Satinder Sartaaj, who stars as the last King of Punjab in Black Prince, talks about his journey and the role

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Punjabi singer and poet, Satinder Sartaaj, stars in THE BLACK PRINCE as Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last King of Punjab. Making his acting debut, Sartaaj delivers a powerful, nuanced performance in the riveting drama—set in the 19th century—which relates the remarkable journey of a boy who was separated from his mother as a small child, exiled from his country, and forcibly sent to live in England as a teenager.

Directed by Kavi Raz and based on a true story, the film reveals a sensitive and intelligent young man who spends his youth immersed in British culture and forges a close relationship with Queen Victoria, but ultimately finds the strength to reconnect with his roots and his destiny. Battling to reclaim his kingdom and his heritage, Duleep faces the overpowering might of the British Empire. This is a story for our time, about an individual who displayed courage against all odds and who sacrificed everything in order to do what he believed was right.

Sartaaj’s 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 and actor is internationally recognized for his work promoting the Gurmukhi language, traditions and folk history.

Here is a Q/A with Sartaaj:

Q: How did you land the role?

A: “There are some major film producers from the Sikh community of America involved in the Hollywood film industry 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 in America’s Sikh community. People have commented that I bear a strong resemblance to Duleep Singh, in terms of skin color, eyes and height; everything matches, actually. So the producers thought I looked right to play the character and they called me to discuss the film. I went to Los Angeles and the first thing I told them was: ‘I am a non-actor. I am a poet and composer!’ They said, ‘But we know you can do it. You just have to learn acting and take classes,’ so I agreed and took acting classes in Mumbai. Then when we started making the film, I worked with a great acting/dialogue coach called Dee Cannon and it all went very well. I am so honored to have made this film.”

Q: What particularly interested you about this story?

A: “I was interested because my first love is history and architecture, and this was a history of my own culture so it was completely fascinating to me. I feel like an old soul! I am a poet, a composer, a singer and performer, and the story is so important to my community. In 2010, I went to England for the first time and someone gave me a history book about Maharajah Duleep Singh’s life from his point of view. So that was my first impression of who he was. I just started reading and learning about him at that time. You know, it feels like I was destined for this role. It is a very proud moment because it’s the 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 culture. It’s true that I hadn’t acted before but I am the type of person who is passionate and dedicated when I commit to something, and I really gave it 100 percent; I gave it my best. I cancelled my tours and shows. It was wonderful, a lovely experience. And it is interesting, the character’s mannerisms were close to mine; the character of the Maharajah was almost like me as well—not just in appearance. His way of talking is just like mine. I am very determined, and very stubborn sometimes—like him—so many things are similar about us. The story is very close to me.”

Q: Who was this man? What was he like?

A: “He was confused, suppressed and introverted as a young man. He didn’t show his pain but somehow when he met his mother, Rani Jindan (Shabana Azmi), he started to realize who he was and what his destiny was. When he understood about his father, his   kingdom, what had been lost and all about his religion, he became outspoken and brave. He changed and understood his responsibility. It is 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 in Elveden Estate in England (the 17 thousand-acre stately home in Suffolk, which he had owned – having bought the property in 1863).”

Q:  What were the challenges involved in taking on this role

A: “The biggest challenge for me was that I was new to the film industry, and to film shoots. Sometimes we would shoot the scenes out of sequence. That kind of thing is easy for experienced actors but for me as a newcomer, it was very hard to fit into his skin at different ages. Sometimes in the morning he was 53 and in the evening he was 33, so I had to change my body language and 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: “It was great because Kavi is an experienced actor himself and has spent 35 years in Hollywood, which really helped. I learned a lot from him and he knew how to help me create the character. I could ask him about the mood, the timing, so many things. I listened to him 100 percent. Well, actually we argued once or twice (laughs)! 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 than me, of course, and he taught me so well, in such a detailed way, so minutely, so beautifully. And he can speak Punjabi. He just told me, ‘Imagine if you were Duleep Singh, if you were actually there, if all this was happening to you, what would you do? What would you feel?’ So, that kind of direction helped me a lot, and I just tried to live the part as if I really were Duleep. And it was 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 asked, ‘Who is the lead?’ Then, she googled me and realized: ‘Okay, he’s a big, well-known guy in his community.’ 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, and I taught her Punjabi because her film dialogue is in Punjabi. Rani Jindan, the mother of the Black Prince, could not speak English so in the film, her entire dialogue is in Punjabi. It is authentic. I learned many things from Shabana. We became very friendly; she was so helpful to me.”

Q: Duleep had a strained relationship with his mother, didn’t he? Which was hardly surprising because he didn’t grow up with her.

