Satinder Sartaaj in “The Black Prince.”

The Black Prince is an emotional drama based on the true story of the last king of Punjab, Maharajah Duleep Singh, starring musician and poet, Satinder Sartaaj. Set in the 19th century and written and directed by Kavi Raz, the film follows the remarkable journey of a boy born into royalty, torn from the throne, denied his inheritance, then separated from his mother as a small child and exiled from his country. Amidst political turmoil at the height of the British Empire, Duleep Singh was sent to Britain, where Queen Victoria took him under her wing.

As a young man, he later reconnects with his mother, his roots, his culture and his destiny, battling to reclaim his kingdom and heritage. Told for the first time on the big screen, it’s a rousing tale about an unsung hero determined to follow his heart and fight for what is rightfully his, with the odds stacked firmly against him.

Leading cast members and filmmakers discuss the challenges of making the movie, the history, the heroism and the legacy behind The Black Prince

The story of Maharajah Duleep Singh begins in 1838, continues with his ascent to the throne of Punjab as his country is violently torn apart by feuds and factions, and unfolds as he comes of age in Victorian England. It offers an illuminating exploration of his close friendship with Queen Victoria.

What’s fascinating about Kavi Raz’s riveting movie, which has already won several film festival awards including Best Drama Feature at the L.A. Film Awards and the Special Jury Remi Award at the 50th Annual WorldFest International Film Festival in Houston, is how powerfully it resonates today. Transcending continents and kingdoms, this is the story of one man’s daunting and heroic quest to reclaim his inheritance and govern his people while confronting the colossal might of the British Empire. It is the story of a man on a mission to find himself.

Q: But who was the “Black Prince?”

A: “When you read about Maharajah Duleep Singh, you see a lot of fact-based material:  that he became a king at the age of five and was separated from his mother at the age of seven,” says director Kavi Raz, born in Punjab and raised in England. “But there’s not much that people know about the human being, the psychological make up of this man. So in the telling of this story, I wanted to connect with Duleep Singh… What it was like to be isolated after being King of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world at that time.”

From the start, it was a highly personal journey for Raz himself. He had heard about the story of Duleep Singh as a child and was fully aware that the fabled, exiled king was significant to his culture.

Raz says he was drawn to the project because he had experienced a growing, inner yearning to tell meaningful stories about his culture. “I wanted to make films that touched me emotionally, that moved me.”

In what the filmmaker describes as “the luckiest moment of my life,” he met historian Jasjeet Singh, executive producer of The Black Prince, who had conducted extensive research into the life of Maharajah Duleep Singh.

Singh discussed with Raz how the life of the Last King of Punjab has been shrouded in mystery, told primarily through the lens of the British who effectively ‘adopted him,’ controlled him, and claimed him as one of their own. It was, after all, where he lived as a young man, where he settled, married and raised a family, steeped in the country’s privileged aristocracy.  “I realized that all the material about Duleep Singh was told from the British point of view: they wrote that he wasn’t honest, that his mother was no good, that he was illegitimate,” says Jasjeet Singh.

While studying at Punjab University, Singh had discovered a different perspective on the life of the legendary figure when he came across important historical source material authored by the former Punjabi monarch himself. The material included an extraordinary collection of Duleep’s original letters and paperwork.

Determined to bring Duleep Singh’s story to the attention of the world, Kavi Raz and Jasjeet Singh set about collaborating on The Black Prince. Once Raz had completed his script, inevitably, choosing the right actor for the central character was crucial.  And there was serendipity about the casting of musician Satinder Sartaaj, who seemed destined for the role even though he had never acted before. There were uncanny similarities between the musician and the character.

“People have commented that I bear a strong resemblance to Duleep Singh, in terms of skin color, eyes and height; everything matches actually,” says Sartaaj. “His mannerisms were close to mine; the character of the Maharajah was almost like me. His way of talking is just like mine. The first thing I told the producers was: ‘I am a non-actor. I am a poet and composer!’ They said, ‘but we know you can do it.”

