In a darkly fanciful scene close to the end of The Black Prince, an ailing Maharajah Duleep Singh is visited by the spectral figure of the Spanish colonel who saved his life as a child. Here, we get to see the phenomenally successful Punjabi musician Satinder Sartaaj acting with David Essex, who achieved teen-idol status in his native U.K. in the early ’70s with the hit “Rock On” and who made the risky transition from pop star to actor with his starring role in the 1973 film That’ll Be the Day. Neatly mirroring that journey, Sartaaj was asked to carry The Black Prince, a two-hour period epic opening in Vancouver on Friday (July 21), despite having precisely no prior experience on a film set.
“Honestly, I wasn’t confident about myself,” admits the first-time actor, joining writer-director Kavi Raz for a conversation with the Georgia Straight at the Sutton Place Hotel. “But I was confident about my focused personality. Whatever I do, I do a thousand percent. I’m a very single-track-minded kind of person. We shot the film a year and a half ago, and still I remember the entire script, so you can imagine what kind of effort I put into it.”
“I saw his sensitivity, his mind, his intelligence, his passion for his music and for the main role in the film, and I was convinced I could work with him,” adds Raz, who opted to cast Sartaaj after “a number” of well-known actors were considered. (“I won’t name them,” he teases.) A Method-trained actor himself, the L.A.–based filmmaker quickly realized he could refer to his leading man’s music in order to help guide Sartaaj’s performance. “I’d say, ‘Remember what’s happening in this song, what you’re saying here, and how you relate to that? That’s exactly what’s happening in this scene here,’ ” he explains.
Besides “vanishing myself from myself”, the most perplexing part of the job for Sartaaj was shooting out of sequence. “In the morning, sometimes, I’m 55,” he says with a chuckle, “and in the evening I’m 16.” Indeed, Raz was asking a lot of the rookie film star, given the scope of The Black Prince, which covers in sumptuous detail the entire life story of the last king of Punjab, who was spirited out of the country as a teenager and raised as a Christian nobleman in Victorian Britain. Eventually, the deeply conflicted Maharajah Duleep Singh reverted back to Sikhism and mounted an unsuccessful bid to regain the throne. Faithfully depicting the Black Prince, as Queen Victoria herself affectionately dubbed him, was a task that both men understood as both sensitive and vital to themselves and to a community whose own history has been presented for over a century through the prism of colonialism.
“It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life, in the field,” says Raz, solemnly. “I learned a lot about myself. Like our central protagonist, Maharajah Duleep Singh—he was a very hardened sort of a person, what he went through throughout his life, but he stood his ground. I learned that that’s a very noble thing to embrace in life, and it will get you through. It taught me a lot.”