Based on the true case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi immigrant who was found guilty of murdering her husband in England, U.S.-based exploitation director Jag Mundhra's shot at a serious subject is a sentimental melodrama with a pretty strong punch.
London, May 9, 1989: The police and fire department are called to the home of Deepak Ahluwalia (Lost's Naveen Andrews), his wife, Kiranjit (Aishwarya Rai), and their two children after fire breaks out in the bedroom where Deepak lay asleep. It appears to have been the result of an accidentally kicked-over candle, but the seriously burned victim believes otherwise: "Bitch tried to kill me," Deepak seethes to the nurse attending to his badly charred flesh. Detective Sergeant Ron Meyers (Steve McFadden) is inclined to agree after a bucket containing traces of petrol is found at the scene. Kiranjit is charged with attempted manslaughter and remanded to a women's prison. But after Deepak dies, the charge is upgraded to murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Frightened and isolated, with only her cell mate, Ronnie (Miranda Richardson), for company, Kiranjit remembers her life with her husband, whom she married in India as part of a formal family arrangement before joining him in London. Things began happily enough, but Deepak soon changed, with insults about Kiranjit's appearance and behavior around other men devolving into physical beatings and spousal rape, particularly after Kiranjit dares to confront him about his drinking and infidelity. The abuse continues well into Kiranjit's two pregnancies. In court, Kiranjit's barrister Miriam Taylor (Rebecca Pidgeon, with a regrettable English accent; "Muhr-duhr," she says) argues that Kiranjit's attack on her abusive husband was simply self-defense. But the court isn't buying it: The victim was asleep at the time of the attack so Kiranjit couldn't have been in any imminent danger. Kiranjit is found guilty, and Miriam gives up on filing any kind of appeal — she admits to finding the judgment against her client legally sound. Luckily, Kiranjit's case is taken up by the Southall Black Sisters, a plucky team of young South Asian women who work with victims of domestic abuse. With the help of young solicitor Anil (Raji James) and the high-powered barrister (Robbie Coltrane) who agrees to take the case, the Sisters attempt to have Kiranjit's conviction repealed.
The crux of the case becomes whether or not Kiranjit could be said to have been provoked by years of abuse, even though Deepak hadn't hurt her just prior to the fire: Proving provocation in a British court can mean the difference between manslaughter and murder. But the real development comes from within Kiranjit herself. Aided by the Southall Black Sisters and, surprisingly, women she meets in prison, Kiranjit finds her voice and an inner strength she never suspected she had. There are plenty of hugs, cheers and tears, a sentimental soundtrack and even a prison makeover. But for all the gushy feelings, the plight of women like Kiranjit, bound not only by domineering, often physically abusive husbands but by racism and oppressive cultural traditions as well, is poignantly portrayed.
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