The Black Prince: A new film brings the story of Punjab's last king, Maharaja Duleep Singh, to life

Maharaja Duleep Singh's story is one of tremendous loss: the loss of his family, throne, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, his country. A new film, The Black Prince, examines the life of this last king of Punjab.

Rohini Nair May 06, 2017 12:46:17 IST
The Black Prince: A new film brings the story of Punjab's last king, Maharaja Duleep Singh, to life

'On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh, was ushered into the Shish Mahal, the magnificent mirrored throne room at the centre of the great fort of Lahore. 

The boy's father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was long dead, and his mother, Rani Jindan, had been forcibly removed some time earlier, and incarcerated in a palace outside the city. Now Duleep Singh found himself surrounded by a group of grave-looking men, wearing red coats and plumed hats, who talked among themselves in an unfamiliar language. In the terrors of the minutes that followed — what he later remembered as the 'crimson day' — the frightened but dignified child finally yielded to months of British pressure. Within minutes, the flag of the Sikh Khalsa was lowered and the British colours run up above the gatehouse of the fort. 

The document signed by the ten-year-old maharaja, later known as the Treaty of Lahore, handed over to a private corporation, the East India Company, great swathes of the richest land in India... At the same time, Duleep Singh was induced to hand over to Queen Victoria the single most valuable object not just in Punjab, but arguably in the entire sub-continent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light.'

In their telling of the sweeping story of the 'most infamous diamond in the world' (published by Juggernaut Books in December 2016), William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recounted the moment that the Koh-i-Noor passed out of Indian hands into English ones. While nearly every royal owner of the diamond seems to have attracted more than their fair share of misfortune, ill luck, illness, and death, the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh — the last king of Punjab, and the Koh-i-Noor's last Indian owner, seems particularly poignant.

Unlike some of the gem's previous owners, Duleep Singh was neither maimed, nor tortured, nor even killed. But in his lifetime, he experienced a tremendous amount of loss.

The Black Prince A new film brings the story of Punjabs last king Maharaja Duleep Singh to life

Maharaja Duleep Singh in the 1860s

The loss of his family, the loss of his throne (which he ascended at the age of five, after the previous claimants, including his half-brothers, died under mysterious circumstances), the loss of his kingdom and the loss of his famed possession the Koh-i-Noor (signed away as part of the Lahore Treaty), the loss of his home country and everything familiar — and all this, before he turned 15.

With his mother, the Rani Jindan, banished into exile, Duleep Singh was raised by his British guardian Dr Login. At the age of 15, he was sent to England, where he became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and later converted to Christianity. He was a star at court, labelled 'The Black Prince of Perthshire' — although, more than a decade later, that narrative began to unravel. After many attempts, Duleep Singh was finally reunited with his mother, rediscovered his Sikh faith, started questioning how the British had taken away what was rightfully his, and demanded recompensation.

By the time he died — penniless and alone — in Paris, in 1893, Duleep Singh had gone from being touted as an Imperial success story to a rebellious thorn in the side of the British. His remains were interred in Britain, something he had reportedly expressed his opposition to, during his lifetime.

Such a tragic story lends itself to re-tellings, and Maharaja Duleep Singh's life has inspired many. (Apart from the Koh-i-Noor book), Anita Anand chronicled his daughter, the Princess Sophia's journey; The Singh Twins (Amrit and Rabindra) painted a portrait of the 'Black Prince' that attempted to redress some of the Imperial 'co-opting' of his narrative; a biopic — Maharaja Duleep Singh: A Monument Of Injustice — was made in 2007.

And now, a new film — written and directed by Kavi Raz, and produced by Brillstein Entertainment — is also offering a fresh look at Duleep Singh's life, as also his legacy.

Titled The Black Prince, Raz's film traces how the Maharaja was torn between two cultures; comprehensively detailing his early life, his struggle to reconnect with his past and faith, and also, in later years, his valiant fight to free his people and raise the voice of India's Independence.

Raz answered a few questions for Firstpost, about The Black Prince:

What about the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, as writer and filmmaker, did you find most compelling?

The story of Maharajah Duleep Singh is relevant today as it was 150 years ago. At its core, this is the story of a man trying to find himself, reconnect with his true identity and faith. As the world is becoming more and more divisive so are factions within our society looking for their own identity. The Sikh nation is good example of that. They want to remain true to who they are and not be overwhelmed by larger factors surrounding their existence. Maharajah Duleep Singh's story is also a reminder of Kingdom of Punjab, Khalsa Raj. It was glorious period in the history of Punjab. For me as a filmmaker, therefore, it was important to tell the story.

The Black Prince A new film brings the story of Punjabs last king Maharaja Duleep Singh to life

A still from The Black Prince

What were the challenges of bringing this story to the big screen?

We wanted to tell the story that represented that period in history and we also wanted to tell... the truth. Not just the history that we have been taught from a one-sided perspective. Duleep Singh has been the most misunderstood and misrepresented figures of Sikh history. We wanted to get to the truth to dispel the many notions that surround his story. Also the vast expanse of his life presented a challenge to us in terms of what story to tell. We wanted to be comprehensive in representing his life, that was a challenge that we met creatively and with the great deal of passion.

Among the cast of The Black Prince are the poet-singer Satinder Sartaaj and veteran actress Shabana Azmi. What was it like working with them, and what did they bring to their portrayals of Maharaja Duleep Singh and Rani Jindan, respectively?

The dynamics of working with these two individuals represented a huge contrast. Satinder Sartaaj appearing in his first film, tackling a very complex character, brought his raw energy and tremendous intelligence to the set. He was a perfect newcomer for me to work with and mould into the character of Maharaja Duleep Singh... On the other hand, Shabana Azmi essaying the role of Maharani Jindan brought with her, her tremendous experience, monumental talent and iconic presence. Being an actor myself, with her I was able to relate at a very different level and draw out perhaps one of the finest performances of our careers, a performance we are all proud of and has been winning accolades everywhere.

What were the source materials you relied on when writing the script for The Black Prince

The producer of the film has done very detailed research on the subject for that period. His research shattered many myths, corrected many historical misconceptions and enlightened me, presenting new facts. For example, it is widely believed that Duleep Singh died as a Christian. However, our research strongly supports that he indeed died as a Sikh. Another thing we discovered was that he raised a voice for India's Independence and set out to align forces across the subcontinent to fight against the British. You will see this in the film.

To you, what are the most interesting/tragic aspects of Maharaja Duleep Singh's life?

The tragedy of his life can be measured at two levels. If you look at the physical aspect, he was a king of the richest and most powerful kingdom and yet he died, lonely and penniless. If you look at the spiritual aspect of his life, no matter how hard the English tried to mold him, change him, squash his faith he embraced Sikhism and breathed his last uttering the words of his Guru, a free and a wealthy man... Chronologically speaking, the voice of India's Independence raised by Maharaja Duleep Singh was then embraced by the mostly Sikh-led Gadar Movement and followed by the Babbar Akali movement, leading up to India's Independence.

The debate around the reparation of the Koh-i-Noor to India has reared its head again. What are your thoughts on the issue?

The Koh-i-Noor diamond was the personal property of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Our in-depth research shows that he had bought this diamond from Shah Suja. Further, our film shows that the diamond was not gifted to Queen Victoria, but was rather deceptively taken from the young Maharaja Duleep Singh.


The Black Prince releases worldwide on 21 July 2017, and will be screened in India in English, Punjabi and Hindi. Will it illuminate new chapters from Maharaja Duleep Singh's life?

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