Sikh king who never ruled

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

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

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