The Black Prince documents Duleep Singh's struggle against the British Empire

The Black Prince documents Duleep Singh's struggle against the British Empire

The film's director Kavi Raz speaks to Images about why he chose to document the life of the last Maharajah of Punjab
03 Sep, 2017

British Indian actor, writer and producer Kavi Raz hopes to bring back the "glorious past of the great Kingdom of Punjab" with his historical drama The Black Prince.

Raz has made a film on the life of Duleep Singh, the Prince who became Maharajah of Punjab as a child only to have it taken away from the British. In a spectacular film documenting what happened to Duleep Singh, Raz was adamant to pay his respects by bringing the film home to what was once the capital of Duleep Singh’s father Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, Lahore.

Duleep Singh was the last Maharajah of Punjab but he was without a kingdom and that message is clearly conveyed repeatedly in The Black Prince. With stunning shots on the beautiful state of Althorp (owned by Princess Diana’s family) the film is a visual treat for period drama fans. Yet, behind the beauty, Kavi Raz exposes the ugly world of the British Empire and the cruelty meted out to Duleep Singh, the son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh and his wife Jindan, and his family.

Kavi Raz chooses to document Duleep Singh's life in a chronological manner but does not delve deep into offering as an explanation for what caused him to behave the way he did. Raz does however indicate the past cannot be erased which is evident as Duleep Singh is haunted by the violence he witnessed as a mere child including being splattered on the face with blood of his maternal uncle as he was assassinated.

Raz also correctly pinpoints factors that did act as catalysts causing the Maharajah to give up his cushy life and struggle to reclaim a nonexistent kingdom and destroy his family and himself. For example, his mother Jindan who is played by Shabana Azmi. Azmi captures the bitterness and anger of Jindan when she is reunited with her son.

In the film we see Jindan injecting those sentiments into Duleep Singh. While Duleep Singh’s character is portrayed as a helpless puppet, reliant on others around him for answers such as Arur Singh, a role perfectly played by Rup Magon, Kavi Raz touches upon is the themes that amalgamated and caused his misfortune and downfall ultimately condemning him to a life of self-imposed exile and poverty.

Unable to find answers from his other 'mother'; Queen Victoria and unsatisfied with his adopted father's reasoning he turns to religion and alcohol.

Images got in touch with the director to find out why he chose to document Duleep Singh's life and the thought process behind his project.

Images: Duleep Singh’s story as well as his family’s is largely a hidden piece of history. What made you want to uncover it and what did you hope to achieve by doing so?

Kavi Raz: Main reason for making The Black Prince was just that. It’s such an important part of Punjab history, but no one seem to know or care about it. And it happened not too long ago. Our people have forgotten the glorious past of the great Kingdom of Punjab. I believe it’s an important film for both Punjabs. Lahore was the capital of this powerful kingdom.

I hope this film has an historical impact on generations to come and not get lost like the time it seeks to remember. I pray it becomes an important part of discerning and learning from our past. The Kingdom of Punjab was lost mainly due to the British policy of divide and rule. Sadly, such ideology is strong and prevalent even today around the world. It's playing across all landscapes and destroying humanity in the hearts of mankind.

Images: You portray Duleep Singh as a lost and forlorn character through all the trials and tribulations he faced and suffered alienated from his native India and Indians. But you never show how he lived as a maharajah in his estate at Elveden designed as an Indian palace or how he took up the cause for the abandoned Indian seamen?

KR: There is so much about Maharaja Duleep Singh’s life that I could not include in this film. Producers had decided early on that they wanted to give an overview of his entire life. In doing so I had to skimp over so many details. My earlier approach to this film was to focus on a certain point in his life and expand on that. There is a 4-part mini-series that gives a much more detailed account of his life. That will be released later in the year.  

Images: Duleep Singh’s cycle of self-destruction stemmed from his fight to reclaim a stolen kingdom. But he did enjoy a good life in Britain and was very friendly with Queen Victoria’s children. However, you decided to focus more on his relationship with Queen Victoria and his adopted family in Britain. Why is this?

KR: Duleep did enjoy a very close relationship with Queen Victoria’s children. He was part of the Queen’s household and at times was included in all Royal functions. Even breaking royal court decorum much to the dismay of others in authority.

I took the approach to focus on his relationship with the Queen as I felt that the dynamics of what happened in the palace was really due to her love for Duleep. Through that relationship we can get a feel of what his life might have been like with others around him. Under the exterior of her royal duties Queen Victoria was a goodhearted and very religious woman. And that reflected in her relationship with Duleep.

Also, I felt it was important to show how his life was controlled and maneuvered by the English and how Dr. Logan serves as the conduit for that.

Images: One of the most striking aspects of your interpretation of Duleep Singh is that he spoke with a heavy Indian accent. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to show that despite changing his religion, despite his life in Britian, symbolically he was still very much an Indian at heart?

KR: This was a point of much discussion before we began filming. Duleep was fluent in several languages and was introduced to English in India when the British separated him from his mother and took over his care. However, he remained in India till the age of 15. Having remained in India till that age, I felt he would retain his Indian accent, slightly laced with a dose of the British dialect.  And yes, no matter how much the British brainwashed him he was still very much an Indian at heart.

Images: His wife, Bamba and his children suffered greatly when he abandoned them. But, in the film you portray Duleep Singh being the ultimate loser as he lays dying. For someone who lived a life of comfort and enjoyed a lifestyle fit for a Maharajah does his suffering compare to that of his family’s?

KR: I feel that once he realised his true calling in life, he did suffer a lot for the choices he made thereafter. Leaving the woman who was the love of his life and his children whom he adored was not easy on him. But, I do agree that Lady Bamba paid the ultimate price for his dream of regaining his kingdom. She was very religious and a faithful woman, who remained devoted to him and the family till her death. She came from humble beginnings and was more of a homely woman who yearned for a simpler life than what was thrust upon her. The proposal scene in the film when Duleep tells her that, “she will be who he is when she becomes his wife”, echoes what was to come and ultimately shapes her destiny.    

Images: How important was it for you to show the film in Lahore? What were the obstacles you faced in bringing the film to Pakistan?             

KR: It had been a dream of mine from many years to visit Lahore. My father had spent several years in Lahore as a student and a military officer in the British Indian army. He played football and hockey on the grounds of Lahore. He would often speak of the great city.

The Black Prince afforded me that opportunity. More than the personal journey it was important to bring the Maharajah back to the place of his birth. The British did not let him set foot on the land he once ruled as a boy king. I feel a sense of justice serve in sharing his story with the people of the city where he once played with his rustic toys and found love amongst his subjects.