Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Provoked into writing a snarky post

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.


  1. exactly my sentiments! Now my tentative post titled "provoked by provoked" (which became gtalk status instead) seems to be redundant :p.

    the movie had "FAKE" written all over it! Mundhra should leave portraying emotion to Mira Nair.

  2. and yes, Miranda Richardson seemed much more authentic than Aishwarya rai!

  3. Playing battered women is as much of an effort as starring in a musician biopic or a handicapped role. Seriously, I don't want to see the film because its so fucking obvious its an attempt to get some kind of recognition, and not even a genuine one at that.
    Sean Penn did the same thing in I am Sam but got his Oscar for mystic river, another victim role. People gobble this shit up.

  4. Jabber,

    In some odd ways, your post comes as a relief. I was worried that Mundhra had sold out completely to mainstream art filmmaking. I have to admit that I'm a fan of his sleazy Wild Cactus (even the name is wonderful-- "Wild Cactus"!): it lurked late one Friday night on Zee Movies, back in the good old days of Zee Movies.

  5. Vivek: I think on some level his intention was to sell out to well-intentioned filmmaking, but his primal side won out. Yay!

  6. i was planning to watch this movie but wasnt really sure. couldnt make up my mind. Primarily because i think Ash doesn't have the intensity to do such a role and also that such a subject needs much more delicate handling that jagmohan is capable of. After reading this my initial doubts have come true i guess...

  7. Thanks for saving me two or three hours, I guess. While I agree that Ash is good when handled by good directors like Mani Ratnam and Rituporno Ghosh, she can be extremely bad and annoying when otherwise.

    I haven't seen any of Mundra's work but some sources led me to believe that he made good movies. And wait!!! Nandita Das plays a black woman??!!! If that's true it is just an indication of Mundra's miscasting, I guess even for the protagonist's role.

  8. ArSENik: no, Nandita Das doesn't play a "black woman", she plays a member of the Southall Black Sisters.

    Mundhra has made some good movies, but mostly in the soft-porn genre...

  9. Nice review, though I dont dislike the movie so much however bad it is, it's about an issue that strikes cord with me being a woman ..

    Aishwarya Rai of course is miscast for any role but she was just OK OK in this...Though I didnt like Nandita Das much in the film...

    Aish by far she has been a part of the two worst movies of all time... 'Mistress of Spices' and JP Dutta's 'Umrao Jaan'...

  10. You bastard, you are abusing Jag Mundhra calling him pornografic?!?!