Kavi Raz: On A Warpath To Tell Powerful Stories From Sikh History

Kavi Raz: On A Warpath To Tell Powerful Stories From Sikh History

by Sumati Mehrishi - Jul 8, 2017 10:26 AM +05:30 IST
Kavi Raz: On A Warpath To Tell Powerful Stories From Sikh HistoryThe Black Prince
  • The Black Prince, the very first film in English about the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last King of Punjab, is expanding its reach and audience across new territories.

    Director Kavi Raz says that what we have been reading and believing as facts so far, about the maharaja, has been written by a British pen with Indian ink.

Los Angeles-based filmmaker, actor, director and writer, Kavi Raz, picked a pivotal piece of Sikh history, the life story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, for his film, The Black Prince. It was an emotional journey to the core of a life, a pilgrimage to Punjab and the familiar depths of identity. The film will be in theatres on July 21.

For research on the Maharaja, Raz dug deeper and deeper into text. The digging continued until he reached the surface below ink. With immense determination, he reached the underlying text and immersed himself in the subject. Under the dry layers of text and material, wrapped in the fragrance of soil, were the blood, flesh and breath of a poignant story. The story of the Black Prince. It was a journey that became personal.

This Hollywood production was recently premiered in Birmingham. Earlier, it was well-received at Cannes, especially at the Indian panorama, where the release of the trailer caused “quite a stir”. Filmed across the United Kingdom and in India, The Black Prince, the very first in English about the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last King of Punjab, is expanding its reach and audience across new territories.

In an e-interaction, Raz tells Sumati Mehrishi that what we have been reading and believing as facts so far, about Maharaja Duleep Singh, has been written by a British pen with Indian ink.

What prompted you to write The Black Prince?

Initially, it was the desire to tell a great story. But then, it became a personal journey for me. As an actor, writer and director, I am always drawn to material of this nature, where the central protagonist in the story goes through a roller coaster of emotions and vacillating moments in his or her life that shape their destiny. It gives me the opportunity to explore more of myself in the journey of that character. That is when it becomes my journey as well. It helps me towards my own growth as a story teller, as well as my personal amelioration.

More importantly, it was the opportunity to tell the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last king of the mighty kingdom of Punjab. It is a story that’s long overdue and needed to be told. It is part of Sikh history that no one talks about. I took that as a challenge.

India and the United Kingdom are celebrating 70 years of relations. Will The Black Prince find its space in the nostalgia?

I believe The Black Prince will be very well accepted by the British (general) audience and powers in charge. I do hope it takes its rightful place in telling of British-India history and their long-standing relationship.

When I shot this film, most of my crew members were British and of course, the amazing British actors, who are part of the ensemble cast. Their overwhelming support in telling the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh from his perspective was truly encouraging and a sign that England is ready to accept responsibility for its past and in some form or another, make amends and peace with its former colonies.

Tell us about the research, challenges and changes that went into the final draft.

Tremendous amount of research was conducted before I started writing the script. Challenge was finding the heart and soul of the character. Nothing of substance was out there about Duleep Singh that even remotely suggested how he felt, dealt with his demons, failures and victories. To me, that was a telling point about his life, more than mere facts of history. My search was for that elusive core of his life. I had to dig for it in the underlying text. I had to invest deeper into his life and imagine what it must have been like for him. There is material written about that era and Maharaja Duleep Singh, but it is all, basically, from the British point of view and very fact based. Nothing about the inner being of a man who went through so much in life.

My first draft was written relatively in a short time. Once I had the basic outline of the story, I wanted to tell. There were a few revisions, but the first draft remained fairly unchanged. Just minor polishes to give the story a smoother flow and subtler text.

Years of research go into the film. Almost everything written on Maharaja Duleep Singh is very fact-based. There is nothing out there that talks about his heart and soul. I was making a film, not another documentary. I had to pour over volumes of literature to etch out my protagonist, create his inner workings from my conclusions of his cut-and-dry life as found in literature.

Did the existing narrative influence or transform your storytelling?

What is written is from a very singular point of view. It almost appears as a propaganda narrative. Reading what was like a broken record, to me, became a challenge to dig deeper and find his perspective. We must understand that most of his life was lived under the influence of others. His every move was controlled and manipulated. But, underneath all that, there was a man struggling to be himself. To find and manifest his own journey, I had to find that point of view to tell his story.

