In Victorian court artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s portrait, Maharaja Duleep Singh stands swathed in rich robes, a bejewelled turban and a sword in his hand — more romantic hero from the Orient, less king in exile.
But the painting, commissioned at Osborne by Queen Victoria, hid a darker truth — a history that led to the decimation of the Sikh empire consolidated by Duleep’s father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh; two Anglo-Sikh wars that lowered the pennants of the Sikh chiefs; the British takeover of Punjab, and the exile of the young Duleep. Separated from his mother Jindan Kaur, Duleep was as much a war trophy as the famed Koh-i-noor he was forced to gift the Queen.
He was raised by the Logins, a Scottish couple who instilled in him a love for the highlands and had the Sikh teenager christened. Duleep grew up in a milieu far from his native Punjab — a British gentleman who married a woman of German-Abyssinian descent, a sure shot with the rifle, a darling of the Queen and a politically-inclined prince, even as he was a pawn in the Great Game. But much of that changed for the ‘Black Prince of Perthshire’ when he met his mother. He tried hard to return to Lahore to win back his throne and convert to Sikhism. He finally died heart-broken in a hotel room in Paris — caught between two cultures and at home with none.
It is this daring journey of self-discovery, which inspired Sikhs to fight British imperialism until Independence, that Indian-born British writer-actor-director Kavi Raz brings to life in The Black Prince.
Starring acclaimed Sufi poet-singer Satinder Sartaaj as Duleep Singh, Shabana Azmi as the fiery Rani Jindan, Jason Flemyng as Dr Login and Amanda Root as Queen Victoria, the film launched its trailer at Cannes.
This is a colonial story mostly forgotten. What urged you to make the film?
It’s a story that was begging to be told — the end of a glorious chapter for the Sikhs in their short but rich heritage of the Khalsa kingdom. I believe The Black Prince will resonate with people, as they witness Maharaja Duleep Singh’s journey. There are so many misconceptions about the end of the Sikh raj and about Duleep’s personal life. This was an opportunity to set the record straight and give voice to the boy-king of a powerful yet lost kingdom.
How difficult was it to compress a lifetime in two hours?
That was the most challenging. Even just focussing on Duleep’s life is quite a massive task; I had to make some hard choices as to what to keep. Since this is the first film ever made about him, I had to design a style that’s entirely my own.
Where did you research for the film?
There are several books and periodicals on that period, but most of them are from a British perspective. I wanted to know more about the man struggling to find his identity, a king fighting to regain his kingdom and a statesman raising the voice of India’s freedom. I knew Duleep’s life had a purpose far greater than what was expressed in the written words I came across.
How he felt, what guided him, what emotions defined his decisions; was what I was looking for. That part of him was nowhere to be found. I had to peel away the layers of superficiality and seek out the real Duleep.
In which locales has the film been shot?
In England, we were able to film at Eastnor Castle and Althorp House, Princess Diana’s birthplace, where she was raised and is now buried. Other notable places where we filmed were Liverpool Docks, Chester Cathedral and Black Country Living Museum.
In India, we filmed in Bikaner, which turned out to be a perfect setting for Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s fort and palaces. The film has a textured and rich period look that was carefully designed, directed and photographed.
Is the film based entirely on fact?
The film goes beyond — to the heart and soul of the man. It’s not the persona advanced by the distortions of history.
You chose a well-known singer to play Duleep. Why?
I did not want to cast an established actor because I did not want the character to be burdened by the actor’s persona. Casting an actor who had no set screen image brought a raw freshness.
How did the British actors react to this history?
They were all very supportive in the telling of a story that does have some anti-British sentiments. The script was very well received in England. We secured the location at Althorp House only after Charles Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, read the script.
What has been the reaction of the Sikh community?
We have had festival screenings where there was a sizeable Sikh audience. The response has been phenomenal. There has never been a film of this magnitude that addresses their history. I have invested my soul in the making of it; I hope the audience appreciates that
17 Sep 2021
18 Sep 2021