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MOVIE REVIEW

Powerful 'Provoked' is a little too pretty

Aishwarya Rai Aishwarya Rai (Eros International)

Like its put-upon heroine, "Provoked " is caught between two worlds. For Bollywood fans, used to coy depictions of love and sex, this battered- wife drama -- based on a true story that changed British laws regarding spousal abuse -- may daringly tell it like it is. Others will see a tamed and glamorized fiction that rises to the level of a good Lifetime movie -- but only just.

In any case, Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai was probably the wrong choice to play Kiranjit Ahluwalia , who on May 9, 1989, set her husband Deepak (Naveen Andrews ) on fire after years of beatings at his hands. With her delicate features and immense, startlingly blue eyes, Rai comes across as the supermodel of immigrant Punjabi wives, and her wounded-bird performance has, at best, three notes. It's a sympathetic performance but not a compelling one.

The story, on the other hand, can't help but be. After Kiranjit's crime and her husband's death days later, she's rushed through London's criminal system with few protections. Because there was a two-hour "cooling down" period between the final beating and her attack, magistrates rule out self-defense and a jury agrees. Kiranjit's British barrister (Rebecca Pidgeon ) is shown to be well-intentioned but uninventive, and it's up to an women's activist group led by Radha Dalal (Nandita Das ) to marshal forces for an appeal.

In the interim between the trials, "Provoked" turns into a genteel, sisterly women-in-prison movie as the heroine is cajoled out of her shell by the sweetest gang of gaolbirds you'll ever meet. Well, there is that butch bully with the bad teeth, but Kiranjit's cellmate Ronnie (Miranda Richardson , letting her hair down with extra relish) protects the newcomer while telling of her own injuries at the hands of husbands and the law.

Every so often, director Jag Mundhra flashes back to scenes of Kiranjit's abusive marriage, turning up the soap-opera music with blunt effectiveness. "Provoked" gathers momentum toward the end, as Radha finds helpful loopholes and a barrister (Robbie Coltrane ) willing to take advantage of them, and as the heroine's spine starts to stiffen with the support of her new friends.

There's an interesting movie in here, too, about the isolation of Indian brides brought to a new country by strange new husbands and mistreated, but "Provoked" rarely ducks below its glossy surface to go there. It'll seem like raw stuff to viewers raised on demure Bollywood musicals, but compared to the 1984 TV movie "The Burning Bed " -- let alone the tip of the iceberg we see in the news -- "Provoked" doesn't hit back nearly hard enough.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Provoked

Directed by: Jag Mundhra

Written by: Carl Austin , Rahila Gupta , based on "Circle of Light " by Gupta and Kiranjit Ahluwalia

Starring: Aishwarya Rai , Miranda Richardson , Nandita Das , Naveen Andrews , Rebecca Pidgeon , Robbie Coltrane

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: (mild violence, language)

In English and Punjabi, with subtitles

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