Provoked – 'There are some things worse than prison

By Rohini Mohan
‘Provoked’ is the story of soft spoken Kiranjit Ahluwalia who accompanies her Asian- British husband to England, a young bride at the cusp of a new life, with hopes of continuing her education, becoming a mother, maturing as a woman. Alone in a strange country, with below par English speaking skills, she finds herself at the mercy of her new husband, Deepak, a Dr Jekyll, Mr. Hyde kind of character.

The next 10 years are sheer torture; she suffers rape, verbal abuse and humiliation at his hands and is often beaten to an inch of her life. He is jealous if any man so much at looks at her, but has numerous affairs of his own.  The event that tilts the balance is when he threatens to mar her face with a hot iron. All the pent up agony which is sort of on a slow boil finally erupts with volcanic vengeance. She sets fire to the bed that he is asleep on, meaning only to cause injury to his legs but the severe burns end up being fatal. And she is sentenced to a mandatory life sentence in prison with no access to her children. There is not much her lawyer can do given that the witnesses either blatantly perjure themselves or are simply not credible.

Prison is where she finds freedom, friends and a steely inner strength. Enter the Women’s Rights activists, the Southall Black Sisters who campaign fiercely for her release. Kiranjit’s cellmate Ronnie persuades her brother, an influential lawyer to take on her case pro bono, and he and a brilliant young lawyer Rohit Sanghvi, are successful in securing an unprecedented verdict for their client.   

The wife beating monster and the helpless victim are characters that we are well acquainted with and that have dominated our movie screen for years now. Remember the rash of dowry death/ dowry revenge films that we were subject to in the eighties? What differentiates ‘Provoked’ from all of those is the fact that it is a true story, and the main protagonist is a living, breathing person who has survived to tell the tale. In a landmark case (Regina vs Ahluwalia) in 1992, Kiranjit was acquitted on the grounds of “Diminished Responsibility” a change in the law which takes into account that while men have the physical ability to immediately avenge an attack, women take longer and need to plan their reaction, which is different from pre-meditation. This can translate to a verdict of manslaughter vs first degree murder which is quite literally a difference between life and death.

The movie is based loosely on Kiranjit’s book, ‘Circle of Life’ co-authored with Rahila Gupta, one of the key members of the Southall Black Sisters.  However one is not quite sure where reality ends and dramatization begins. The director Jag Mohan Mundhra has obviously taken some liberties with the story, considering Deepak is all bad and Kiran is all good….symbolism I suppose, since Indian audiences are not really equipped to deal with shades of gray. Casting Aishwarya Rai as Kiranjit is definitely a masterstroke from a sheer crowd puller standpoint – I am not a great fan of her thespian talent – her pretty face always says to me “What, you want me to act too?” She had her moments of decent emoting but the transformation from bashful bride to wounded victim to figurehead of a powerful cause was in my opinion way too demanding for her. The main attraction for me was Nandita Das who plays the main activist from Southall Black Sisters. But I was quite frankly horrified at the way she stomped through the role. Her performance in Provoked is not even close; in fact it is the opposite of the magnificent, subtle work she has done in films like Fire and Earth. If there was a saving grace it was Naveen Andrews (Deepak) who was right on cue every time with his emoting.     

With slightly better casting and direction it could have been a powerful movie with the impact of films like ‘Bandit Queen’ or ‘Schindler’s List’ which haunt your dreams and leave an impression that you are not ever likely to forget.

That said, to quote Kiranjit in real life and Aishwarya Rai in the movie, the important thing is the issue. And this is a serious issue. That angle has been handled rather well in the movie, and I consider it worth a watch as a good awareness building exercise even for people with a low threshold for violence. Wife battering is more prevalent than we know. The nameless victims are all around us, their plight cutting right through social and economic boundaries.

Look for Vidya Pradhan’s article on ‘Narika’ a non profit organization that is a lifeline for battered South Asian women in the Bay Area.

‘Provoked’ is currently available on DVD.

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