Provoked had it all – A brilliant subject matter that needed to be highlighted, a real life storybase about how one woman’s bravery helped fuel a nationwide crusade and irrevocably altered British laws on domestic violence and a lead actress who for once does full justice to her role. However what should have been a hard-hitting eyeopener merely ends up as a well-intentioned film and nothing more.
Provoked is based on the book Circle of Light: An Autobiography by Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Rahila Gupta and looks at the life of Kiranjit Ahluwalia. Born into a privileged family in India, she came to England in 1979 to be married to a man she had met only once. The next ten years were to be a nightmare of almost daily, physical, mental and sexual violence at the hands of her husband. Isolated by a society in which wife-beating was regarded as a normal part of life, Kiranjit, in desperation, killed the man who had tortured her for so long. Bewildered, poorly advised and speaking little English, she was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. In prison, she unexpectedly found a degree of freedom she had never known in the outside world. For the first time she was safe from beatings and abuse, and was able to make friends with other women. Meanwhile, a campaign to secure a retrial for her was gathering momentum. Media coverage of her plight had made Kiranjit something of a ’cause celebre’, and she was attracting many prominent supporters. The case against her was finally dismissed in September 1992, and she was released from prison.
Sadly for Provoked, the weak, simplistic and superficial script and the ineffectual direction are the film’s biggest drawbacks. Barring to a certain extent Aishwarya Rai and Miranda Richardson, most of the other characters needed to be much better fleshed out. In particular the one character who suffers the most here is the violent husband. Kiranjit in real life herself mentioned he had his nice moments with her and was more of a split personality but what we have here is just a one-dimensional stereotypical drinking, womanizing arsehole.
True, cinema is a different medium from the written world of books and real life case studies but there is so much more to Kiranjit’s life that has been left out that is relevant to her story and to add more depth and other layers to the film. The film seems to suggest that Kiranjit suffered in silence throughout until her final ‘provocation.’ In truth, Kiranjit was afraid to have children because she feared that she would never be able to leave her husband, but she was pressurized by Deepak’s family to undergo medical examinations to find out why she had not yet become pregnant. Deepak forced Kiranjit to have sex with him and she subsequently had 2 children. The boys were terrified of their father and were also subjected to his violence. Kiranjit attempted to seek help from her family who merely told her to go back and be ‘a good wife’ and that it was her duty ‘to make the marriage work.’ She also got 2 court injunctions in an effort to stop Deepak’s attacks on her, but to no effect. She ran away in desparation but he found her and brought her back. Kiranjit began to drink in order to dull the pain and was deeply ashamed of her drinking. She even took 2 drug overdoses, pushed beyond endurance by the misery of her existence. But all this is totally overlooked in the film. This unfortunately takes away from us understanding Kiranjit and the trauma she underwent for ten whole years and dilutes the film as a convenient little tale against unidimensional injustice and nothing more.
To be fair, there are sequences which leave their mark. The jail sequences where the bonding takes place between Kiranjit and fellow cellmate, Veronica Scott (Miranda Richardson), though too pat and easy, the emerging confidence of Kiranjit in jail as she finds ‘freedom’ in jail, her picking up English and even taking on the jail bully – a woman clearly much larger and stronger then her are well handled. Along with some of the court scenes. It is here that the film comes into its own. Incidentally, if the film is a true story, the cellmate that Kiranjit befriended was Sarah Thornton, so why has her name been changed to Ronnie Scott?
The film finally should silence those who scoff at Aishwarya’s acting abilities. For once, the actress is in fine form, playing a real character in a real manner even if she looks nothing like a Punjabi or like the real Kiranjit for that matter. Managing a reasonable Punjabi dicton, making splendid use of her eyes and showing an ability to express herself through silence, she captures both the moods of fleeting moments of happiness and the horrific domestic violence she is subjected to equally well. Whether it is the elation of meeting her children in jail or taking on the jail bully or her bonding with Miranda Richardson, she more than holds her own. Richardson as the fellow cell mate who also has been a victim of domestic violence and who has also killed her husband helps lift the film several notches. Here is an actress who is in total control of her craft. Naveen Andrews, otherwise a really fine actor, suffers from his woefully written character and can’t do much other than going through the motions while Nandita Das comes off as ‘acting.’ Indian English is very tough to handle on the silver screen if it is not to sound stilted and stagy and Das doesn’t quite carry it off.
Unfortunately the flips, as mentioned above, are many. The obvious and predictable flashback sequences though perhaps intented to show Kiranjit’s past life with minimum fuss are weakly constructed and hamper the narrative flow to a great extent. If she holds a jacket, you have a scene with the jacket, if the mother-in-law is asked if she ever saw her son abusing Kiranjit, you immediately show a scene where she does and then come back to her in court saying of course not. As the flashbacks reduce in the second half, we actually have a more lucid narrative flow between the jail and the court, you wonder why this was not followed for the rest of the film as it is here that the film actually shows glimpses of what could have been. Even the camera work and other technical accompaniments appear more fluid and with the film. If the filmmaker were to follow Kiranjit’s past, perhaps having a single and longer flashback might have worked far better than its present structure. Worse however, is the treatment of the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) Outfit, an arm of the Justice for Women Organization, that campaigns for and supports women who have fought back against or killed their violent male partners. The SBS group comes across as brainless who only get breakthrough bloody good ideas accidentally through inane conversations. Their scenes are easily among the worst written in the film. In fact, the SBS lot is pretty disappointed with the film saying it is full of factual and legal inaccuracies.
Technically, the film is adequate at best. While Madhu Ambat’s cinematography is reliably effiecient, the Production Design again though adequate does show the lack of budget in places while AR Rahman’s background is surprisingingly disappointing especially in the first half of the film. The film could have done with some tighter editing. Nandita Das’s big emotional scene at the pub seems intended more to give her something to justify her presence in the film rather than really fit into the film’s natural flow.
All in all, the film is just about watchable for the performances of Ms Rai and Richardson. Otherwise Provoked is a film of wasted chances.
English, Punjabi, Drama, Color