The Black Prince sets to rest many myths and untruths about Maharaja Duleep Singh

July 23, 2017 07:04 PM


Seldom do actors get so immersed in their roles that the after effects continue to reflect even after the spotlights are switched off. It is true for singer, composer and actor Satinder Sartaaj who plays Maharaja Duleep Singh in The Black Prince, released this week. “Yes, my family and friends tease me that I am yet to get over the aura and halo of royalty,” he quips as we settle for a conversation in a Delhi hotel. He admits that besides his accent, his persona too has altered. “Having lived the character for five years, I have definitely become calmer and subtle.” His English too sounds very British. “I was coached in Queen’s language used in 1850s. Being my third language, I practised it and used it in my conversations with my cast and crew to make it sound natural.”

Having completed the grand spectacle, British actor-writer-director Kavi Raz is happy with the outcome. “It is truly a labour of love considering that it has tried to do justice to a man who has been wronged by history and its writers. The biopic looks at aspects of Maharaja Duleep Singh, which have never been explored before."

The biopic traces Duleep Singh’s life, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son and the last ruler of Punjab from childhood to moving to England and fighting the British to restore his kingdom. Sartaaj, recommended by a panel of 11 historians, who researched the subject, fell in love with the role and story immediately. “I was overwhelmed and considered it as once in a life time opportunity. From thereon I worked hard, devoting myself completely because I felt a sense of responsibility towards history of Sikhs and Punjab.”

Sartaaj agrees that not much is written about Duleep Singh in history books. “Whatever little is available is distorted, misrepresented and misinterpreted. This film will set to rest many myths and untruths and show him in a new light. For example, he is supposed to have asked for pardon from the British but a closer look of his signature reveals that it was misspelt. Likewise, it is stated that he died a Christian while the truth is that he had embraced Sikhism, started learning to read Guru Granth Sahib and desired to be cremated, which was not allowed. This is based on research with which I was involved from beginning.”

Being his maiden appearance, the challenges were many. “I took no chances. I studied all the written material on him including Christy Campbell’s The Maharaja’s Box. I can now claim to be a genuine and authentic historian on him,” he laughs. “Do you know that the salt mines Duleep Singh owned are still there in Gujranwala, Pakistan?” he shows off.

The actor also visited places where Duleep Singh had stayed, including the Elveden Estate and the hotel in Paris where he died. “I wanted to portray the human side of a personality who is known more for his politics and religion. The visits helped in piecing together the outline and portray a shy, introvert and submissive person.” Stating that it was indeed challenging, Sartaaj, adds, “My scenes with Amanda Root (Queen Victoria) and Shabana Azmi (Rani Jindan), Duleep’s mother, have lengthy dialogues delievered by them with almost none by me. I conveyed everything through eyes, facial expression and body movement.”

Praising Azmi, Sartaaj reveals that she speaks in Punjabi only. “Rani Jindan did not know English and Shabanaji delivered the dialogues with correct diction. An easy going person, she was encouraging. During breakfast, we discussed scenes with she giving me tips. In our first scene, she enquires about my life in England and Queen Victoria, and I wondered as to how should I react? She told me, ‘Be a son, listening to his mother and the feelings will come naturally.’ And that is what I did.”

The meeting between mother and son triggers a distinct change in Duleep Singh. Becoming aware of his background, lineage, how he was deprived of the throne and how the Kohinoor diamond was forcibly taken from him and not gifted by him to British as informed, he revolts. He files for restoration of his kingdom and monarchy, return of the Kohinoor, and tries to unify different kings of India with a bid to take on the British. “Yes, from here my role moves to a different plane. The submissiveness is replaced with determination, making him vocal. From no dialogues, I deliver full page ones,” he jests.

First love

Will we see more of Sartaaj on screen? “No, my first love is and will remain music and stage. Even in this movie, I have written, composed and sung five songs.” Does a historical biopic have scope for songs? “The songs are in the background and go well with the situations and scenes. “ ‘Darda wala desh’ depicts the story of Duleep Singh while another reflects the pangs when he separates from his love. The compositions are a blend of Victorian feel and Punjabi folk with with soulful and meaningful poetry.”

As a doctorate in music, Saartaj feels academic background helps to polish one’s skills but can’t make one an artist.

“For that you need natural talent and innate passion which I am fortunate to have been blessed with. I started singing when I was three. Writing poetry commenced from 2003 while pursuing doctorate during which I read a lot Urdu, Persian and Punjabi poems.” His singing stands among other Punjabi performers because of the lyrics and music. “I sing Sufi songs written by me. I took to Sufism as its music and poetry give sukoon (peace of mind). Sufi songs move from love to spirituality, from ishq mizaji to to ishq haqiqi.”

It is amazing to know that Sartaaj writes in Gurumukhi script. “I do that to encourage others to take up reading and writing it as its usage is on wane. Punjabis must feel blessed and proud to have their own script and make efforts to preserve it,” he avers before signing off.

Having completed the grand spectacle, British actor-writer-director Kavi Raz is happy with the outcome. “It is truly a labour of love considering that it has tried to do justice to a man who has been wronged by history and its writers. The biopic looks at aspects of Maharaja Duleep Singh, which have never been explored before."

Commenting on Satinder Sartaaj’s maiden performance, Raz is absolutely thrilled. “We had to work very hard on his English accent, which had to reflect the Victorian period, and his body language. He really worked hard on the role. What worked in his favour was his dedication and that he resembles the young Duleep Singh.”

Contrary to expectations, Raz’s whose production unit had many Britishers, found their reaction very welcoming and cooperative. “They understood the point of view being put forward and that Duleep Singh had been wronged as his rightful throne had been snatched and he was separted from his home and mother.”

Regarding the Kohinoor, Raz feels that British will avoid taking any step in returning it since “it will open a Pandora’s box with more such claims coming forward from others too.”


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