Dir: Jag Muhndra. India-UK. 112mins.
Provoked is based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman living in London who, in 1989, killed her abusive husband and was imprisoned for murder. Her battle for freedom eventually ended in the British legal definition of 'provocation' being re-defined in the case of battered women.
Given its theme, one might have expected an earnest docu-drama. But in director Jag Mundrha's hands, with Aishwarya Rai in the lead role, we get an unapologetically melodramatic approach that borrows ideas and motifs from countless other courtroom and women's prison dramas.
The storytelling, with its multiple flashbacks and utterly predictable finale, is often clunky. Characterisation is crude. And yet, for all its heavy-handedness, Provoked is still surprisingly powerful.
Released in the UK on around 50 prints from April 6, Provoked ought to generate plenty of press coverage. Ahluwalia, whose story is told in the book Circle Of Life, received an award from Cherie Blair, wife of British PM Tony Blair, for her courage.
There is also likely to be real curiosity in Britain's Asian community about a film in which a star as big as Aishwarya Rai strays so far from her usual role as romantic heroine. Whether the film, due to be released in the US in May, can compete at the box-office with more upbeat Bollywood movies remains to be seen.
The film-makers effectively convey the plight of a young Punjabi woman with poor English who becomes a victim on two fronts. Not only is she beaten up in the home by her husband, she is also badly served by the British legal and penal systems, which constantly remind her of her outsider status.
In its lesser moments, Provoked laspes into cliche. The prison scenes come complete with such stock characters as the butch lesbian bully and the good-hearted rebel who refuses to kow-tow to the warders: at times, it is as if we are watching old episodes of women-behind-bars TV series like Within These Walls.
Sound editing is over-egged, while AR Rahman's rousing music underpins the most emotional moments. There is the endless slamming of doors; the courtroom scenes also have a slightly hackneyed feel. When we see mothers crying, the camera invariably captures a close-up of a tear landing on a photo of their kids.
All the villains are strictly one-dimensional. Steve McFadden (best known to British audiences for his role as Phil Mitchell in long-running British soap opera EastEnders) is the racist, bullying cop. 'I know how these people think,' he sneers when confronted with the Punjabi wife accused of killing her husband.
Equally lacking in nuance or subtlety is the abusive husband Deepak (Andrews). In the many grim flashbacks in which we see him beating Kiranjit or sexually assaulting her, we're given no sense of how and why the couple came together in the first place.
But Provoked is not without its refreshing aspects, one of which is its lively and accessible approach to potentially grim material. This is exemplified by the portrayal of Southall Black Sisters, the non-profit organisation set up in 1979 to help Asian and Afro-Caribbean women challenge domestic violence.
The Sisters, led by Radha Dalal (Das) are shown as being endlessly resilient and good-humoured in their campaigning. Radha's free-spirited defiance is contrasted with the buttoned-up conservatism of Miriam (Pidgeon), the well-meaning but ineffectual lawyer originally entrusted with defending Kiranjit.
One can easily imagine the same story being told in downbeat, social realist fashion, but that wouldn't necessarily have made it any more effective. For all its lapses into cornball melodrama, Provoked doesn't trivialise its subject matter or patronise its characters: rather, it might best be described as a feelgood feelbad film. Perhaps there is something perverse about taking such an upbeat approach to such downbeat material, but Muhndra still gets the message across.
Rai, the former Miss World and one of Bollywood's most glamorous actresses, gives a staunch performance as the battered heroine. She has some of the same long-suffering stoicism found in Susan Hayward's famous role as the Death Row prisoner in I Want To Live!
There is strong support, too, from Miranda Richardson as Kiranjit's cellmate Veronica, who is likewise behind bars for reacting against domestic abuse and who helps Kiranjit adjust to prison life and backs her unlikely fight for freedom.
There is also a lively Dickensian-style cameo from Robbie Coltrane as the jowly lawyer who eventually comes to her aid.
Naveen Andrews, meanwhile, brings just the right measure of menace, machismo and self-pity to his role as the husband who treats Kiranjit so cruelly.
Media One Global Entertainment
Motion Picture Partners International
British Media Fund International
Sunanda Murali Manohar
From the book Circle Of Light by Rahla Gupta and Kiranjit Ahluwalia