Hollywood film The Black Prince that is based on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh aims to dispel the myths surrounding his life, as not much is known to the general public. Making this film has been a difficult yet immensely satisfying journey for its writer and director Kavi Raz. Unlike others who saw just tragedy in the life of Punjab’s last king, the internationally renowned actor, writer, producer and director Raz could see the heroics in the Maharaja’s failures. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Los Angeles-based Raz shares everything about the journey of The Black Prince.

Director Kavi Raz

Director Kavi Raz 

What was the inspiration behind making a film on Punjab’s last Sikh Prince?

Duleep Singh was crowned King of Punjab at the age of five. He did become the last ruling monarch of the Sikh kingdom. In a powerful scene in the film he declares, “I am not a Prince”. I believe it was destiny.

The idea of making this film was floating around Hollywood and was eventually picked up by Brillstein Entertainment Partners to produce. I was called in by them to discuss the project with the possibility of writing the script. I had prepared myself for the meeting and was able to impress upon them that I was the right choice to pen this story. My screenplay was received with overwhelming appreciation.  That, in turn, created the opportunity for me to be hired as the director of the film.

I was drawn to the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh immediately. Amidst his tragedy I found, love, compassion, heroism and humor. I saw the possibilities that I believe others had missed in the past.  There were a few filmmakers who tried to make this film before but shied away when all they could see was the tragedy of his life. They could not see the heroics in his failures. His real life emotional journey to me was much more compelling than any drama I could have conjured up on my own. The moment I started reading about his life, my focus immediately went to the core of the boy king. His eternal, emotional well. I was then able to look beyond the historical facts and delve into his psychic, his inner being. I wasn’t just interested in what was on the surface but what was under the façade. I started to peel away the layers of superficiality thrust upon him by the British and get to the heart and soul of the character.

You have showcased a time period starting from Duleep’s childhood to his death at the age of 55.  How did you manage to sum up the story in three hours?

That was the biggest challenge. The general public is not really aware of the truth about Maharaja Duleep Singh’s life and many myths about him have spread over the years. We wanted to dispel those wrong notions. I wanted to show the truth. The only way I felt I could accomplish that was to cover his entire journey. There are periods in his life, which from a story telling point would appear fairly dull. Particularly the time when he got married and fathered several children. So, I made a creative choice, not to dwell too much on that. We do have a longer version of the story in a 4-part miniseries, which will be released at a later date on television and other digital platforms.

Also, how did you segregate which parts of the Prince’s life to show and which to omit?

Every journey has highs and lows; moments of triumph and moments of failures. Times of contemplation and times of decisive stance. Little moments that give way to more pronounced periods. Moments that change our future and shape our destiny. In telling the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, I looked for those moments. I focused on the times that molded his fate. One of the most important things in shaping a character is to find or create his need. What is it that your protagonist wants? And what stands in his way of achieving that?

Maharaja Duleep Singh’s need changed over time. From his personal needs to regaining his kingdom and then freedom for India.  A dramatic growth in his character. To me, that was sheer drama. And that’s what I went for in telling his story.

Shabana Azmi in The Black Prince

Shabana Azmi in The Black Prince

It is a 150-year-old story. What were your reference points while writing and shooting the film? What was your primary source of research?

There are several books and articles written about Maharaja Duleep Singh. Most of the material is from the British point of view and only enforces the myths and half-truths about his life.

I did not rely on any one particular book to base my screenplay on, but consulted several sources and finally drew my own conclusions. As I said earlier, I was more interested in what he must have felt, than just historical facts.

The Black Prince is said to be based on the emotional bond Duleep Singh developed with Queen Victoria and later with his mother Jindan. Does the movie explore the traumas or emotional turmoil that Punjab’s last Prince went through?

That is very much an important part of the film and deals with it in a very subtle and astute manner. What I show in the film are the different dynamics of his relationship with the two women. One a powerful queen, who showered him with the love of a mother and the other a deposed, yet stoically proud queen who seeks the love of a lost son.

He was taken away from Rani Jindan at the age of seven. He hardly felt the love of his real mother. When he meets her after fourteen years, he really does not know how to connect with her. This gives us some of the most subtle and poignant moments in the film.

Tell us more about the casting criteria – choosing Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaaj, legendary actress Shabana Azmi along with well-known British actors in prominent roles.

I liked Sartaaj’s intelligence, hard work ethics and a willingness to go on this journey with me. I have been an actor in Hollywood for so many years. I knew I had a raw actor on my hands. I also knew that as long as I can make him understand what I was looking for, I could get the work out of him. I took baby steps with him first and won his trust. Once he realized that I knew my craft, it was smooth sailing from there on.

Shabana Azmi came on the project after reading the script. She loved the character of Maharani Jindan and plays it magnificently. Her performance is a major highlight of the film.

Many of the British actors such as Jason Flemyng, Amanda Root, David Essex and Keith Duffy all came to the project after reading the screenplay. Once we announced the project and my script was circulated amongst agents and managers, word quickly spread that it was a great piece of writing.  Actors actually started sending out feelers to us, wanting to be part of the project.

Satinder Sartaaj and Shabana Azmi

Satinder Sartaaj and Shabana Azmi

Though the film talks about a tale related to Punjab and England, it has been shot in England and Bikaner. What made you not shoot in Punjab when the industry is thriving here?