Did you seek help in research from Indian institutions and experts?

No, I did not connect with anyone there. I only started to hear from certain sources in India once the film was already in production.

Again, most of the historians, even in India, are pretty much following the same narrative as what was written initially. I did not want to take a very bookish approach to bring Maharaja Duleep Singh’s story to the screen. I wanted to give it a heart and a soul. I did not want to be a mere narrator of a great epic. I wanted to give it its own life. Its own body and breath.

What troubles the Maharaja and what bears heavily on his heart?

A troubled soul. That’s who Maharaja Duleep Singh was. He spends most of life struggling to establish his own identity. To find his inner being. And upon the realisation that he was a king of a powerful Kingdom, his fight to regain the lost glory of a bygone era, against a powerful force, the British Empire. Indeed, a King without a Kingdom. In all his growing up years, he never knew the love of a father or mother. Only the hollow feelings of strangers thrust upon him in the ruse to appear genuine and sincere.

Was it difficult portraying his emotional strife in words and in direction?

Portraying his emotional strife in words was not difficult once I got a sense of who he was. The words to utter and convey the physical aspects of the characters and story were chosen very carefully by me. The film has some of the finest dialogue you will ever hear from the screen.

However, I had an actor on my hands who was facing the camera for the first time and portraying a major role. I have been an actor for a number of years in Hollywood. I know the workings of the actor’s mind and emotions. I am well aware of how far a certain actor can go and where to draw the line. I knew exactly what I had on my hands and how to get the right performance out of my actor. I feel I succeeded quite well in that.

Actor Satinder Sartaaj as Maharaja Duleep Singh
Actor Satinder Sartaaj as Maharaja Duleep Singh

What are your expectations from the audience in England?

I grew up in England and have certain inkling for the likes and dislikes of that culture. I understand the nuances of their emotions and humour. I have always felt that The Black Prince will go very well in the UK. It will find a respectful home there and grow from that base audience. This could be the biggest territory for the film.

England has a sizeable second and third generation of South Asians. I hope the film connects with their emotions. This audience does not frequent Bollywood films, but does have an emotional connection to the history and culture of their forefathers. This would be a fitting film for those generations to support and embrace.

What were the creative temptations involved in dealing with history, archives, emotions and events?

I have been writing in some form or shape since I was a child. One thing I learned very early on was to find a perspective that is not too personal in telling a story. Even when relating a tale that is very close to you, one must not be tempted to personalise it too much and lose eyes and ears of the third party — your readers or audience, as in our case.

Also, in most instances, as a writer, there is a tendency to take liberties in telling a true story. Embellishing parts of the story to make it more emotional, dramatic and heightened. In this case, I did not have that luxury. I was on path to tell Maharaja Duleep Singh’s true story. Which is to say that what we have been reading and believing as facts so far about him, has been distorted history. Written by a British pen with Indian ink. I was finally going to shed some light on it and stay truthful to the boy king’s point of view. I could not over-dramatise his journey and turn it into a melodrama.

Who is Maharaja Duleep Singh — the man and the Sikh?

Maharaja Duleep Singh is many things. A boy king of a powerful kingdom. A lost young man looking for his identity. A lover and a womaniser. One who relishes his whiskey and company of fine women. A hunter among the very best. A husband and a father. A wealthy man who lived in luxury and in the company of royalty. A man who left his mark on history. And so much more.

But, above all, he was a powerful voice for India’s independence. He echoed that cry of freedom while living in the shadows of the British. He had no fear and marched on to raise an army, in his attempt to run the British out of India. In the process, he gave up everything, including his own family.

He was a man and a Sikh. When one is raised in a false faith, and upon awakening to the truth, goes back to his roots and embraces the religion of his birth, to me, that’s a force to reckon with. That’s the man he was.

He became a king at five. He had little to do with the course of his life. Shorn away from his mother at seven, indoctrinated into the faith of his aggressors, and kept away from his culture, his people, and land, he lived a life given to him–very comfortable and provided, which seemed privileged at the time, but was just a facade.

His heroism lies in having all that, and yet, spurning it for the greater good of his countrymen. Whether he succeeded or not is not the question. He tried and put up a valiant fight, all alone. He gave up everything, including his entire family. This film will start a dialogue to look at history from a different perspective and see Maharaja Duleep Singh in a more favourable light.

