The true story of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab, is one that deserves to be told and which millions of Sikhs have been demanding for years, and yet this cramped, uneasy biopic from Kavi Raz doesn’t do this ‘Black Prince’ justice.
Headlined by poet and singer Satinder Sartaj, who can’t make his discomfort and inexperience work in his favour, it’s a flawed and sometimes deceptively-scripted affair, notable as a rare American/UK/Indian co-production, for a few supporting performances, and for its cynical view of the British and Christianity.
Awkward opening montages of power struggles and violent overthrows fling us into the deep end (and also demonstrate that, it seems, none of this was actually filmed in India), and there’s a great deal of rushed information imparted about the cruel colonising forces and how the young Duleep was seized from his family and forcibly exiled to England. We’re then introduced to him in the 1860s, as he’s lectured about God and social etiquette by his guardian Dr. Login (Jason Flemyng) and chats with Queen Victoria (Amanda Root, rather less severe than the real thing), who liked him very much despite the fact that she also thought that British rule in India was a good thing.
Duleep is respectful to Login and friends, but longs to see his real mother, and when he’s finally permitted to bring her to England, she is revealed as elderly and sickly but nevertheless snidely funny. Shabana Azmi (from Indian cinema’s ‘New Wave’) steals the show as she insults everyone in subtitled Punjabi. She insists that he return to India and fight the British. We’re eventually shown, in somewhat fudged fashion, how Duleep was alienated from both cultures, and reminded how powerful similar tales such as Lawrence Of Arabia and Dances With Wolves truly are.
Flemyng and Root are only fair here and no less than ‘70s pop icon David (Rock On) Essex hams it up in a bit as Colonel Hurbon, but perhaps the biggest problem is Sartaj, who tries to seem spiritually torn and brooding, yet mostly comes across as emotionally constipated. He isn’t helped by director Raz either, who’s not above omitting a few important details (like how Queen Victoria was godmother to several of Duleep’s kids) and who weirdly manages to make this movie about a man trying to rediscover and understand his true Indian origins feel so bizarrely un-Indian.
Rated MA. The Black Prince is in cinemas now