Their star, says Kavi Raz, was a “natural.” “Satinder is very emotional, very intelligent and he brings this raw, childlike sort of energy to the part, which was perfect for the character.”

Stepping into the part, says Sartaaj, was a formidable responsibility. “It was a great burden on my shoulders because I was representing my culture. It’s true I hadn’t acted before, but I am the type of person who is passionate and dedicated when I commit to something and I really gave it 100 percent.”

Beautifully acted, with a colorful score from composer George Kallis, as well as five original Punjabi songs with lyrics written by Sartaaj and music by Prem Hardeep, The Black Prince reveals the man behind the legendary, elusive figure. Duleep Singh, the son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, known as the ‘Lion of Punjab,’ was an infant when his father died and his kingdom was annexed by the British Empire.  His uncle, Jawahar Singh, was killed in front him. “The child’s face was drenched with blood. It was horrific. Britain basically took over the kingdom at that time,” says Kavi Raz.

Separated from his mother by the British and sent to what is now Uttar Pradesh, Duleep had to convert to Christianity. In 1845, aged 15, he was dispatched to Britain. The new film focuses on the bond that developed between the teenager and Queen Victoria (played by Amanda Root), who treated the boy she called ‘the Black Prince’ as one of her own children. “Queen Victoria totally loved Duleep. He was like a family member, going on family vacations with them,” notes Jasjeet Singh.

Amanda Root (The Iron Lady), who has a strong interest in India and runs a charity that does considerable work in the country, delivers a highly convincing performance as Queen Victoria. “I thought about what it meant to be the queen, the tension between who she is as a person and how she needs to run the country, yet also maintaining her life as a wife and a mother… I think she had to control her feelings, to be masterful. She certainly had a great capacity to love and that’s what interested me.”

Queen Victoria’s relationship with Duleep, says Root, “Was complex. He comes into her life as a young boy and you see there’s a tension because he’s so unique and he’s very young and he needs her attention. She mothered him. And then, as we find out, that backfires because there’s a lot of politics involved. I was very interested in this woman,” the actress says.

She describes her co-star, Sartaaj, as “Open and observant, with great panache. He was learning on the job, and I think he did a remarkable job. He was very natural and that naturalness reflected the character…”

In England, the teenager was distanced from his own language, culture and of course his religion. “He wasn’t even allowed to meet with other Sikhs. Instead, he was indoctrinated into British ideology,” says Kavi Raz. “He lived like a king in a way, but it was a very controlled sort of a life.” Charged with taking care of the teenager was Dr. John Login, appointed as his guardian, played by acclaimed British actor Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch). “Jason read the script and was so excited about the role and the British aspect of this story,” says Raz. “He wanted to be part of the project to help convey the great injustice that was done. He is an amazing actor.”

One of the interesting aspects of Kavi Raz’s script is his nuanced take on the story. It isn’t black and white and while it is told from Duleep Singh’s perspective, the British are not portrayed as villainous. “I did not want to paint the British as monstrous; they weren’t,” says Raz. “Maharajah Duleep Singh himself told his mother that the British were very good people.”

Shot on location—mostly in England—in some of the country’s most impressive castles, with a few scenes filmed in India, there are strong supporting performances from Keith Duffy, David Essex and Rup Magon. Much of the visually lavish biopic focuses on Duleep Singh’s life in Britain, which by all accounts was decadently luxurious. Reputedly an enormously gregarious and personable man, he married twice and had nine children.  His first wife, Bamba, is played by British actress, Sophie Stevens.

As he entered his twenties though, Duleep started to feel a deep sense of unease, coupled with a yearning to be meeting the mother he had barely known. “Once he reached maturity, he had this feeling that something was missing,” says Jasjeet Singh.

“He was a very intelligent and a very sensitive man,” agrees Kavi Raz, “and I think that’s part of the reason the English were able to control him; he was a withdrawn, emotional sort of a man. So naturally he would’ve felt some sort of emptiness. That’s when he   wants to see his mother.”

