People of a certain age will vividly recall the murder trial of Southall factory worker Kiranjit Ahluwalia at the start of the 1990s, her life imprisonment and the subsequent campaign for her release. Watching Provoked, the reality of her ordeal is rekindled.
Ahluwalia (Rai) endured 10 years of violence and abuse at the hands of her husband Deepak (Andrews). Isolated within a community which refused to acknowledge her suffering, Ahluwalia set her husband alight while he slept. The court dismissed her years of mental, physical and emotional abuse claiming it was "not serious" and Ahluwalia was charged with murder.
Provoked tracks Ahluwalia's time behind bars up to the mounting campaign which led to her release in 1992. Taking on the role of the abused woman, Aishwaryia Rai gives a stoic and understated performance, powerfully capturing Ahluwalia's simmering torment. She is befriended in prison by fellow inmate Sara Thornton (Richardson).
Naveen Andrew's portrayal of Deepak is startling. The actor conveys Deepak's brutality towards his wife, deviating between violence and acts of contrition - common to abusers. Nandita Das, meanwhile, brings angst, fervour and sensitivity to her role as one of the campaigners committed to freeing Ahluwalia.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Ahluwalia and Sara, which proved vital to Ahluwalia's eventual release. Rai and Richardson share an easy camaraderie and, by dint of their unaffected performances, their unlikely friendship is tenderly developed. While it's disconcerting to see Steve McFadden (Phil Mitchell in 'EastEnders') sharing a screen with Aishwaryia Rai, this is a strong cast, all of whom contribute to the proceedings.
The narrative is well constructed, the flashback sequences effectively capturing the backstory of escalating abuse. The scenes portraying the violence to which Ahluwalia was subjected throughout her marriage are necessarily difficult to watch, conveying the severity of the abuse she suffered, but without being lurid.
It's a bold undertaking for a Bollywood star of Aishwaryia's magnitude, and testimony to her commitment to the film, which without her star power, might not have been made. Indeed, Rai's very presence will ensure that this story reaches a wider audience than it might otherwise have. Provoked is certain to encourage debate about domestic violence in the Asian community.