The awakening period of his life, which no one talks about, is fascinating. When the realisation dawned upon him about who he was and what the British did to him, he roared like a lion and denounced everything English thrust upon him. He reconverted to his Sikh faith and began his journey towards the freedom of his people and the rest of India. He was the first person to raise the slogan of India’s independence, a struggle in which he faced betrayal.

Who is Maharaja Duleep Singh the prince?

I believe, as a young man living amongst British Monarchy, he must have felt privileged at the time to be called a prince. He was one among them. But once realising his bearing and true calling in life, it hits him like a brick. He is a king and not a prince. He has a kingdom and his home in England is no more than saccharine exile.

How did your journey from India to the UK to the United States of America, shape your idea of identity, home and roots?

I left India when I was very young. I have very few childhood memories from my life in the village in Hoshiarpur (Punjab). Most of the memories have faded. My father was in the British India Army. Because of that background, we had the opportunity to migrate to England. After some years in England, we moved to America. I call Los Angeles my home. It has been for many years.

I have always held a close affinity to my background, culture and language. Even though I have spent a major part of my life under the influence of Western culture, I never wanted to forget where I came from.

I proudly say that I am a product of three different cultures. I embrace the best of all of them. I do find that my loyalty lies in America, the country that has shaped my destiny and the course that my life is on now. It has enabled me to stay truthful to my roots and respect my upbringing. It has seen all my ups and downs and continues to support me.

What do you relate with in the Maharaja’s journey to his roots?

First time I went to India was after 16 years. I had left India as a little boy and was returning to the land of my birth as a young man. I was about the same age as Maharaja Duleep Singh, when he went to Calcutta, to meet his mother Maharani Jindan after 14 years of separation.

I remember going to my village and our home. No one lived there, but it was kept up by the neighbours. Upon entering the home where I was born and had spent the early days of my life, where I must have played and run around, I could remember small things, but did not know how to feel. I felt empty and disconnected. Looking at the spot where I was born, as told by my mother, I tried to connect to that past period of my life, but it was difficult. I felt as if I was forcing my emotions to the surface.

I wandered around the village trying to find the little boys I had played with. They were all grown up and had lives of their own. Some had even died. I felt lonely and yet safe. I was now in a faraway land with my family and new friends. The village was the past.

It was only days later, when I was leaving India and on my way back to the US, that I felt a flood of emotions hitting me a like a storm. I missed that life that I knew so little of. I often wonder what my life would be like now, if we had remained in that village.

When I was writing the script for The Black Prince, I felt a connection to Maharaja Duleep Singh’s journey. Even though he was never allowed to set foot on the land of his birth, I could feel how he must have felt in England, when just plucked out from his environment, he is thrown amidst a culture that is not his own. I remember that feeling when we first landed in England and then, as a young lad in the United States. I had to adapt and fit in and grow very quickly or be left behind.

What significance does Kohinoor have in the film and what does it reveal about the Maharaja?

Kohinoor does figure in the film and brings out a very important point in the story. Duleep Singh does realise the significance of the iconic diamond and how it was taken from him. But, somehow, he did not have an emotional attachment to the diamond. By the time he realises its importance and worth, he was on to higher aspirations, regaining his kingdom and independence of India. He had given up most of his material needs in life.

Did The Gold Bracelet open doors to your idea and expression of identity?

The Gold Bracelet was my first major film as a writer and director. It was extremely well-received and established me as a good story teller. The film won many awards and gave me the courage to tackle bold subjects and tell stories that matter in the larger scheme of things.

It did establish an identity of sorts, for me, as a storyteller who was tackling meaningful subjects. At a recent screening of The Black Prince, people who had seen The Gold Bracelet were coming up to me and telling me how proud they were that I was continuing my journey to tell stories that other filmmakers were not.

I remember an incidence some years back when I went to a Sikh Temple with my father, where an elderly gentleman who had seen The Gold Bracelet came up to us and said that I should continue making films like that and tell our stories. Even at the cost of losing everything. He said history will remember me.

I looked over at my father. He had tears in his eyes as he placed his hand on my shoulder proudly. I had his approval, as in everything I wanted to do.

You took acting classes in San Francisco. How did they shape you?

I started my acting career in San Francisco and took workshops at a small theater in the city. That early exposure to the learning process gave me the courage to dive deeper into the process and immerse myself fully into learning the craft.

Soon after, I gave up the comforts of my parents’ home and moved to Los Angeles. I enrolled at UCLA theatre arts department in pursuit of my Master degree and started attending Lee Strasberg Institute.

Why did you choose direction?

Directing is really an extension of my desire to express myself. An avenue to tell stories that mean something to me. It allows me to have a little better control of the kind of work that I want to do.

Does actor Satinder Sartaaj bear an uncanny resemblance to the Maharaja and fit into the role?

Sartaaj does have a resemblance to Maharaja Duleep Singh. I feel he was born to play this role which fits him like a glove. But more than that, it was his willingness to accept the challenge and dive head on into deep waters, where his every move and nuance will now be judged. He has given a very brave performance. I am very happy that he allowed me to mould what we now see on the screen as a very subtle and nuanced portrayal of the last king of Punjab.

Sartaaj has given a very brave performance”: Kavi Raz
Sartaaj has given a very brave performance”: Kavi Raz

The making of this film has been nothing but a ride that continues to soar higher and higher, providing thrills at every turn and twist of the rise.

Did Jason Flemyng, Amanda Root, David Essex, Rup Magon, Keith Duffy and Sophie Stevens share observations on the film and the subject?

They all came to this film with a deep desire to be part of something very special. They had all read the script and loved the multi-layered characters that they were asked to portray. Their feedback of working with me has been phenomenal. It was a sheer joy to see my work taken to another level by their talents and contributions.

You have connected the American audience with South Asian theatre through Wandering Players Theatre Company. What would you like to achieve?

Wandering Players was founded during my early days in Hollywood. There were no roles at that time for Indian actors in film, TV or even on the stage. So, at a suggestion by one of my acting teachers, I established my own theater company and started performing Indian plays. My first staging were plays of Rabindranath Tagore.

I have not been active in theatre lately, but hope to go back to it soon and stage plays that are more relevant to the present; on what’s happening in the world around us, relating to experiences of being an Indian in Trump’s America. The climate has changed. Good theaters should be a voice of the experiences of the people. A voice of the present.

Tell us about your film on the Ghadar Movement. When will it hit screens?

Film on the Ghadar movement has been a lifelong dream. I was first introduced to the movement when I arrived in the US and started working as a labourer in the fields of Yuba City. I was awed and fascinated by the sheer magnitude of it and the sacrifices of the likes of Kartar Singh Sarabha and Sohan Singh Bhakna, among many others. I have been researching material for this film for over 35 years. That will be my next big film and I hope to start shooting for that soon. It will feature actors from Bollywood, Hollywood and the British film industry. It will be a truly international film. I am working towards a 2018 release.

Are you satisfied with the representation of Sikh history in cinema?

Sikh history has powerful stories that needs to be told. The silver screen is the perfect avenue for those stories. I am disappointed at the Sikhs for not supporting the growth of cinema in that direction. Especially those who are very capable of financially supporting the making of these types of films. I am personally on a warpath to tell those amazing stories on an international platform. I hope, I will continue to find support from individuals and groups who feel likewise, that their lives mattered on this earth, and want to leave a legacy — like their predecessors who made history by making those sacrifices and leaving a mark. Their lives had a purpose and they knew what it was. It is our turn now to pay homage to those forgotten heroes.

I feel that Indians today would not be enjoying the prosperity that they are in America if it had not been for the sacrifices of those early pioneers.

Tell us about your interest in field hockey. Would you make a film on hockey legends?

Hockey has been a love affair since I was a kid in England. My father was a great hockey player as well as my brother. Sports is on our blood. When I played in school and tournaments in England, people used to call me Dhyan Chand. I had a great flair and a style that, I was told, beautiful to watch. I would love to make a film on Dhyan Chand one day. Yes, a film on hockey is definitely in my mind.

Which episodes of Sikh history would you like to pick for filmmaking?

I would love to make a film on Banda Bahadar, battle of Saragarhi and Hari Singh Nalwa. There are so many more stories that need to be told in the rich tradition of Sikh history.

Where in Punjab do you find peace and solace?

I come from a small village in Hoshiarpur. I have not lived there much, but it is the place where I was born and where my ancestors are cremated. Perhaps one day, I will go back to that village again and find a spot where memories of my childhood will come back to me and gently remind me of how simple and content life was then. In the meantime, I find peace and solace in the towns and villages of Punjab when I am shooting there. It is a surreal yet immensely satisfying experience. I am among my own people and their love overwhelms me.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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