahluwalia and her supporters in their attempt to appeal. But neither the film’s coda nor tragic subject matter can overcome its amateurish telling.