The Black Prince —The not so “true story of Maharajah Duleep Singh”

Well, it is not really a true story—just a tragic fiction built around a historic character whose treacherous ascension to the Lahore crown and descent were all blood-stained. Duleep Singh was not the last Sikh king, for there were other ruling Sikh dynasties in Punjab region with sovereign states such as Patiala, Kapurthala, Nabha, Jind, to name a few. Efforts to romanticise Duleep are understandable for he has a right to have his own fan club, but the seeds of his legacy’s downfall were already sown by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He is the one who trusted those who deserved anything but. The friends he thought he had weren’t ever his friends, for none of them invested much in protecting his legacy. Ranjit Singh unfortunately proved to be a poor judge of people’s character. In order to consolidate power for himself and for his family, he reneged on his alliances with General Hari Singh Nalwa and the Gur-Khalsa. Ranjit had forgotten that a Lion of Punjab is nothing without the jungle; owing to his own blind policies and decisions, he lived the last half of his life as the Lion of Lahore Circus. Now, I am not a sworn critic of Maharaja Ranjit Singh for the Pakhawaj tradition of Sultanpur Lodhi – Amritsar – Lahore binds us together. It is ironic that the film makes no mention of any of the other Sikh kingdoms that have outlived the Lahore Darbar.

Duleep is already a grownup at the start of the movie. The only flashbacks are of him being kidnapped by an East India Company soldier. The direction, lighting, cinematography and costume design, with the exception of the Sikh attires and 20th century turbans, was good. The turban of Duleep is ironically Patiala-style while his later twentieth-century beard-cut also fails to establish the period’s fashions. The contemporary English and Punjabi accents were a constant distraction. The film’s musical scores are a little too contemporary and disconnected from the theme and historical moment. The to-and-fro between Maharani Jinda played by the superb Shabana Azmi and Duleep could have made the film but the dialogues didn’t carry much weight, and was clearly a wasted opportunity. Contrary to the film title’s suggestion, Maharajah Duleep Singh is not the Last King of Punjab, but only the last king of Lahore.

Satinder Sartaj is under-researched, a tad frozen, and his acting, sadly disappointing. There was something about this eyes that I didn’t like —hmm, was it that faraway look? He eyes seemed to be reminiscing something or was it him being camera shy, or Duleep legend conscious. Perhaps somebody forgot to tell him that he was supposed to pose for the moving pictures and not model for the stills. Sartaj’s role as Duleep did his career good, but unfortunately he does no good to the legend of Maharajah Duleep Singh beyond reminding us of his existence. Sartaj’s role was to become Duleep Singh on the silver screen, not to transform Duleep Singh into a Satinder Sartaj. The director and arguably the script for its fact-failings do not succeed in establishing Duleep’s character, nor is the film able to transport me to the time in which this legend actually lived.

The film attempts to make the viewer sympathetic towards Duleep as he was “torn from his mother and taken to England by the British when he was merely 15”. Well, we have other legends to compare him with: Guru Harkishan, who was only five when he ascended the throne of Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Rai, who was only nine when he became the tenth Guru of the Sikh Panth, the younger Sahibzaday of Guru Gobind Singh who were also torn away from their family yet proved to be two unassailable mountain peaks. What about the five-year-old son of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, Ajai Singh, who refused to convert, but instead chose to have his heart cut out and served as a meal to his visionary father? The film makers should have remembered that all of these aforementioned protagonists seeped in Nanaki doctrine and proven to be incorruptible comprise the ineluctable backdrop to Duleep Singh’s tale. Am I to muster sympathy for the utter lack of conviction of fifteen-year-old Duleep Singh? His dearth of Gur-Sikh resolve reveals how impoverished and far-removed from Gur-Sikhi Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his family had become. And eventually, they paid for it.

Overall, the director and the actors needed to invest more deeply into understanding the protagonist, the times and circumstances in which he lived, and the people in his life. I am certain that this film will inspire other filmmakers to portray Sikh legends whose contributions and perseverance are perhaps unparalleled in the annals of world history. Attention to the smallest details are paramount when directing period pieces. The film bets heavily on the legend long-dead and buried to carry this film, but fails to pay attention to the details that would have carried the day for it. The filmmakers relied a little too much on the legend of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the son of the Lion of the Lahore Circus. The movie was supposed to be about Duleep, and not by him.

By way of conclusion, I urge every Indo-Pakistani Punjabi in particular, and every South Asian history-lover in general, to watch the film at least once. For all of the film’s shortcomings, it is paramount that we encourage all efforts, big and small, to tell the story of our legends.

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