We wanted to shoot in Punjab, even contemplated shooting in Lahore. That idea was quickly dropped due to the uncertainty of the region. Our main crew was from Hollywood and we did not want to place them in any situation that would take them out of their comfort level.

Punjab, India was actually a major disappointment. We sent out a scouting crew to Punjab to find and secure locations. Unfortunately, they didn’t receive any welcoming gestures from government agencies or individuals who controlled historic locations. Also, Punjab has not maintained too many locations from that period. Bikaner served as the perfect alternative and was truly welcoming.

The Black Prince is not really being promoted as a Bollywood or a Pollywood film. It is being termed as a Hollywood film. Is it a deliberate call?

It is a Hollywood film. I have spent my entire career in Hollywood. This is where I learned my craft. Hollywood is where my roots are. There is nothing deliberate about that approach. I had set out to make a film as per my understanding and knowledge. And you will see that it is different. It does not look like a Bollywood or Pollywood film. It is very much a Hollywood film – in storytelling, making, look and subtlety of my approach to understanding and presenting the material. There is an intelligent and thoughtful procedure in my work.

Though it is the story of a Punjabi prince, what made The Black Prince a trilingual film?

I wanted this film to be accessible to a much wider audience, beyond our base Punjabi population. English is a widely acceptable language. It allows us to appeal to a universal audience. Slowly as the word spreads about the film, it is being embraced by non-Indians across the board. My hope is that it will continue to grow and spread like wildfire. That will allow me to tell more wonderful stories that are an important part of our history and the present.

On set picture

On the sets of Black Prince

It must have been a difficult subject to work on. What kind of a journey was this film? 

It was a very difficult journey, yet immensely satisfying. The hardest part was the writing phase. I have a tendency to invest myself emotionally into the subjects I write about. Therefore, it becomes a heart-wrenching process as I get deeper and deeper into the story. I basically take on the journey of the characters I write about. That’s the actor in me I guess.

Personally, I feel I learned a lot and saw this as part of my continued growth as a writer/director. Each film I do, teaches me something new. I am always learning and hungry for more.

The Western world was exposed to the works of Rabindranath Tagore for the first time through your theatre company Wandering Players’ Theatre Company. Tell us more about your life on stage? Would you like to explore any such story on reel?

Stage was an important part of my early growth. My very first performance was a lead in a play in my hometown of Hayward at the time. From then on, I was hooked and moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of the elusive dream – to become an actor in Hollywood.

I was introduced to Rabindranath Tagore through one of my acting teachers early on in my career in Hollywood. I was frustrated in the process of learning the craft of acting and not knowing where to go work-wise. She suggested I read Tagore. I started doing the rounds of libraries and book stores in Los Angeles and collected every book I could find by Tagore. I was fascinated and hooked to his writing. I performed several of his plays including a one-man show built around drama, poetry, dance, visual arts and music. It was such a learning experience. Embracing Tagore gave my life a direction and purpose. It was ironic that a Punjabi lad in America was the driving force to introduce Tagore to Western audiences.

Amya Chakravarti heard about my work in Los Angeles. He was Tagore’s last secretary and was a visiting professor in New York. He sent me a hand-written letter congratulating me and expressing his desire to meet me. It was a lifetime opportunity to meet a man who knew Tagore. We met in San Francisco outside a book store. He asked me to walk into the store with him. He purchased a copy of ‘Gitanjali’ and autographed it for me. My luck that day, the store had only one copy. One day I would love to make a film on one of Tagore’s story. Perhaps Kabuliwala, in English for an international audience. It’s a story of courage with a heart and raw emotions. It may go well in today’s world. I wish I knew Bengali. I have been told that Tagore is at a different level in the mother tongue.

Kavi Raj on the sets of The Black Prince

Kavi Raj on the sets of The Black Prince

Tell me about your journey so far as a writer, director, producer and actor. Having done several Hollywood projects, how has that influenced your understanding and working method as a director and actor?

I started my career in Hollywood as an actor. I was part of an award-winning and highly successful TV series called St. Elsewhere, with the likes of Denzel Washington and David Morse. I learned acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Institute. He was the teacher who taught legends like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and many others. I even had the opportunity to study with him. I also studied for my Master degree in theater arts at UCLA and Cal State Los Angeles. I was the first South Asian or even Middle Eastern actor to appear as a regular on a TV series in Hollywood. Since then I have appeared on hundreds of TV shows and films in Hollywood.

Writing was always a passion – a way to express my inner being and confront my demons. It’s a great cleansing process. It allows you to look at the world from varying perspectives without giving way to the rules and norms set by society. It’s the most freedom one can exercise without interfering with the lives of others. But, whether what you write is acceptable to others is a test of time. Just write what you feel and one day, it will find an ear, I believe.

I was drawn to directing during the process of my acting career. While on set, I would observe directors and the technicians at work. Even when my scenes were over, I would stay on the set and learn. Also, many of the plays I performed under The Wandering Players Theater Company, were directed by me. I had leaned the process of working with actors and guiding them through the exercise of creating their characters and bringing the story to life. My approach to the working process is very eternal. I work from within to create the exterior. This gives life to the story first and the form evolves from there. Just as it is in real life. The process of birth.