Sikh king who never ruled
When I think of films set in India the first that come to mind were released back-to-back in the early 1980s: Richard Attenborough’s multiAcademy Award winner Gandhi, James Ivory’s Heat and Dust and David Lean’s A Passage to India, for which Judy Davis should have received an Oscar. In more recent times Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Garth Davis’s Lion have had critical and commercial success.
While such films are part-Indian to different degrees — for example, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the script for Heat and Dust, based on her novel — it’s fair to say they are mainly Anglo enterprises, as was India from 1757 to 1947.
This is not a criticism of the films. It’s just something that came to mind as I watched The Black Prince, written and directed by Indian actor and filmmaker Kavi Raz and starring Indian poet and singer-songwriter Satinder Sartaaj in his acting debut. He also wrote and performed the songs that pop up.
This two-hour movie is close to a biopic. At its centre is Duleep Singh (Sartaaj), the last maharaja of the Sikh empire, the last king of Punjab. As with all biopics, there are questions about whether the filmmaker has exaggerated or even invented parts of someone’s life for dramatic purposes, or political ones.
I don’t know enough about Singh’s life to judge that, and this goes to what the director and star are trying to do: they think he has been lost in the history of British India and want to bring him back to his rightful place. That is much more than being the young maharaja who gave the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the crown. (William Dalrymple, co-author of a new book on the diamond, writes for us today on page 3, and we review the book on page 22.)
Singh was born in Lahore in 1838, youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of northwestern India, the “Lion of Punjab”. When the maharaja died in 1839, there was division and bloodshed. Four potential successors were killed, though one did make it to the throne for a while. The British, in control of most on India, watched “like vultures”, to use Raz’s metaphor.
The result of this empire in disarray was Duleep Singh becoming maharaja at age five. His mother, Maharani Jinda, ran the show for a while but was forced out by the British. Duleep was her only child. At 10 he was turned over to a British guardian, Dr John Login. At 15 he was sent to England, royally housed and well educated. He became a favourite of Queen Victoria.
This volatile childhood is swiftly if somewhat academically narrated in a pre-titles sequence that includes maps of India. There are some confronting shots, though, of Singh’s mother being held off by a British bayonet, and of Indians killing heirs to the throne. The adult Singh remembers such violent experiences, with British and Indians both to blame, in flashbacks.
This is one of the strengths of the film: while some of the Brits are bastards, so are some of the Indians. And there are people from both sides who are decent and kind, such as Dr Login (Jason Flemyng) and, in a nice mix of sensitivity and right-to-rule certainty, a youngish Queen Victoria (an excellent Amanda Root). “Tell me a kingdom built on truth,” she asks Singh.
Punjab-born Raz moved to Britain as a boy. He has worked in international film and television, with roles in shows such as St Elsewhere and Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Sadly, Indian and British histories don’t differ much on this subject,” he said in a recent interview.
He wants to change that via an exploration of what he sees as Singh’s “awakening”, an emotional and — in his telling — bellicose realisation of who he was, what was taken from him and how he should reject the British and re- claim his kingdom and, perhaps even more importantly, his religion. Under Login’s pastoral care, he was converted to Christianity.
When we first meet Singh he is not like this, though his handsome brow sometimes ruffles with doubt. He is 20, landed gentry, living mainly on a Scottish estate, waited on by servants. In a deft sequence we see him wearing a red riding coat, wearing a top hat, drinking cognac, playing cards and shooting game. There is a beautifully shot scene where his portrait is being painted (as it was) by royal artist Franz Winterhalter. “Hurry up, Franz,” orders the queen.
The turning point is when he receives permission to return to India to be reunited with his mother. He is allowed to meet her in Calcutta. He is not allowed to enter the Punjab.
His mother (a droll Shabana Azmi) becomes the voice in his ear, and heart, the one urging him to lead his people, fight the British, resume the throne. She is supported by locals. Singh’s presence in India stirs up passionate patriotic feelings. The “soldiers of the Sikh Kingdom” need a leader. The British would prefer not, so he and his mother are brought back to England.
Maharani’s moments with her son, and with the queen, are a treat. When she first asks her son about England, his immediate reply is that it’s “cold most of the time”. So much for the sun never setting on the British Empire. The maharani speaks Hindi (there are subtitles) so when she sits with the queen over a cup of tea, sourced from India no doubt, there is ample room for her son to make diplomatic translations.
She has the desired effect on her son. “The great war against the British is about to begin,” he declares. And now his response to the queen calling him a black prince, as she does from the start, is angry. By the way, I could find no record of the queen calling him this; it seems to have been a name linked to his life in Perthshire, Scotland. But my research was not exhaustive.
Singh’s change of heart takes him to different countries where others have similar agendas. He meets Irish rebels, American soldiers, Russian agents. Afghanistan is talked about. These fascinating encounters reminded me of the TV shows Peaky Blinders and, from 30 years ago, the superb Reilly: Ace of Spies, starring Sam Neill. I also thought of the Russian Revolution, now in its centenary year. “You are talking about transactions of half a century ago,” a Brit says to Singh. It’s a good illustration of how history becomes more important as it ages.
If you don’t know much about Singh (as I didn’t), you can follow this like a historical thriller. It is a carefully made film, sometimes to the point of slowness in plot development and over-explanation in dialogue. At times it reminded me of a high-class show on the History Channel. But it also goes beyond the dates-andplaces history we read at school to consider the thoughts, desires and regrets of a man born to have everything but forced to have nothing.
Duleep Singh (Satinder Sartaaj) and Maharani Jinda (Shabana Azmi) with Queen Victoria (Amanda Root); Sartaaj, below