Written by Caballero Oscuro
A battered wife at wit’s end approaches her sleeping husband and torches his bed, ending his life. Sounds remarkably like the Farrah Fawcett TV-movie, The Burning Bed, but Provoked is a new theatrical film based on real events that occurred in an Indian household in England.
In 1984, Kiranjit Ahluwalia was sentenced to life in prison for the death of her abusive husband, sparking an outrage that led to a precedent-setting appeal of her case. Kiranjit was a timid and traditional Punjabi woman who suffered her husband’s physical and mental abuse for ten years before finally finding the strength to strike back against him. Even when pushed to the edge, she didn’t intend to kill her husband, instead planning only to burn his feet so he wouldn’t be able to chase her. His accidental death brought about her incarceration and eventual life sentence, throwing her into a frightening women’s prison but paradoxically providing her with a long-overdue sense of peace and freedom.
Since the film opens with the burning bed, her husband’s reign of abuse is only shown in brief flashbacks throughout the film. As the husband, Naveen Andrews (Sayid from Lost) provides a suitably terrifying but one-dimensional performance, glowering throughout his limited screen time. Once Kiranjit moves to prison, she’s befriended by her cellmate (a woefully under-utilized Miranda Richardson) and aided by her legal team (Rebecca Pidgeon and Robbie Coltrane), building a support network she never had during married life. It’s during her prison sentence that she finally finds a sense of her own independence and value, providing her with a very unconventional character arc.
Kiranjit is portrayed by luminous Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai, playing against type for this decidedly unglamorous role. She spends most of the film weeping and cowering without any makeup or fancy wardrobe until she begins to emerge from her shell during her rebirth in the prison system. Gladly, a couple of the flashback scenes with her husband allow her to return to her former Miss Universe glory, providing viewers with an intoxicating look at her stunning full potential. Her acting chops hold up just fine through the limited emotional range she’s tasked with here, but it’s still distracting to try to accept her as a plain jane.
The film has a powerful story and a fine cast, but suffers from a completely pedestrian production that feels more like a Lifetime movie from India than a major motion picture. The directing is entirely flat, keeping the audience at arm’s length from the cast rather than capturing any true emotion to tug on our heart strings. The editing and soundtrack are also around the quality of a Bollywood b-movie, providing some jarring transitions that do no favors to the overall flow. At its core, it’s a Bollywood drama transplanted to the heart of London, but at least it conforms to Western feature length conventions to tell the story in less than two hours.
Provoked opens in limited release in NY and LA on May 11th before expanding to wider release on May 18th. Check the film’s website for additional information.