The Editor's Desk - 2017

Film Review: The Black Prince

By Samir Shukla

The Black Prince revisits the story of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab. It's a brilliant historical drama written and directed by veteran LA-based filmmaker Kavi Raz.

The film is based on the true story of Duleep Singh, who was placed on the throne at the age of five after the death of his father, the Lion of Punjab, legendary Maharajah Ranjeet Singh, only to be robbed of his legacy via treason by once-trusted members of his father's own court. The British connived with local traitors and Duleep Singh was taken from his mother and relocated to England at an early age while the kingdom of Punjab slowly disintegrated and was annexed into the British Empire.

Punjabi Singer-poet Satinder Sartaaj (known for Sufi and Punjabi folk songs) makes an eloquent acting debut as Duleep Singh. His subdued performance brings Singh to life as a privileged yet conflicted man. Sartaaj is a Sikh and in tune with his heritage, and his newly trained acting chops practically become one with his portrayal of the Maharajah. Duleep Singh was taken to England by the British at the age of 15 where he eventually met Queen Victoria, who was enamored by him named him “The Black Prince. “ She later became godmother to his children.

Duleep Singh never quite fits into the British society, as he is converted to Christianity by his foster parents and lives a life of regal routine. He misses his mother and wishes to see her. When he finally sees his mother after a separation of thirteen years, she awakens in him the ties and greatness of his Sikh heritage and his lost legacy, his stolen legacy. He realizes he never quite belonged to England, always feeling a sense of emptiness. Singh is determined after his mother's death to free his kingdom, regain his Sikh faith and return to Punjab as a king. He then begins the arduous journey to regain all that was lost and embraces and reconvert to Sikhism.

As the story unfolds, we learn how he worked to reunite with his mother, Maharani Jindan - a woman he barely knew, who instills in him the responsibility he holds to reclaim his place in history.

The film's prime task of showing a journey of reclaiming identity is beautifully achieved by Raz. History has not judged Duleep Singh kindly. This film sheds a new light on his struggles to return to India, regain his kingdom against the might and cunning of the British empire. His efforts from initial determination and planning to his disappointing unsuccessful quest and his eventual death alone in a small hotel room as a poor man bring a new light to the story of the Maharajah, which is firmly captured in Sartaaj's worthy debut performance. Director Raz guides the rest of the international cast, including Jason Flemyng, Amanda Root, who portrays Queen Victoria and veteran Indian actress Shabana Azmi as Rani Jindan, the exiled King's mother. Filmed in the U.K. and India, Raz takes his time in slowly unfolding his story.

The movie expands the king's persona for the audience. Duleep Singh is generally not well-regarded by Punjabis and the Sikh community. His legacy is that of a loser who didn't do enough to regain his kingdom. The Black Prince addresses this and in the end viewers are left with a deeper understanding and a more empathetic view of last king of Punjab.

Strong performances by the support cast enhances the drama. Veteran actress Shabana Azmi of course is brilliant as Rani Jindan. She unshackles her son's suppressed feelings and pushes him back to his heritage. She firmly represents the last vestiges of the kingdom of Punjab, strong, traditional, determined, as a mother but more importantly as a proud queen.

The film really takes its time telling the story as Singh plots schemes, tries to use the British legal system to his favor, and other means, but ultimately fails. He simply couldn't overcome the overpowering might of the British Empire in its prime. His story is tragic as well as inspiring. The film chronicles not a victory but the ultimate failure of Singh, but also retells history and addresses that he did what he could to regain his throne against a primal power of the time.

Maharajah Duleep Singh died in 1893 at the age of 55. Though he reconverted Sikhism, his final wishes were denied as he was buried as a Christian in the English countryside. There are efforts even today to take his remains back to Punjab to be cremated as per Sikh rites.

The Black Prince is a lovely, visually rich film retelling an important part of Sikh history. It releases on July 21.