Early in

Provoked: A True Story

, director Jag Mundhra's emotionally draining film about spousal abuse, a legal-aid lawyer asks the film's heroine, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, how she feels about being in jail.

The Punjabi-born English housewife who has just been arrested for dousing her violent, abusive husband with homemade napalm and setting him on fire, replies matter-of-factly: "I . . . I feel free."

The scene, accompanied by a melancholy piano flourish, is one of many formulaic, lump-in-your-throat moments in a well-meaning mega-earnest movie that sometimes feels too much like a made-for-TV melodrama on Lifetime.

Based on Circle of Light, Ahluwalia's autobiography, Provoked recounts in flashback the delicate, hypersensitive woman's decade of hell following her 1989 trial, which landed her a life sentence for murder.

Throughout, Ahluwalia undergoes a prison-house transformation from naive doll-child to independent women.

The film bewails the injustice of the British courts, which condemned Ahluwalia to life without taking into account the effects of her long-term abuse, including regular beatings by her husband, Deepak (Naveen Andrews), who also raped her. Ahluwalia eventually appeals her conviction and ends up forever changing how British courts evaluate battered women.

Provoked is rescued from drowning in a mawkish mire by its superb cast, which includes Miranda Richardson, Nandita Das, Robbie Coltrane and Rebecca Pidgeon.

Aishwarya Rai, the glamorous Bollywood starlet who was cast against type (and then some) as the plain Ahluwalia, is a revelation.

Provoked: A True Story **1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Nigel Glynn-Davies and Sunanda Murali Manohar. Directed by Jag Mundhra. Photography by Madhu Ambat. Written by Carl Austin and Rahila Gupta.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia. . . Aishwarya Rai

Veronica Scott. . . Miranda Richardson

Lord Edward Foster. . . Robbie Coltrane

Parent's guide: Not rated (adult themes, profanity, sexuality)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse