Queen Victoria once painted a charming watercolor of the young Maharajah Duleep Singh carefully adjusting a child’s turban on the head of her son Arthur. Victoria was no artist, but the sketch delights thanks to the intimacy between the two royals, one Indian, the other British, and speaks of the familial affection the Queen felt for the man whose throne in Punjab her government had confiscated. Unfortunately, where the illustration offers a window onto a relationship, the new biopic on Duleep, “The Black Prince,” provides no similarly insightful rewards.
Designed as a Quality (with a capital “Q”) production demonstrating the Maharajah’s gradual awakening to his Indian heritage after years in exile acting the British squire, director-writer Kavi Raz’s oh-so-simple take on a deeply contradictory character turns a fascinating historical figure into a sad and dully predictable footnote. Clunkily scripted and generically pretty in a Stately Home porn kind of way, the film is vaguely accurate in its sequence of events but falls completely flat on personal relationships, psychology and political undercurrents — in other words, the stuff that makes history come alive. Sikh nationalists and those looking for a standard-issue confirmation of Britain’s tragically misguided Victorian-era Indian policies are a built-in audience, but beyond that, it’s hard to imagine who Brillstein Entertainment expects will be buying tickets, since “The Black Prince” is the sort of film that quickly winds up as an in-flight entertainment afterthought.
The usual potted history narration and montage introduces Duleep’s early years: Proclaimed maharajah of Punjab in 1843 after four chaotic years following his predecessor Ranjit Singh’s death, the five-year-old ruler didn’t last long on the throne. Twenty-nine months later, British troops were in his capital and he was soon deposed, all part of Britain’s plan for complete control of the sub-continent. Placed under the care of Dr. John Login (Jason Flemyng), Duleep was baptized a Christian and finally sent into exile at the age of 15. “The Black Prince” picks up the story in London, with Queen Victoria (Amanda Root) treating the Maharajah (singer-songwriter Satinder Sartaaj) with the warmth of a kindly though infantilizing aunt.
Duleep’s English years were gilded yet circumscribed: He was a king without a country, given a sizeable pension and treated like nobility, but Her Majesty’s government sought to sever all but the trappings of his Sikh ties. Once in his early twenties, however, the Maharajah insisted on going to India and bringing his mother back with him to England; Rani Jinda’n (Shabana Azmi) was a formidable presence, pouring her ambition and bitterness into her son’s receptive ears. Raz’s script paints Jinda’n as the person who sowed discontent into Duleep’s heretofore accepting manner, which may well be the case, though in truth he continued to enjoy the perks of an English country gentleman with a large estate.
Raz piles on the palace views, never missing an opportunity to shoot sumptuous interiors, as if the settings could somehow tell us something about the people in them. In the right hands they probably could, but the garden façades and salons hung with Old Masters are lensed as if they’re interchangeable period rooms in a freshly dusted museum: People pass through but they don’t leave a mark (Duleep’s stately pile in Suffolk, Elveden, wasn’t used). The same can be said for many side characters, such as the Maharajah’s first wife Bamba Müller (Sophie Stevens), whom he found in a missionary school in Cairo after taking his mother’s cremated remains to India.
Fast-forward 13 years and Duleep’s sense of exile has grown so great that he decides to cast aside Christianity and embrace his Sikh heritage. Suddenly he’s in Aden and then Paris, scheming in a dark cellar with Irish thugs, Russian revolutionaries and a duplicitous American in scenes that look like unused footage from one of those historicizing Stella Artois commercials. Dreams of convincing the Tsar to help fund his return to the Punjab throne come to naught, and in the end, the disappointed, sad Maharajah has a last meeting with Queen Victoria in Grasse, where she apologizes for having ruined his life.
That part is pure fantasy, by the way. Victoria always maintained an enormous degree of warmth and understanding for Duleep (just read her journals and letters), but apologizing for the British annexation of India wasn’t a line she would ever have used. But it does suit Raz’s simplistic narrative, devoid of the contradictions that make the exiled Maharajah so intriguing. The real Duleep was certainly haunted by the violence of his childhood and must have felt like a man stuck between two worlds, but did his desire to resume the Sikh throne stem from a desire to liberate his people, or was he simply tired of being a king in name only? At the end of his life, fat and partly paralyzed (not how he’s depicted here), it was Duleep who begged Victoria for forgiveness which, in all the self-assurance of queenship, she generously gave.
Though her role hardly captures the captivatingly complex qualities of Rani Jinda’n, powerhouse actress Azmi is the one performer to leave a mark. Sartaaj, in his acting debut, is a pleasant presence, but his wide, gentle eyes and open face convey about as much depth as the standard-issue script. Visuals are full of sweeping pans, ensuring all those lovely National Trust properties are seen to good effect, though one wishes every scene didn’t have to be accompanied by overblown orchestrations.