Among the media chosen for special screening at Cannes this year was a trailer of a biopic on a certain Victorian-era Punjabi royal whose exile and exposure to British culture at a young age fostered a profound sense of identity crisis in him, one that would consume him later. The Black Prince , a trilingual, is a Hollywood production with a Punjabi soul. Its release in July will come at a time when the cinema of Punjab is trying hard to move away and create an identity distinct from the Mumbai film industry. Among the ways Punjabi films have tried to do so is through their focus on historical figures. The biggest success story here is Chaar Sahibzaade (2014), an animated account of the life of Guru Gobind Singh and his four sons, which went on become the biggest blockbuster of the industry.
The Black Prince , by a British actor-director of Punjabi origin, Kavi Raz, is to be a bildungsroman of Duleep Singh (1838-1893), the youngest son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Enthroned as a child, exiled before he entered his teens and deracinated as an adolescent, Singh spent a major part of his life in Europe as a British subject. However, his soul remained that of a fallen royal, his thoughts oscillating between the comforts of England and a desire to regain his conquered kingdom.
Duleep Singh’s exile marked the end of the Sikh Empire which had achieved its zenith under Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early part of the 19th century. Extending from Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east, its fiercely independent nature was a hurdle in the East India Company’s attempts to colonise the entire subcontinent. Hence, it is natural that following the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, an ascendent British Empire seeking to seize more territory found a ready opportunity. When the 11-year-old Duleep Singh signed the Treaty of Lahore in 1849, forfeiting, among the rest, sovereignty and the Kohinoor diamond, it was ‘mission accomplished’ for the British, Punjab being among the last kingdoms to fall to the Empire.
There have been articles, books and documentaries — including by the BBC — on Duleep Singh. So, what’s left to explore for the big screen? The makers say they have focussed on two aspects of his life that could shine on celluloid: the emotional bond he developed with Queen Victoria and his later reunion with his mother, Jind Kaur.
The ambitious project also indicates that the lukewarm response to ChaarSahibzaade ’s sequel has not deterred Punjabi-origin makers from attempting historicals. Other figures on whom films are being made include Joginder Singh Sahnan, awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his contribution to the India-China War in 1962, and Hari Singh Nalwa, a commander under Ranjit Singh. In the footsteps of films on historical events such as Punjab 1984 and Chauthi Koot , these efforts show that when it comes to forging individuality, history provides great material to the cinema of Punjab.