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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Aiswarya Rai Provoked: A True Story

The beautiful Bollywood actress Aiswarya Rai plays the victim of years of spousal abuse in Provoked: A True Story, based on a monumental U.K. court case that forever changed British laws on domestic violence. Even before watching a frame of the film, we glean that this is an important human story with major moral messages to be told. It's the kind of material that easily wins the hearts of audiences and Oscar voters alike. And yet, for all of its surface significance, the resulting on-screen effort feels largely meaningless and inconsequential.

While studying to become a lawyer, a young, traditionally minded Punjabi woman named Kiranjit (Rai) gets set up in an arranged marriage to Deepak Ahluwalia (Naveen Andrews). Deepak insists Kiranjit abandon her educational efforts so they can relocate to London. Staying true to cultural norms, Kiranjit willingly accommodates her husband's desires. Once in the big metropolis, things quickly change. Kiranjit becomes pregnant and Deepak devolves into a life of drinking, adultery, and spousal abuse.

For a decade, Kiranjit endures large doses of verbal, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Deepak. Trapped by her old world values, Kiranjit is unable to seek the help she needs to end the cycle of violence. One night she snaps, deciding that the only way out of her horrific marriage is to set fire to her S.O.B.-of-a-husband while he sleeps. Kiranjit is arrested, convicted, and sent to a women's prison for a life sentence.

Most of Aiswarya Rai Provoked transpires during Kiranjit's time in prison as she awaits the appeal of her sentence. While in lock-up, Kiranjit struggles with adapting to her new environment. She rarely speaks, and is teased by the other inmates. Kiranjit soon gains a cellmate, Veronica Scott (Miranda Richardson). Though they come from very different worlds, Kiranjit and Veronica find a common bond that provides the vehicle to help each other through their present situations. It's in these moments where Provoked shines the most. Unfortunately, these times are few and far between.

Though Aiswarya Rai Provoked is based on real life events (in case you missed the title), the on-screen drama surrounding Kiranjit's imprisonment is so poorly constructed and executed, that the story never achieves the level of gravity that it should. Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta's adaptation of the autobiography to which the movie is based plays out like a campy made-for-TV movie that only scratches the surface of reality. Prison life looks easy, resembling nothing like what we know doing hard time is supposed to look like.

To tell the story of Kiranjit's abuse, director Jag Mundhra flashes back to half a dozen painful episodes of increasingly escalated violence over the ten year period. By the third example, it simply becomes too much. The beautiful Aiswarya Rai already makes for a sympathetic victim. In fact, Aiswarya Rai's too beautiful -- certainly not to be abused -- but she's never made to look like she's suffering. In the moments following her arrest, she's coifed perfectly -- hair and makeup done just right. Even after months in prison, she looks completely unaffected. Certainly a woman who believes she is wrongly imprisoned and out for justice would not look like she spent half the day at a salon.

With Provoked, there's just never the seriousness or grit you would expect from this kind of story. There's little fight to this film, and unfortunately, as a result, the most important message gets lost in the translation.

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