A: “That’s right, because he met his mother after fourteen or fifteen long years apart so he didn’t recall her well. They were very different because by then he was so British and so spoiled. He didn’t remember her and he didn’t particularly like her when they met; he couldn’t relate to her. It wouldn’t have been realistic if they had hugged each other and cried. The way Kavi wrote the scene when they meet—and she doesn’t look at him—is very powerful.”

Q: I believe you are very close to your own mother?

A: “Oh yes. I am what I am because of my mother and because of her blessings.”

Q:  What was it like working with Amanda Root, who plays Queen Victoria?

A: “It was brilliant working with Amanda. She was very regal in character and off the set! We had a very good relationship. She would joke, copying my English, because my accent had a little Indian inflection, so there was a little cheekiness. Amanda is a great actress. Her nature is quite reserved; she is not that talkative but if I asked her something, she was so helpful and she loved to teach me.”

Q: You worked with another great British actor, Jason Flemyng, who plays Duleep’s guardian, Dr. John Login. 

A: “Jason was fantastic, so cool. Sometimes in the makeup room, he would play my songs and start dancing. And he is the funniest guy I’ve ever met. He would be standing behind the director and he would say: ‘Hey, is this your first film?’ I would reply, ‘Yes, Jason.’ He would say: ‘Oh, you’re lying. You’re too good!’ I would think, ‘Oh my God, really?’  I was so happy to hear that because it was a great compliment to receive from him. Sometimes he would give me advice and say, ‘Don’t listen to what everybody tells you about acting; do what you feel from inside.’”

Q: Duleep Singh is such an interesting man because he gave up his very luxurious life in England to seek justice didn’t he, in order to do the right thing?

A: “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, you do not consider him a hero, yet he was heroic. He died of a sickness, completely alone in a hotel in Paris. But the truth is, what could he do? He did his best. He left his astonishingly lavish lifestyle in England, the huge estate he owned, to fight British imperialism. He left his family; he left his kids, his wife, to do the right thing. What could he have done that would have been better than that? He was a real hero.”

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 he was a loser because it looked like 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 had to convert to Christianity. This film will show the Sikh community and the world who he really was. The film was researched very carefully and we found that much of the truth was buried by the British at the time. 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. They’re fascinated by it all.”

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’s a great journey, how he fought for his people. It’s a human story. Also, the story is still continuing 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 and inspiring in essence?

A: “It is 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 (human beings) will not behave that way again. I think it’s very relevant to things that are happening in the world today. People at screenings who are seeing the film have been so curious and they’re in love with Maharajah Duleep Singh’s story. Many people say it is life-changing.”

Q: You are clearly a natural on screen. Would you like to do more acting?

A: “I would love to make more films, although the procedure of filmmaking is quite different for me as a stage performer. As musicians, we do a performance and people   clap and it’s over and we move forward. But the filmmaking process is very long—it took four years of my life. But I love this kind of iconic, historic, role, and if there were an opportunity to do another one I would definitely do it.”

 

Q: It sounds like music is your first love.”

A: “Yes music definitely makes me happy. It makes me relax, physically. My happiest moments are when I am performing in front of an audience. That’s what I was born for. I think I’m gifted in the fields of poetry and music. During my childhood, I always used to sing, I would sing at school; on Saturdays I’d have singing sessions. Even when I wasn’t technically learning music, I used to sing. I think it was in my blood.”

Q: Duleep Singh was a man of integrity and courage. Do you personally relate to him and his qualities?

A: “I do. I think it is all about a state of mind. For the last few years, the quote that is my screenshot or screensaver on my computer reads: ‘Mindset is everything’.”

Q: What does that mean to you?

A: “It is about psychology, a way of life, your thoughts about life. It is basically about “Who am I?” and about asking questions like: ‘What should I do? What shouldn’t I do?’ I don’t know if I would have the courage and state of mind of Maharajah Duleep Singh, because his life wasn’t easy. He was incredible and so courageous.”

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 wanted to know how the ruling class was different. How did they rule and what were they like? I did a lot of research; I went to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. I found it all fascinating. I’m in love with history and heritage and old buildings. I am passionate about it. That’s actually my first love. So everywhere I went I touched everything—every brick, every stone on the buildings And then, when I saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond, I just felt something. I felt ‘Okay, this is our history. This came from our land.’ I was in England for 20 days and when I went back to India I wrote a song, which is the basic theme song of the film. Then amazingly, I found out about this film in 2013. Yet   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.”

Q:  What are your dreams and goals and who are your role models?

A: “I am loving Hollywood right now and I am just continuously watching Hollywood films and learning how the great actors work and how they get into the skin of their characters. There are so many actors I love. Ben Affleck is extremely fabulous. There are many actors I love in India but in Hollywood, my favorite actor is Brad Pitt. If I could just share three seconds of screen time with him, oh my God, that would be enough for me! And I would love to work with Steven Spielberg. That would be incredible. I’m dreaming very big.”

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