Friday 21 July 2017
The Black Prince
Shabana Azmi, Satinder Sartaaj, Amanda Root
Imagine if Dev Patel in Lion was a Punjabi king in exile. Imagine if his Caucasian mother was played not by Nicole Kidman but a her totally stagey British avatar who speaks her lines as though she had sauntered out of a Shakespearean play into the life of a Sikh prince struck down by a Hamletian drama.
To flee or not to flee, that's the question for Dileep Singh as he must escape his adopted British heritage and reclaim his Punjabi past.
Imagine if the exiled prince's biological Indian mom was played by someone as formidable as Shabana Azmia. In fact the first 30 minutes of the narrative where Shabana appears as the ailing near-blind Queen Jindan are the only bearable chapters in this book in tedious motions.
If the truth be told, the ever-dependable Shabana Azmi is the only actor in this torpid tale of truncated bravery who is seen making any effort to bring the film out of the domain of stodgy staginess. She is dependably devious in playing the cunning Queen and she confers a deliciously ironic tinge to her scenes with the British royalty who stole her son.
Shabana's death half an hour into plot signals the end of all vivacity in the narrative. The rest of the actors behave as though they have just watched Game Of Thrones and are trying to assume the rites of royalty from the series without possessing the grace to pull it off. Come to think of it, The Black Prince quite often reads like a badly-constructed boudoir novella for a post-Colonial generation of British housewives at a tea party where literary readings are a vanity dutifully observed.
There is a disquieting solemnity to the proceedings punctuated by ham-fisted direction and acting. Writer director Kavi Raz knows his Punjabi history well enough. It's the inability to translate the book-information into a cinematic experience that eventually fells all the noble plans behind the endeavour.
Apart from Shabana, the performances are stilted and amateurish none more so than singer-turned-actor Satinder Sartaaj who plays the Sikh prince exiled in Britain with a distracting stoicism, as if he couldn't care less about Dileep Singh's fugitive kingdom and is just playing along till the final reel where the exiled royalty's stilted death sequence is staged with a hurried flourish of supplementary soppiness.
Weirdest of all is Sartaaj's accent. He is supposed to be a man who has been a part of British royalty from the age of 14. Yet his diction and accent suggest Ludhiana more than London. Cringeworthy mistakes in speech like 'cunningness' and 'wull being' destroy every shred of credibility in this nobly intended misfire.
On paper this is a rock-solid concept filled with anguish and drama. But the execution is so stagey, stiff and turgid you feel you are watching history being maimed mutilated and mocked.
The treatment of the tumultuous historical chunk is clunky. The editing is so haphazard as to reduce important events to footnotes whereas elsewhere an over-generous narrative space is provided to mundane conversations about royal obligations.
Ultimately The Black Prince is felled not so much by its ambitions as its failure to justify its existence. A lot of the research and a profusion of good intentions are not enough to fuel a drama that purports to reclaim a forgotten chapter of Indian history.
The Black Prince review: 1 1/2 stars