A man lies snoring in his bed. Within seconds, he’s on fire, dashing from his room, down the stairs, and outside to his front lawn, where he writhes in pain as a neighbor rushes to cover him with a blanket. The screen cuts to black, so that a time and place can be typed across it. Ticka ticka ticka: Tuesday May 9, 1989, London. Cut back to the agony, fire trucks and swirling lights, all displayed from an aesthetically effective low angle.
It’s a sensational start for Raj Mundrha’s movie, which goes on to teeter enticingly between Lifetime melodrama and scandalous potboiler. The victim is Deepak (Naveen Andrews), a Punjabi immigrant whose wife Kiranjit (Aishwarya Rai) has set him on fire. Unless you’re aware of the famous 1989 legal case on which Provoked is based, you won’t know this detail about the wife until a few minutes later. But it’s easy to guess that something is very wrong for Kiran, who first appears clutching her two young prop-like sons to her as she rocks back and forth on the front step. A pale, nervous constable, PC O’Connell (Nicholas Irons), approaches, seeking to soothe her. She is, however, quite beyond consoling.
Kiran’s emotional state will end up being her defense — three years down the road, during an appeal of her conviction. The first incarnation of Kiran’s case, however, is all about the biased legal system, the racism and misogyny that shape her trial for murder. For indeed, Deepak dies a few days after the fire (after declaring through clenched teeth, “Bitch tried to kill me”), ensuring public focus on the lurid elements of Kiran’s ordeal, which is neatly summarized in an early newspaper headline: “Asian mom torches spouse!”
True to this tabloidy angle, the film keeps a close focus on Kiran’s initial inability to defend herself. This is emphasized by repeated flashbacks showing Deepak’s abuses and Kiran’s generally silent distress. Her limited options are shaped by doubled oppressions — the insular Punjabi community that expects her to be a docile, obedient wife and the broader, foreign world of London that regards her as “Paki rubbish” (this observed by one of the policemen “investigating” the case, who hisses, “I’ll be damned if I’ll let her get away with some bullshit incompetence defense”). For the most part, the flashbacks — again, like a Lifetime movie — show Kiran’s submission and fright. Her mother-in-law Sheela (Leena Dhingra) testifies that Kiran was “very arrogant, she always ordered Deepak around.” Cut to a flashback in which Deepak throttles his wife in front of his mother, both women cowering and screaming. In court, Sheela sums up otherwise: “No, I see nothing.”
The citation of abuse is supposed to answer a crucial legal question: was Kiran “provoked” to commit her crime by 10 years of brutal abuse? If so, she is guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, but the male barristers and judge assert she had a couple of hours between Deepak’s last brutal assault and the actual dousing, so she was “cooled off” and so, wholly liable for her action (“You were in no imminent danger,” says her lawyer, “We cannot claim self-defense”). No one on the legal team, it appears, has seen 1984’s The Burning Bed, in which Farrah Fawcett set her abusive man on fire. Provoked does, in fact, revisit the same issues: battered woman’s syndrome as a legal defense, and, of course, the bid for “seriousness” by a star known for her beauty rather than her chops. Like Fawcett before her, Rai wears dark-eye-and-hollow-cheeks makeup to indicate anxiety and sleeplessness, and spends much of the film with tears streaking her perfect face.
Kiran’s upset is more than warranted. Not only is she surrounded by bullies and liars, but even those “on her side” appear less than effective. Consider her overworked barrister Miriam (Rebecca Pidgeon), who greets her with a character assessment: “You spoke to the police without a solicitor: that wasn’t very clever, was it?” Probably not, but Kiran’s dousing of Deepak with petrol and caustic soda (“In effect,” testifies the coroner, “It cooked the flesh right off the victim’s bones!”) suggests she gave the crime some thought. Though Miriam believes her client was abused, she’s also a mostly obedient girl, accepting testimony she knows is untrue without objection, then offering only bleak condolence when the sentence is handed down.
Less submissive are the Southall Black Sisters, a group advocating for Southeast Asian women immigrants, headed by charismatic Radha (Nandita Das). They take up the case with outraged energy, visiting Kiran in prison, arranging to have her children see her, seeking grounds and attorneys for an appeal. The Sisters are everything Kiran is not: short-haired, cigarette-smoking, pants-wearing gals who voice their outrage in the courtroom (drawing the judge’s admonitions to pipe down) and discuss their work passionately, after hours in a bar. “Spunky” in a decidedly conventional way, Radha is afflicted with the sorts of movie moments you expect: “How do you know she was abused,?” asks a colleague, before Radha takes up Kiran’s case. “Why else would you set your husband on fire?” she quips, “Because you ran out of charcoal?” Or again, a friend’s offhand observation strikes her as the “bloody brilliant” answer to their immediate needs, whereupon the scene cuts directly to the solution enacted the next day.
Kiran’s transformations are equally contrived. It turns out that, according to her cell mate and fellow abuse victim Veronica (Miranda Richardson), prison is Kiran’s “first step toward freedom.” When Ronnie saves her in the lunchroom from bully-lesbian Doreen (Lorraine Bruce), Kiran is forever grateful, and begins to take lessons on how to be an “independent” woman, or at least one who has friends and stands up for those friends in a pinch. This business is frightfully corny, but soon Kiran is not only reading books, laughing at jokes about bosoms, and cutting her hair, but also imagining that her appeal might reunite her with her big-eyed, largely silent sons.
A B-movie with international movie stars, Provoked is punctuated by clichés both earnest and silly. By offsetting Women in Cages-style throw-downs with Malcolm X-like uplift, it is simultaneously bizarre and conventional, inspiring and annoying.