Ash redeemed

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  • Published 21.05.06

The experience was surreal: sitting in the Star Cinema in Rue d’Antibes in Cannes, immediately behind Aishwarya Rai and Kiranjit Ahluwalia, watching Provoked, in which Aishwarya plays Kiranjit, the Sikh woman who poured petrol over her abusive husband, Deepak, and set him alight.

Kiranjit was seeing the film for the first time. Aishwarya had insisted on previewing it in India before agreeing to come to the premiere of Provoked in Cannes. Having been trashed for her performance in her previous film, Mistress of Spices, she did not want to be humiliated again if she felt the much anticipated Provoked, even with music by A. R. Rahman, would not live up to expectations.

She sighed and told me with an air of resignation before the film began: “In India, I have become a dartboard for everyone.”

In the event, she need not have worried. I thought Aishwarya did pretty well in Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali. But in Provoked, she has redeemed herself, turning in a performance that should win her an Oscar if there is any justice in the world. I do not think I am exaggerating.

Provoked tells the story of a wronged Sikh housewife whose case changed English law on battered women. For killing her husband, Deepak (Naveen Andrews in the movie), she was given life, but was released in 1992, after serving three years in prison, on grounds of diminished responsibility. The director, Jagmohun Mundhra, does well in bringing out the legal complexities of how courts now take into account the history of the abuse many abused women have suffered ? in Kiranjit’s case, grievously ? before being driven to kill their tormentors.

The British actors in Provoked ?Robbie Coltrane as the Queen’s Counsel, Lord Foster, and Miranda Richards as a cellmate of Kiranjit ?are utterly convincing, but this is Aishwarya’s film. No one in India will now be able to say the woman is beautiful but cannot act.

“We spent an hour and a half every day making her look less attractive,” was the throwaway comment from Antara Bharadwaj, one of the production assistants on the shoot.

As the film began, with a burst of flames that engulfed Deepak, Kiranjit, sitting in front of me, clutched her head and cringed right down into her seat. Her worst nightmares had returned. Aishwarya reached across, trying to comfort her. For a second, I wondered whether I should escort Kiranjit out of the theatre, for just before coming in she had confessed to me: “I am shaking inside.”

In 1992, when she came out of prison and was reunited with her sons, now 22 and 20, she had given me the first interview. Now, here was life imitating cinema imitating all the pain and suffering she had gone through: the days that she waited in police custody, while the charge of attempted murder became murder. On screen, she was watching the depiction of her badly burned husband, as his life ebbed away.

This year at Cannes, there are no Indian films in competition, a decision which becomes hard to understand since Provoked was offered by its director for nomination. This is a film which will go around the world, rescuing not only Aishwarya’s reputation but also enhancing that of Indian cinema and its film makers. Though rooted in Indian and, I am sorry to have to say this, the still violent culture of Southall in west London, Provoked tells a universal story that will touch people wherever it is shown. This film is as good as The Da Vinci Code was bad.

“This is my fifth Cannes,” reminisced Aishwarya, whom I first interviewed her the morning after she had won Miss World in 1994. “I came with Devdas, then as a jury member, then I opened the Festival, then for L’Oreal, and now for Provoked.”

This film works for her because for a good part of the movie, her dialogue is sparse. As a battered Punjabi woman with little English (until she learnt the language in prison), she gives only monosyllabic replies to shouted questions.

There is no doubt that millions of women across the globe will identify with her. Curiously, silence can sometimes be more eloquent than beautifully crafted dialogue.

At one point in the film, when someone asks Kiranjit how she feels in prison, she mumbles: “I feel free.”

Late in the evening on the Croisette, I chanced upon Kiranjit, who had recovered from the ordeal of seeing the film. “It really was like that, and the boys (on screen) were so much like my sons,” said Kiranjit, who was persuaded by family and friends to change her earlier resolve not to come to Cannes.

Maybe the experience will aid the healing process, though the guilt at having deprived her sons of their father will never go away.

At Cannes this year, Ron Howard tried to walk on water and sank. Also in Cannes this year, both Aishwarya and Kiranjit, in different ways, found redemption.