Jagmohan Mundhra talks about his 'project with a soul' Provoked which has Aishwarya Rai delivering a great performance and not just looking glamorous.
First and foremost, how did this project with Aishwarya Rai in an unconventional role come about?
See I am an artsy maker who is in touch with actors like Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi and Tabu. I have no reach in Bollywood. It came about when Ash was shooting for The Mistress of Spices in London. She was friends with producer Murli Manohar and it was he who told her about this project. At that time nobody was ready to finance my film. He asked me to narrate the story to her and when I did, she said she wanted to do it. It was 8TH March 2005 when I first met her and on 6th May 2005, she was on the set with me to shoot for the film. She did not want to wait till 2007 as was decided earlier."
You sound mighty satisfied with her performance too...
Actually when I was talking to Ash about the story I could see that everything in her expressions showed up in her eyes and so my treatment has concentrated on the close-ups of her eyes. Whether there is love, fear, joy, panic, everything shows up in her eyes. I told her that five minutes into the film and people would forget it is Aishwarya Rai, Miss World.
Since the film is based on the real life experience of Kiranjit Ahluwalia who is sent to jail for killing her torturous husband, did Ash meet Kiranjit before starting to shoot for the film?
I actually did not want them to meet in person before I start the film. See, actresses have the tendency to copy the mannerisms or look of the other person. If Kiranjit was Sonia Gandhi then it was important to have resemblance. Since Kiranjit is not so, I wanted the film to be more about Kiranjit and all the Kiranjits in this world.
If Provoked didn't have Aishwarya, who would you have preferred as your leading lady?
No, I really did not have any one in mind. Maybe Tabu since Shabana is a little old to play this role. But when Aishwarya came in, I realized that that the funding would come through in no time. Secondly there will be a lot more exposure of this issue if she is in it because she is a brand recognized everywhere and the audience which normally would not come to see a film like Provoked, say, if I had made it with Shabana or Tabu, they would be curious to see Aishwarya Rai. I really applaud Aishwarya for lending her name to a film which is different and doesn't just make her look pretty.
The film has quite an ensemble star cast from various countries?
Yes, I am happy to work with actors like Naveen Andrews, Miranda Richardson and Rebecca Pidgeon. They were easy going in spite of their star status in the West. They didn't make me feel that they had done bigger projects than this one. Nandita Das is another good actress who I love to work with.
Because it is a real life story, it must have been difficult to decide what to use and what not to...
Yeah, it is always the tough part. I knew I was not making a documentary but a feature film. By virtue of selecting some and leaving some, one can say it is not really a true story. But the idea is that the essence of the story is true. The facts in the story are true. But I had to compose the characters. For example, Nandita Das's character is a composite of three women. Now, if I would have made five women do the same thing, the effect would have been diluted. So there is nothing wrong in compositing characters.
Some feel that you could have heightened emotions in the film to make it look a little different and hard hitting. But you chose not to do so. Why??
I did not want the film to be all just about abuse. The husband; here Naveen Andrews, could have been shown taking out his belt and beating her. I did not want to make it gruesome. The truth had enough abuse to make you cringe. According to me, the film has three layers in the story. One was the story of love and betrayal, the second part was the female bonding of how Kiran blossomed in such an environment, why she felt that in prison she found freedom. The third part of the story was about this small group of social workers who had no resources, no money and still they fought with the British system and how they succeeded in changing the law. Through this film I wanted to expose the system, as to how the system failed Kiran and how the system keeps using people.
Since so much has gone into the story, does he expect the people to come out of the theater with a changed opinion?
Actually we hope that our film can change opinions. It should make people think about it. If they come out of the theater with the same opinion then I will say, I have failed as a film-maker. So whether they like it or not, whether they agree with it or not, but they can't blame the film. This is the whole point.
Talking about Kiranjit, has she has ever told you that she regrets what she has done or if she thinks she could have done anything better?
In all our relationships, we hope that we could change the other person. But that doesn't happen in reality. She kept on hoping that he would change, after the first child, then after the second, but it did not happen. There were moments where he was very nice, so she thought she could stop that moment and the other moment would not come back. But that did not happen. She does regret what she had done but she says it would have been better had she managed to walked out. She wished she had the guts to walk out with her two children
But does he think it was easier for her to bend the rules or propagate herself out of the situation because she was in London, where as it would have been more difficult for her to do so here in India?
I don't know but it was not easy that time in London also. It was only because the group South Hall Black sisters was accessible and they took upon the case. They formed rallies to raise money for her appeal and her appeal almost did not go through as shown in the movie. Then she was helped by this big lawyer and only then did she manage it. It is amazing that even the white people charge no money to fight cases. What I did was that I got every single document from both the courts; the court which actually gave the judgment and the court which heard the appeal. I have the arguments of the lawyers also. I also got the actual document of interrogation. That is how I created the questionnaire and arguments that you saw in the court scene of the movie.
Did you have any trouble with the censor board since the film has verbal and physical abuse?
There was not a single cut. They believed the abusive words in the story were important. So they gave an 'A' certificate. They said that if I want a U/A, I will have to mute the bad words. But I felt it is necessary only for satellite. That way, adults would be treated as adults. Let people who want to watch it get the full impact of it. In Hindi and Punjabi dubbing those words are not there
There is a buzz that the film will be released in India not just in English.
A film is dubbed in Hindi and Punjabi. The title is the same, Provoked because we do not want to prove to the audience that it is some other film
Last but not the least, what are your expectations from the movie?
I know that this film will be doing well. It is for a certain segment of the audience. Thankfully due to the multiplexes, one can segment the audience. This film will satisfy the audience which likes to see such films.