He travels to India and meets his long-lost mother, Rani Jindan, played by renowned Indian actress Shabana Azmi. “Shabana has so much experience and is very well respected,” says Raz. “So in contrast to Satinder, who was new to acting, she brought all this knowledge with her…It was an amazing experience for me as a director to work with these two people at the same time.”

Satinder Sartaaj and Shabana Azmi star in “The Black Prince”

The two actors connect strongly on screen and depict a complicated relationship between mother and son that was evidently immensely challenging. “He met his mother after fourteen or fifteen long years apart so he didn’t recall her well,” says Sartaaj. “They were very different because by then he was so British, and very spoiled. He didn’t particularly like her when they met because he couldn’t relate to her.”

But the reunion did awaken a new sense of purpose in the young man. “Somehow when he met his mother, Duleep started to realize who he was, and the significance of his destiny,” says Sartaaj.

His mother explained why it was so important for him to reclaim his inheritance. She also reminded her son that for all intents and purposes, Britain had appropriated not only the considerable assets of Punjab, but the family’s private wealth—including the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond. “The British angle has always been that it was ‘gifted’ to Queen Victoria by Duleep Singh but we believe it was taken,” says Kavi Raz.

After the reunion with his mother, everything shifted for Duleep Singh, who would no longer be satisfied with the life of luxury he had enjoyed. Launching a political campaign within Britain, he embarked on a life-long quest to fight for his rights, which involved repeated attempts to get his case heard in the British, writing letters, and campaigning across Europe. He started a movement to restore independence to Punjab that eventually became fractured, infiltrated by spies.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Duleep Singh’s mission is fraught with difficulty. But the sadness depicted in the film doesn’t detract from its inspirational heart. “At the very core of the film,” says Kavi Raz, “is a story of a man trying to find himself, which is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. Right now, we live in a divisive world filled with religious intolerance. The same level of intolerance existed then.” Raz also mentions, “he wasn’t allowed to be a Sikh, to be an Indian boy, an Indian king. He was kept and controlled in England.”

Kavi Raz, Director of “The Black Prince”

Q: What if anything can we learn from the story? 

A: “That the oppressed will always come to a point when they will rise against oppression and their voices will be heard. I think this film offers that perspective, that the right voice needs to be heard.”  

Q: Why does the story resonate so strongly today? 

A: “I think it is a reflection of how we manage ourselves in the world and how we behave.” comments Amanda Root.

Q: How do we show real respect to people who are different to us without controlling them or trying to exclude them?  

A: “The film is a reminder that everybody has to work really hard to stop that happening.”

Of huge interest and significance to Punjabi communities around the world, the film chronicles a pivotal chapter in Sikh history. While the story doesn’t have a traditional Hollywood happy ending, the life of Maharajah Duleep Singh is ultimately positive.

“Duleep Singh actually died peacefully as a free man, as a Sikh,” says Sartaaj, adding that his struggle inspired Sikhs to continue the fight for freedom until India regained its independence in 1947. “There are many learnings we can take from this story,” Sartaaj reflects, “about the world and the dangers of imperialism. It is good to learn from history, from things that should never have happened, so we can make sure that in future we (human beings) will not behave that way again.”

According to Sartaaj, “The majority of Sikhs and Punjabis don’t consider [Duleep Singh] as a hero. But at film festivals I have said, if he had died with a bullet, he would be your hero. But because that didn’t happen, you do not consider him a hero. Yet he was heroic. He did his best. He left his astonishingly lavish lifestyle in England, the huge estate he owned, to fight British imperialism. He left his family; he left his kids, his wife, to do the right thing. What could he have done that would have been more heroic than that?”

“The subcontinent of India was under British rule for over 200 years, and the move towards independence really took root with Maharajah Duleep Singh raising the voice of his people,” concludes Kavi Raz elaborating on the resonance of the film. He said, “It’s not about me anymore; it’s not about my kingdom. It’s about how the British had to be driven entirely out of India. Maharajah Duleep Singh offered hope because he inspired his people—he inspired an entire nation to seek freedom,” concludes Raz, “And that should not be forgotten.”