May 11, 2007

Provoked: A British-Bollywood Burning Bed?

Aishwarya Rai and Miranda Richardson

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): **½

Theatrical release: May 11
DVD Release: TBD

Retelling the real story of a landmark British case in which a Punjabi woman kills her husband, burning him alive after ten years of abuse both physical and verbal, Provoked (opening in select theaters today) often feels a bit like an earnest Lifetime movie but the appealing cast and the intrigue of the Indian-British culture clash raise it above that level, at least.

Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai is truly luminous, if a little inert at times, as Kiranjit, the victim and accused, even when her character remains, in the film's first half especially, frustratingly passive. But the meek, reserved nature of her dutiful wife is part of the point, as her culture, as in many, emphasizes the subordinate role of women in marriage and how most societies do little to protect them, even if they - and their children - are physically threatened by the husband. Her story becomes one of gradual awakening and empowerment.

Tales of domestic violence are not typical to Bollywood cinema (though there are certainly some exceptions, films that at least touch on the subject, such as Rajkumar Santoshi's Lajja), but this film is much more a British work than Bollywood, and is populated with some fine English actors in very capable support - particularly a most sympathetic Miranda Richardson as Kiranjit's cellmate, who also suffered from spousal abuse, and the always likable Robbie Coltrane as her brother, an established barrister who works pro bono to help on their second stab at the case. Veteran director Jag Mundhra has had an odd career of Bollywood B-movies and Hollywood erotica, and while he does mostly solid work here there are times when the direction seems to betray his background, replete with soft focus shots and melodramatic moments (even the music leans toward cheesy). It certainly starts off strikingly, with a bang, and a fire.

Lost's Naveen Andrews has the thankless role of the abusive husband, and he's an attractive enough actor he can make a go of it but - as is often the case in movies like this - the character is not well shaded, his motivations for his behavior never made clear. The film in general has a bit less of a handle on the male characters, including a one-dimensional police inspector who wants to lock Kiranjit up no matter what the circumstances, but the women come off more interestingly. Richardson's Ronnie, a touch cookie who feels protective toward Kiranjit, as well as the other women in prison, who make us feel a great deal of sympathy for them. Frequent David Mamet actress (and wife) Rebecca Pidgeon plays the earnest counsel initially assigned to defend the accused, with a slightly dodgy British accent, but she's overtaken in the film by an appealing Nandita Das as the social worker who takes up Kiranjit's case and cause. The film is more interesting for focusing on these supporting women characters who break up the oft-tedious main narrative, in which flashbacks of the crumbling marriage mix with Kiranjit's present-day situation, and as a whole the film becomes more interesting in the second half when things start to push forward to the inevitable but satisfying conclusion.

Overall, Provoked is melodrama dressed up just enough to hold interest, in the retelling of an undeniably important story, even if that story is not all that fresh enough to provoke us greatly.

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Posted by cphillips at May 11, 2007 3:34 PM
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