Aishwarya Rai's latest effort to move outside of strictly Bollywood fare, Provoked (directed by Jag Mundhra), is based on the non-fiction book Circle of Light by Rahila Gupta and Kiranjit Ahluwalia. The movie and book focus on Ahluwalia's life in England.
The opening of the film finds Kiranjit's house burning as she stands outside with her children; her husband has been gravely injured in the fire. The police quickly suspect arson and Kiranjit is pegged as the responsible party. Her husband dies and she is brought to trial.
The majority of the film is narrated as a series of flashbacks to Kiranjit's life with her husband, Deepak Ahluwalia (Naveen Andrews of Lost), and the trial and its aftermath. Kiranjit suffered greatly at the hands of her husband, enduring twelve years of physical and mental abuse. Due to poor representation, her mother-in-law and a police officer lying on the stand, and a legal system with archaic laws, Kiranjit is convicted of murder.
The film then moves on to her coming into her own in prison with a new group of friends as well as gaining the support of a not for profit foundation that wishes to help her. Of course, in the end, Kiranjit goes free.
Were this movie not based on a true story, the entire plot would seem far too contrived to be believable: two key witnesses lie; the lawyer doesn't have the time to devote to the case; Kiranjit just happens to end up with a cellmate, Veronica Scott (Miranda Richardson), who has been convicted of a similar crime; Veronica just happens to have a rich well-respected barrister for a brother; etcetera.
Though the film is full of solid performances by the actors, particularly Robbie Coltrane's brief appearance, it is a little too obvious. For instance, the scenes of Deepak's funeral are immediately followed by a flashback to Deepak and Kiranjit's wedding. While on the face of it the juxtaposition of these two scenes makes sense, in reality it ends up pulling the audience out of the story. As the flashback structure has already been developed, as soon as the viewer sees the funeral, the immediate thought is not to pay attention to what's currently going on, but to place a bet that the next scene will be the wedding.
Aishwarya Rai, even without music and dancing, is wonderful on screen. Though, her personality and visage is so completely entwined with her singing and dancing, and the music here is by famed composer A.R. Rahman, that there are moments when it seems the movie wants to break into song and dance. It doesn't, but there are clearly moments when it could.
Also of concern here is that despite several years elapsing between the original crime and Kiranjit's eventual release, her young children do not age. It is possible to accept that Aishwarya Rai's character is just extremely well preserved from the time of her wedding through her release from prison a decade and a half later. But that two children under the age of ten do not age during the three year period between the murder of their father and their mother's release is unacceptable. Such a move feels less like an oversight and more like a way to tug at the heartstrings of the viewer -- the viewer already has an established relationship with the two children, to change actors (despite it being necessary for realism) will hinder the relationship and thus the viewer will feel less. It's a poor sort of logic, but it seems as though it's at play here.
The story is touching, upsetting, and infuriating. It's so clearly a miscarriage of justice that the righting of the wrong seems inevitable. However, when the movie does finally reach its completion, it does so with a virtually unadulterated sense of happiness and contentment. The way everything works it is certainly good, but it is not an unmitigated good. The ending ought to be tinged with some sadness and a sense of unfairness, but those aspects are completely glossed over.
On the whole, with a depressing and sometimes convoluted message, the movie is unable to completely shake off its shortcomings. It has its moments, but with a little more work could have been a lot more.
Provoked opened in NY and LA on May 11, and it expands nationwide on May 18.