Ras Siddiqui in conversation with Kavi Raz, Writer and Director, The Black Prince.
RS: “The Black Prince” is based on the little-known life of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the youngest son of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The world knows little about him or his life. What perked your interest in doing a film about him?
KR: That’s precisely the reason for me to take up this film. The subject was fascinating; I felt it was a story that needed to be told. During Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, Lahore was the seat of perhaps the most powerful kingdom in the world. It was progressive, modern, and wealthy. The army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was commanded by great generals that included Europeans, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. It was a secular place. It flourished not just on the might of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his General’s swords, but on his astute thinking and political foresight. It’s a story that is very relevant today and should be a case study for religious figures, politicians and thinkers. It was a powerful, just and harmonious kingdom.
RS: The movie has been shown at many film festivals, including at Cannes and has received great reviews. It is slated for wide release in the United States on July 21, 2017. What are your expectations from its release compared to another movie you made earlier – “The Gold Bracelet” (2006)?
KR: This new movie – The Black Prince has received praise from the public and critics. On IMDB and Facebook, we have one of the highest ratings possible. It’s a true and very passionately told story that I feel will connect with all types of audiences. The Gold Bracelet was also very well received. Like The Black Prince it won many awards. However, at that time, I could not manage a much wider release for the film. But now things have changed a lot. Both stories are as relevant today as they were during the times that they are set in. The stories are either based on or inspired by true events in our history. Both are emotional journeys of men who aspired to live truthful lives with the fear of God in their hearts.
RS: It is somewhat rare to a see a movie on a Punjabi in the English language. Will you be releasing it in Punjabi and Hindi at a later date?
KR: Punjab has a very rich and eventful history. So much has happened across the lands of modern-day Punjab. There are so many stories to be told about the land and people of this great region. And I refer to Punjab on both sides of the border. Like a painting, each tale dictates its own canvas. It’s up to the artiste to choose the right one and justify the story being told.
Initially we were thinking of just making the film in Punjabi. I made the choice to shoot it in English. I wanted to share this powerful story with a much larger audience across the board. It deserved a much wider canvas. It’s an epic story that needed to be told with a larger than life mindset. It’s being released in English, Hindi and Punjabi. There is even talk of doing a Spanish language release. And who knows, hopefully it will continue its worldwide journey in other languages as well.
RS: The powerful female character older Maharani Jindan Kaur in the film is played by screen legend Shabana Azmi. Not only is she a great actress playing a strong mother figure in this movie but she is also a progressive political figure in India. Did the role fall right into place for her?
KR: Shabana Azmi is a delight to work with. She brings so much experience to the sets. But more than anything else, it’s her willingness to challenge herself and take things to the next level that is admirable. She was aware that I am an actor who knew my craft well. This made it so much easier to communicate my thoughts with her. She also speaks Punjabi in the film, a language that she is not completely familiar with. Her character is a multi-layered voice in the film. And she delights us with an amazing performance which could easily stand out as one of the highlights of her lengthy career.
RS: Both the leading man in this movie Satinder Sartaaj and an important supporting actor Rup Magon (of JoSH) also happen to be great singers. Is this just a coincidence or can we also expect some songs or music in this movie?
KR: The casting of two singers is just a coincidence. Both have done an amazing job in their respective roles. There are a couple of songs by Sartaaj used sparingly in the background. The film is very much a Hollywood film in style, tempo and treatment. It does not have any of the elements of a typical Bollywood film. However, at the same time it’s very much a commercial film with humor, pathos and drama. Something for everyone.
RS: The Kohinoor Diamond that we have heard so much about also plays a powerful symbolic role in the movie. Are we going to see a rekindling of the controversy as to who its rightful owner should be today?
KR: The Kohinoor diamond does figure in the story and it does raise some questions that can be debated. I do hope it starts a dialogue and gives the iconic diamond a voice to tell its story. I am working on a documentary on the Kohinoor and hope to further enlighten people about its origin and journey. In our research, we have discovered some very interesting facts that will throw light on the controversy and hopefully there will be a resolution of some sort. (though I highly doubt that that will ever happen.)
RS: Punjabi history should be a gold mine for future English films. Do you have any other similar projects in mind after this one?
KR: Yes, Punjab is indeed a gold mine for great and epic stories to be brought to the silver screen. I have explored many subjects and have settled on something that has been very close to my heart for many years. In fact, I was initially introduced to it when I first arrived here as a young lad from England. It’s a story of India’s independence movement that has its roots right here on North American soil. I will be officially announcing the project after the release of “The Black Prince.” It will be made into an epic film and a television series that has been shot across several countries and will feature talent from Hollywood, Britain, Canada, India and Pakistan.
RS: “There is a lion that sleeps in the heart of that boy,” is a line that has been used to promote this film. The last Sikh Maharajah ended up waking up the lion within him with dire consequences. Does this movie expose colonialism in its exploitative form?
KR: That line is a reference to Maharaja Duleep Singh’s bearing. He was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest son born from his favorite queen, Rani Jindan. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was known as the “Lion of Punjab” for his fearless zeal on and off the battle field. The film is not so much about the colonization of India and Punjab but more about what effects that had on the young boy, the future king of the kingdom of Punjab. It’s about his psychological journey to reconnect with his true bearing and his fight for the freedom of his people and consequentially the Independence of India.
RS: Where does Kavi Raz really belong- Hollywood or Bollywood?
KR: When I decided to become an actor, the only place I could think of was Hollywood. I grew up watching both Hollywood and Bollywood films. I loved Westerns and was a huge fan of their epic look and narrative style. Even though I watched a lot of Bollywood films and was somewhat familiar with the industry, I never really thought about working in India. I did take a trip early on in my career to Mumbai and found it did not suit my temperament. Even though now things are a lot different and I do look forward to doing a film there some day. Who knows? Maybe it will be a typical Bollywood masala film with a generous touch of Hollywood. I have recently directed a couple of Punjabi films. And I do see myself making Hindi films in the very near future. I am open to the opportunity. However, Hollywood is in my blood and this is who I am.
RS: There was once a young man in San Jose, California who dreamt of becoming an actor and a field hockey player. I met you through our mutual friend over 40 years ago (we are exposing our age here). You have already made quite an impact by being one of the pioneers among South-Asians to break into acting on a regular TV show in America (in the series St. Elsewhere) plus a great deal more since then. But did you ever get a chance to play much field hockey?
KR: Yes, I had a dream and I followed it. I left everything and headed out to Hollywood. I never looked back and remained true to my dream and passion. Sports has always been a part of my life. I played field hockey, soccer, volleyball and kabaddi. Field Hockey was everything to me back then. The hockey stick and the ball became an extension of who I was and what I felt inside. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much scope for the sport here in America. I captained the American national team, but we hardy had any international matches. Exposure here was so limited. By the time the Olympics rolled around I was busy in my acting career and could not devote time to the sport. Due to old injuries that are taking their toll on the body now, I don’t get to play hockey. But my passion for the game is alive and well.
RS: Thank You.
Some concluding thoughts from Ras Siddiqui: “The Black Prince” is a film that we should make an effort to see. Maharajah Ranjit Singh was certainly the “Lion of the Punjab” and this film is about his youngest son, Maharajah Duleep Singh. The British Empire is no more, but its legacy is rich with a number of historical tales. “The Black Prince” or what one can call “The Tale of the Lion Cub” is one very small slice of India’s colonial past. And from what I do know about Kavi Raz, he is not someone who will “whitewash” it just to make it more palatable to western audiences.