Based on true events shockingly chronicled in Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s autobiography Circle of Light, the film Provoked retraces a headline-grabbing legal case whose outcome impacted the very political and social standing of Indians—especially single Indian women—who are hastily arranged-to be married and whisked off to the West only to suffer abuse in the hands of their new families. The true story of a recently emigrated desi housewife in London who defied her violently abusive husband by setting him on fire as he slept became a cause celebre when Ahluwalia’s book was published in 1997. Boosting Rai’s acting credentials, Mundhra’s sensitively made film convincingly portrays Ahluwalia’s ordeal after she was arrested and charged with murder.
Set primarily in a London prison from 1989 to 1992 while Ahluwalia’s (Rai) case ever-so-slowly meanders it’s way through the British legal system, the film follows Ahluwalia’s story from her wedding to the brooding Deepak Ahluwalia (Andrews, of TV’s Lost) to the delivery of a final verdict. Working within a system that often treats non-whites as second-rate citizens, Ahluwalia appears destined to remain in prison for life until an energetic activist, Radha Dalal (Das), picks up and helps promote the drive to free Ahluwalia.
Mundhra refrains from preaching (or speculating on what would have happened if either the wife, husband, or both had been white) and instead constructs an empowering woman-first microcosmic humanity set in the prison where Ahluwalia is held. Ahluwalia gingerly takes her first steps towards newfound “freedom”—strangely enough, behind prison walls. Ahluwali reads in order to improve her English and befriends a toughened cellmate (Richardson, well cast and well played). The case for freedom from oppression as a universal human right unfolds poignantly.
As Ahluwalia, Rai delivers her most composed and restrained performance to date. She is make-up free in many scenes. Ahluwalia must deal with both the heartbreak of separation from her two small children and the fact that she is at the mercy of an indifferent, sexist justice system. Ahluwalia’s story bears uncanny resemblance to a 1977 incident involving a Michigan housewife who set her abusive husband on fire as he slept—an incident that inspired The Burning Bed, a 1984 television drama starring Farrah Fawcett. This fact, however, takes nothing away from Provoked.
The film was clearly kept on a short, frivolity-free leash by Mundhra (there are no songs and A.R. Rahman’s background score is minimal). In order to reach Rai’s vast Indian audience, the film has also been dubbed into Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu. As one of the world’s most talked about women and a leading luminary in Hindi films, Rai surely can pick just about any role she desires. Thank goodness that Rai green-lighted this fine role on a controversial and vital topic.