I’m thinking about two scenes at either end of Jagmohan Mundhra’s Provoked, a film based (very, very loosely as it happens) on the real-life story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a London-based Punjabi woman who killed her husband after suffering violence and abuse at his hands for 10 years. In the first of these two scenes Kiran, played here by Aishwarya Rai, is brought, disoriented and frightened, to jail just after her arrest. Nearly everyone she encounters is an ogre. With deliberate, eye-rolling relish, more than one person mispronounces her name – not so much mispronouncing it actually as dwelling gleefully on it (Aloo…walli…yaalaa) before shaking their heads and sneering like the villains in a Gilbert & Sullivan melodrama. Kiran is callously told to strip for a body search, bullied by a racist commanding officer, served beef in the cafeteria and later picked on by burly inmates. Everything about her spells Victim; the world is conspiring against her and the film helpfully gives us a series of signposts that say, “This is where you feel sorry for poor Kiran. Go on, you can do it. No, no, try harder!”
In the other scene, three years of prison and many earnest reels of film later, Kiranjit is on her way to becoming an icon for oppressed women everywhere. Before going to court for the hearing that will end in a landmark judgement, she gets a makeover – a smarter haircut, a nicely fitted pantsuit. As she steps out of her prison cell she looks just a little more like Aishwarya Rai than she did at the beginning – dare one say this, she looks fit for a Miss World contest, or at least a Loreal advertisement (“Provogued?” muttered the wag). Surrounding her are admirers, the subservient expressions on their faces suggesting that they are resigned to their role as bit-players in The Inspirational Story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia. They are the back-up dancers gyrating behind the hero and heroine in a Bollywood song sequence; everything in their own insignificant little lives thus far has amounted to preparation for this moment where they can stand about applauding as Aishwarya, sorry Kiranjit, descends the prison stairwell in slow motion. She is now a Beater of Odds and the signposts are saying “Go ahead, cheer her on. No, TRY HARDER!”
And you do have to try very hard if you have a hope in hell of extracting a droplet of genuine emotion out of this film. Provoked is well-intentioned alright, but many of its key scenes are irredeemably fake. The script is full of caricatures and shortcuts; it’s so prettified and so manipulative that I didn’t feel the slightest guilt about chuckling when Kiranjit’s boorish, one-dimensional husband pushes her down a flight of steps. There was no conviction to the thing, no sense of real people involved or real feelings at stake; it felt like, well, someone pushing a simpering Aishwarya Rai down a flight of stairs – and face it, wouldn’t you want to do that?
Okay, I’m being unnecessarily nasty to Aish now. Much as it pains me to say it, she isn’t terrible in this film. She isn’t good either, but it’s clear that she made an effort for the role, and I suspect at least some of the hilarity induced by her Punjabi dialogues comes from our knowledge of who she is and the pre-association with a certain type of star personality (I wrote about this in the last post too). In the past she’s shown a certain aptitude for acting, especially when she’s in the right director’s hands; I thought she was quite decent in Guru, for instance. But I doubt she’ll ever be much good in this sort of role, where she has to spend most of her time looking thoughtful and/or traumatized and/or saintly.
Now that I’ve got the spleen out, the (relatively) good part: the film’s second half isn't too bad. It’s better paced and there are watchable performances by Miranda Richardson as the Sympathetic Cellmate, Robby Coltrane as the big-name counsel who comes to the rescue and Nandita Das as a member of the Southall Black Sisters (who, incidentally, have criticised the film. I think Pragna Patel’s observation that “people should rise to the challenge of reflecting real life better” is the least that could be said about this movie’s script).
Just by and by, was Jagmohan Mundhra using this film as practice for returning to his soft-porn roots? A couple of the early prison scenes were reminiscent of that genre of exploitative women’s prison flicks of the 1980s, the ones that involved sadistic lesbian-wardens and prolonged shower sequences. Wouldn’t have minded seeing Aish and Miranda Richardson (a much younger version) soaping each other down in a hot tub.