Satinder Sartaaj believes he was destined to play the role of Maharajah Duleep Singh in THE BLACK PRINCE. Although he had never acted before, the gifted musician and poet, a natural performer, felt drawn to the character and the film as soon as he heard about it. The engrossing and deeply moving historical drama is based on the true story of the Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last King of Punjab, who was born in 1838, the son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Still an infant when his father died, he was torn from his throne as a small child, separated from his mother, Maharani Jindan, and denied his rightful inheritance when his kingdom was annexed by the British Empire. Amidst political turmoil and feuding, his own uncle was killed in front him and Duleep was eventually dispatched to England at the age of 15, his own future in suspension.
Landing in Britain in 1854, the story follows Duleep as he is baptized a Christian and comes of age in the country’s aristocracy. Close to Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, he is steeped in a life of decadent privilege and luxury that might have contented many in his position, but Duleep is neither happy nor fulfilled. England is never really home to the young man. Consumed by memories of his past and his volatile early childhood, he finds himself on a quest to discover his true identity. Even when he marries and has a family of his own, Duleep is on a mission to reclaim his kingdom and return to his own people. As the story unfolds, we learn how he is reunited with his mother, Maharani Jindan—a woman he has barely known—who tells him about his past and the responsibility he holds to reclaim his rightful destiny.
Setting out on a dangerous and nearly impossible course, Duleep displays extraordinary courage, refusing to give up hope. This is a man who made a formidable contribution to the history of his own people but his story manages to transcend geographical and historical boundaries. What makes it even more compelling is that it has essentially been hidden from the world.
At its heart, THE BLACK PRINCE chronicles the journey of a man in search of his essential nature. While the story is infused with sadness, the life of Maharajah Duleep Singh is ultimately positive. His struggle inspired Sikhs to continue the fight for freedom until India regained its independence in 1947, and the Sikh Kingdom was divided into India and Pakistan.
Also starring in the film are Jason Flemyng, Shabana Azmi, Amanda Root, Keith Duffy, David Essex and Rup Magon. The film was produced by Kavi Raz and Jai Khanna. Jasjeet Singh was the film’s executive producer.
Satinder Sartaaj is an acclaimed Punjabi singer, songwriter and poet. His first major hit was ‘Sai’ in 2010. Since then, he has performed across the globe. A passionate advocate for the worldwide Indian and Punjabi culture, the musician, actor and self-described “old soul” sat down for the following interview.
Q: How did you land the role?
A: “There are some major film producers from the American Sikh community involved in the film industry there and they wanted to make a film about Duleep Singh’s life. Because I’ve performed in the United States, I am quite well known within that community. People have commented that I bear a strong resemblance to Duleep Singh in terms of skin color, eyes, height—and even certain mannerisms. So the producers thought I might be right to play the character and they called me to discuss the film.
Q: What particularly interested you about this story?
A: “My first love is history, and this was a true story about my own culture so it was completely fascinating to me. In 2010, I went to England for the first time and someone gave me a book about Maharajah Duleep Singh’s life so I started reading and learning about him at that time. It feels like I was destined for this role and it is a very proud moment because it’s the very first Hollywood film about Sikh history.”
Q: Was your experience daunting, playing this legendary figure?
A: “Actually it was a great burden on my shoulders because I was representing my own culture. It’s true that I hadn’t acted before but I’m the type of person who is passionate and dedicated when I commit to something. I cancelled my tours and shows, and really gave it my best. It was wonderful, a lovely experience.
Q: Who was this man? What was he like?
A: “Duleep was confused, repressed and introverted as a young man. When he met his mother, Rani Jindan (Shabana Azmi), he began to realize who he was, what had been lost, and the importance of his destiny. He became outspoken and brave. It’s a sad story—but Duleep Singh actually died peacefully as a free man, as a Sikh, after converting back to his religion from Christianity. But because of British imperialism, they didn’t bury him as a Sikh. He was buried as a Christian at the Elveden Estate in England (the 17 thousand-acre stately home in Suffolk, which he had owned).”
Q: What were the challenges involved in taking on this role?
A: “Sometimes we would shoot the scenes out of sequence. That kind of thing is easy for experienced actors but for me, it was very hard to fit into Duleep’s skin at different ages. Sometimes in the morning he was 53 but in the evening he was 33, so I had to change my body language, even my eyes, accordingly. That was the toughest part for me, playing him from 15 right up to his death.”
Q: I know you had great support from your director. Can you discuss your experience of working with Kavi Raz?
