Cast: Aishwarya Rai, Naveen Andrews
Direction: Jag Mundhra
Provoked, based on the autobiography by Kiranjit Ahluwalia, Circle of Light, is a wonderfully empathetic retelling of a horrific marriage in which sexual, physical and mental abuse were all par for the course.
Aishwarya Rai plays the battered wife in what is undoubtedly one of her best performances to date. Starting as the young, coy and simpering wife, Kiranjit, who is abused to such an extent that she sets her husband Deepak, (Naveen Andrews), on fire after a particularly brutal beating one night, she convincingly goes through the various stages of shock, bewilderment, remorse and finally vindication.
With a story like this it would have been very easy to go overboard, it is to director Jag Mundhra's credit that he keeps a tight leash on the melodrama aspect of the story. Rai herself gets all her emotions across through her expressive eyes. She goes from the unknowing 16-year-old bride from Punjab with stars in her eyes to her gradual disillusionment with her husband as she understands that he sleeps around and gets pleasure by raping and beating her.
Where the story doesn't quite ring true is in the prison sequences. It is hard to believe that someone as beautiful and vulnerable as Kiranjit was not abused in the jail. Nandita Das as one of the Southall Black Sisters who fought relentlessly for Kiranjit's cause comes through as one-dimensional. As does Deepak who must have had some redeeming qualities.
What compensates though is the depiction of the way Kiranjit comes into her own, educating herself in English and becoming aware of her rights. When she remarks that it is in jail that for the first time she has felt free, your heart just breaks.
Coming from Jag Mundhra known more for erotic thrillers than issue based films except for the odd Kamla and Bhawander, this is a surprise. Gratifyingly, he shows as much expertise at this sort of cinema as he displays at the other.
Ultimately, when the legal pyrotechnics are done with, it is a story of courage. And that is what you take with you. If it had to have a beauty like Aishwarya to get it across as well as music by AR Rahman, so be it.