'The Black Prince'
‘The Black Prince’ thoughtfully explores a forgotten (yet important) piece of colonial history. Written and directed with sincerity by star Kavi Raz, it’s clearly a passion project for the actor-turned-filmmaker with some moving moments and important messages to impart. Unfortunately, it was also produced for less than a tenth of the required budget, and as a result often feels more like a film school assignment than a proper feature.
The story is a true one. The subject is Duleep Singh (Satinder Sartaaj), an Indian prince who was adopted and indoctrinated by the British Empire in the 19th Century. This was done with typical British passive aggression and complete dismissal of other cultures. Singh was raised by a wealthy family and offered a life of privilege in Britain. His life was pleasant enough, but he was never allowed to learn of his true culture or heritage. That wasn’t great given that Singh was the last maharaja of the Sikh empire and destined to be the last king of Punjab. Compared to that, a comfy upper class existence on the Scottish countryside doesn’t sound so great, even if the Queen takes special interest in joining you for regular tea time. At 20, he’s granted permission to return to India and meet his mother (Shabana Azmi). Once she has the boy’s ear, she lets him know of his true lineage, faith and destiny. His mere presence in the country stirs up the presence of Sikh soldiers, and so the frightened English return him to the moors.
Singh returns to England a changed man. He’s determined to return home and claim his throne, despite the English government’s refusal to allow that to happen for fear of losing the Indian chapter of the British empire. That leads Singh to seek asylum in various countries, meeting other rebels and radicals, developing a desire to lead and, tragically, never accomplishing his dream.
It’s a heartbreaking story and a dark chapter of history rarely discussed. What’s nice about Raz’s approach as a writer is that he doesn’t go out of his way to demonize the British too overtly. Although they frequently say and do horrible things, they aren’t cartoons. The reality of this tragedy is more complicated and, as a result, much more unsettling and fascinating.
Performances are quite strong throughout. Satinder Sartaaj grounds and holds the film together impressively in the lead role, especially given that the musician/poet had never acted before. Shabana Azmi is both inspiringly strong and wryly funny as his mother, while Amanda Root’s Queen Victoria finds the right balance of loving friendship and dismissive racism. Raz works well with the performers, casting everyone appropriately and using them brilliantly. His script has surprising depth that he consistently mines with the performers. The trouble is that his screenplay is just a little too ambitious for its own good.
Condensing decades of complicated history into a tight two hours, ‘The Black Prince’ frequently feels either too rushed through historical montage or too placid thanks to long expository dialogue scenes. Too much historical legwork is required to tell the tale and it frequently feels like a turgid information overload. Even worse, Raz clearly didn’t have the money or time to deliver the historical epic in his imagination. Battle scenes feel awkwardly small. Sets are often street corners, alleyways or small rooms that may be period appropriate but lack the visual scale the film needs to flourish. Everything feels small, claustrophobic and, worst of all, amateurish at times. On a technical level, the production just isn’t up to snuff for a work of this genre.
That’s really a shame because the slice of history Raz explores is fascinating, important and sadly forgotten. When the scenes are small enough for him to stage properly, the material has great potency and power. I’s sad to see that good work undermined by sequences the filmmakers couldn’t afford to execute properly. This could have been a powerful and important movie destined for an awards season track. Instead, it’s just a mild curiosity piece for those interested in the history. This film should have been so much more, and likely was on the page before money got in the way of imagination.