A: “Kavi is an experienced actor himself and has spent 35 years in Hollywood so he knew how to help me create the character. I am louder than he is because I was brought up in India and Bollywood is a little louder than Hollywood. But he knew better, of course. He taught me so well, in such a detailed way, so minutely, so beautifully. It was also helpful to learn about British mannerisms and characteristics. Because Kavi was brought up in England, he knows all about that—the legacy, the protocol, the language, and a lot about the Victorian aristocracy. Also, the script he wrote is incredible.”
Q: Can you talk about working with Shabana Azmi, the esteemed, multi-award winning actress who plays your mother?
A: “Shabana Azmi is a legendary actress from India, from Bollywood, and she has a great legacy. When she signed on for the part, she listened to my music. Some of my poetry is in Urdu, the Hindi language, Shabana’s language. When we were filming, we were staying in a hotel and met daily at the breakfast table. I taught her Punjabi because Rani Jindan, the mother of the Black Prince, could not speak English so in the film, her entire dialogue is in Punjabi. It’s completely authentic. I learned many things from Shabana.”
Q: Duleep had a strained relationship with his mother, didn’t he?
A: “That’s right, because he saw his mother after fourteen or fifteen long years apart so he didn’t know her well. They were very different because by then he was so British and quite spoiled. He didn’t remember her and didn’t particularly like her when they met; he couldn’t relate to her. The way Kavi wrote the scene when they meet—and she doesn’t look at him—is very powerful.”
Q: Duleep Singh is such an interesting man because he gave up his very luxurious life in England to seek justice in order to do the right thing.
A: “Yes, he did, and that is exactly what I’ve been saying at film festivals, because the majority of Sikhs and Punjabis don’t consider him as a hero. My response is always the same: if he had died with a bullet, he would be your hero. But because that didn’t happen does not mean that he wasn’t heroic. He left his astonishingly lavish lifestyle in England, the huge estate he owned, to fight British imperialism. He left his family—his kids, his wife, to do the right thing. What greater sacrifice is there?”
Q: So do you think this film will change the perception of Duleep Singh among the Sikh community?
A: “Yes I do. Many Sikhs believe that he had turned his back on them and forgotten his religion. That wasn’t true, because he was a child when he was taken away from his mother and he was forced to convert to Christianity. This film will show the Sikh community and the world who he really was. Now people will view Maharajah Duleep Singh in a completely different light.”
Q: How valuable and important is your own culture and religion to you?
A: “So important. For people in Northern India, the Sikhs and the Punjabis, culture and religion is basically our life. If you talk to anyone from there, you will find that they’re so proud of their culture, their language, their God and their music.”
Q: How interesting do you think the story is for people who don’t have a specific connection to your culture?
A: “It should be interesting to everyone, even if they do not know my music or about Sikhism or Punjab. Everyone knows about the British Empire and Queen Victoria and Buckingham Palace. This is an amazing story about the last King of Punjab, a state in the North of India; about his time in England and his relationship with Queen Victoria and that culture—the last vestiges English gentlemanship. It was a great journey, how he fought for his people. And the story continues to this day. There is a movement in the name of Maharajah Duleep Singh, which is right now seeking, in Britain’s Supreme Court, to get his body sent home from England to Punjab, to India. They want to cremate him as a Sikh, which is an important tradition.”
Q: Although Queen Victoria was kind to him, he was reportedly treated very badly on a financial level. There is still a question as to how the famous Koh-I-Noor Diamond, which rightfully belonged to the Maharajah, ended up in British hands.
A: “That’s right. The British had said that it was gifted to them, but it wasn’t. It was just appropriated, taken with lies and deceit.”
Q: The film is of course sad, even tragic. But would you say it is also positive in its essence?
A: “It’s actually very positive. This is a true story and there are many learnings we can take from it 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 the future we will not behave that way again. I think it’s very relevant to things that are happening in the world today.”
Q: It sounds like you have a powerful, almost mystical connection to the story and the man?
A: “That is true. I had a great fascination with the story and when I first visited England in 2010. I’m in love with heritage and old buildings so everywhere I went I touched everything—every brick, every stone. And then, when I saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond, I just felt something and thought, ‘Okay, this is our history. This came from our land.’ When I went back to India I wrote a song, which is the basic theme song of the film. I found out about THE BLACK PRINCE in 2013 yet amazingly, three years before that I had written a song that fit the essence of the film entirely. So this is how destiny works. This is how the ‘pull’ works when you are guided. I think you’ve got your answer …I really did have a spiritual connection to the character and the story.”