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May 16-22, 2007

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Ceremonial beginning: Naveen Andrews and Aishwarya Rai get married with traditional pomp in 'Provoked.'


An Indian wife in England burns up her battering husband in 'Provoked'

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE two schools of thought about Aishwarya "Ash" Rai. One is that she cannot act, and the other is "Who cares?" Since Ash is one of the most beautiful women on the planet, she has plentiful decorative qualities to coast upon, but she's slightly beyond the limits of her skills in Provoked. The film is based on the real-life case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, which became a landmark in British jurisprudence. In 1989, Kiranjit—a Punjabi wife in London who spoke little English—poured gasoline on her savage, battering husband as he slept and set him ablaze.

In clumsy flashbacks, director Jag Mundhra follows Kuranjit's ordeal. The at-first suave then furious husband, Deepak (Naveen Andrews of Lost), steps up his attacks; at the end of the film, the flashbacks come in so hard and fast, it's like a "Greatest Hits of Wife Beating." Sentenced to life in prison, Kiranjit learns English through Scrabble games. She appeals her conviction with the help of her cellmate, Ronnie (Miranda Richardson), and a nonprofit law firm.

While neither the battered-wife scenes nor the prison life break new ground, Mundhra is saved by his cast. Richardson, padded out with real and artificial fat, has Cagney's own carelessness. She's too good an actor not to let a hint of some kind of inside-the-walls attraction show when soothing the murderess's nightmares. The less-famous actors really put on the show, especially when a prison cook serves Kuranjit some "beef surprise" on a tin plate. ("There's no beef. Surprised?"). Andrews' malevolence gives this story some juice. As a legal Lord, Robbie Coltrane imparts a dash of Victorianism, shifting his regal bulk and delicately explaining reason why he has personal interest in the Ahluwalia case. Lastly, Rebecca Pidgeon is quite good as the overbooked lawyer, letting some fetching black bangs peek out from her wool wig in court. Like a silent movie heroine, Ash undergoes hardship upon hardship, beseeching the audience with a pair of emerald eyes as wide and liquid as Lake Erie. Her fine complexion is blanched to a jail pallor; her skin is a delicate green, like expensive jade. It's a lot of weeping for just one movie.

The direction changes tone ruthlessly, dropping the lady's much-talked-about children from the story. The director seems to be hoping that a really fulsome soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and the title cards ("Aug. 29, 1990" or whatnot) will hold the story together. They don't, but there is a suggestion of research throughout. No matter how it's handled, Provoked tells a heroic, absorbing story, though a few questions remain untouched. During Kuranjit's first trial, the Crown suggests she mixed gasoline with soap or something to make homemade napalm. We don't see that happen, and we don't see that charge refuted, which suggests a little more premeditation to the act than this film allows. The the long-memoried will connect this case to the 1984 film The Burning Bed, where Farrah Fawcett ignited her cruel husband. It must be from fear of imitation that the police prosecute such a crime at all. Thus, always, to vicious husbands! Such a fiery end is not only fair but energy efficient: The devil gets his due and is already in flames.

Movie Times Provoked (Unrated; 113 min.), directed by Jag Mundhra, written by Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta, based on a book by Gupta and Kiranjit Ahluwalia, photographed by Madhu Ambat, starring Aishwarya Rai, opens May 18 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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