x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Cannes film fest: The Black Prince tells the real-life story of the last king of Punjab

The historic drama based on the poignant life story of Maharaja Duleep Singh is due for international release on July 21.

From left, Amanda Root, Satinder Sartaaj and Jason Flemyng in the true-life film The Black Prince. Courtesy The Black Prince
From left, Amanda Root, Satinder Sartaaj and Jason Flemyng in the true-life film The Black Prince. Courtesy The Black Prince

Attending the launch of a trailer for a film is part and parcel of the Cannes experience.

In addition to the films screening in competition, studios and producers go to the glitzy event in the South of France to launch their movies that will be out later in the year. As with everything at Cannes, some events are more successful than others.

The launch of The Black Prince took place at the Indian Pavilion on Saturday. It is billed as a historic drama based on the poignant life story of the last king of Punjab – Maharaja Duleep Singh – and due for international release on July 21.

The invite promised an exclusive screening of the new trailer and the opportunity to talk to the film’s stars, singer-poet Satinder Sartaaj, who plays Singh, and the versatile British actor Jason Flemyng, who plays his foster father. According to producers, the movie, directed by Kavi Raz, tells the story of one of India’s most noble kings, and his complicated relationship with Queen Victoria, who was godmother to his children.

Before the trailer is unveiled, there is a question-and-answer session with Sartaaj. Flemyng is conspicuously absent – and it is confirmed that the X-Men: First Class star will not be coming. This was not the only disappointment.

As samosas are served in the pavilion, the moderator is determined to remind us that this is a Hollywood and not a Bollywood production. One of the backers is Brillstein Entertainment Partners, who made the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. With an Indian flag flying outside and a preponderance of desi faces in the room, it sure feels like Bollywood.

Adding to the feeling, it is not long before Sartaaj is called on to do what he knows best – sing. At this point we still have no idea about his acting ability – but he can certainly hold a tune and look rather dapper in a velvet dinner jacket.

We were told the first cut of the film ran for up to four hours. Thankfully, this has been trimmed for the cinema release, but presumably we can expect a special-edition, extended home-video release. Also, it is revealed the film will be released in three different languages – Hindi, English and Punjabi.

And so it takes 30 minutes to introduce a trailer that will last less than 120 seconds.

It is pretty standard, as trailers go. We see Sartaaj as the Black Prince, saying things like, “I wish to ask something about the kingdom of my father,” to which he gets the response, “What you seek now is all gone my prince.” And yes, we finally catch a glimpse of Flemyng.

After the trailer ends, a video plays in which Flemyng apologises for his absence. He adds that it is rare that filmmakers get to make a film on a subject that is as important as this is to so many people and how he wishes he could have been here.

Then I discover that despite being told there would be a proper interview, I will have to talk to Sartaaj while he walks to the red carpet – his big chance to shine in front of the world’s paparazzi and he needs to get there quickly.

So we walk and talk, with photographers pursuing us. I feel like I’ve discovered what a Marx Brothers remake of Lost in Translation might be like.

Sartaaj says his co-star gave him some acting tips.

“Flemyng taught me a lot, he told me to do what your heart rather than head tells you,” he says.

As for why he made the leap from music to acting, he says: “I’ve had a lot of offers from movies before, but this is the first time I wanted to say yes, because it’s an iconic figure of our culture and our community and history. This was the only film I needed to do.”

There were some challenges, naturally. “To do the English dubbing was tough,” he says, “because it’s my third language.”

As our chaotic, brief, on-the-move interview ends, there is just time to find out his thoughts on the Black Prince and his legacy, as India celebrates 70 years of independence from Britain.

“He was the first hero for the Indian independence movement,” says Sartaaj. “What he predicted in the 1880s and 1890s was almost exactly what happened 40 years after he died.”

The Black Prince is due for international release on July 21. The Cannes Film Festival will continue until Sunday

artslife@thenational.ae