By Gurmukh Singh
Punjab-born film actor, director and writer Kavi Raz, who was the first Punjabi to enter Hollywood, is all excited about the release of his epic film The Black Prince about the last Maharaja of Punjab – Duleep Singh.
Produced by Hollywood’s Brillstein Entertainment Partners – who were also behind the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave – the film hits the screens worldwide on July 21. Its dubbed versions in Punjabi and Hindi also release the same day.
Kavi Raz says The Black Prince is his attempt to portray a wronger character
who was put through so much tragedy in his life of 55 years.
“Duleep Singh became the maharaja at five. The British took over his empire and imprisoned his mother Maharani Jind Kaur when he was eight. Then he was banished from his kingdom at the age of 11, converted to Christianity at the age of 15 and exiled to Britain at the age of 16,’’ says the Los Angeles-based filmmaker who was born at Dhugga village near Hoshiarpur and moved to the UK with his family when he was a little boy.
“My film is an attempt to do justice to a character wronged by the British colonial empire. The colonial empire did every thing to make Maharaja Duleep Singh forget his Sikh identity and his lost kingdom. When he regained his Sikh identity and wanted his kingdom back, they did everything to stop him going back to Lahore and he died a pauper in Paris,’’ says Raz who has appeared in more than 250 films and TV serials.
He says the audiences will be impressed by Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaaj in the role of Maharaja Duleep Singh.
“Sartaaj looks so much like Duleep Singh. We put him through coaching in Mumbai and LA.’’
Interestingly, Shabana Azmi, who plays the role of Maharani Jind Kaur, is the only character in the film who speaks Punjabi.
“We were in London looking for the cast when I met Shabana who was also in London for a play. She liked the script. When I told her that you will be the only actor in the film who will speak Punjabi, she said she doesn’t know Punjabi. But you will be amazed to see her speaking flawless Punjabi in the film.’’
Though the film is releasing globally, Pakistan will have its “big-bang’’ opening, says Kavi Raz.
“There is a lot of interest in the film in Pakistan because Duleep Singh’s early life revolved around Lahore. So we are planning a very big release there.’’
Excited as he is about the release, Kavi Raz feels this small film still won’t do full justice to Maharaja Duleep Singh. “So we have also shot a four-part serial which will be released after the film so that the audiences get the whole story of Duleep Singh.’’
This film has spurred his interest in similar Sikh historical characters, he says.
“I am doing a film on Mewa Singh who shot dead a spying British Indian police officer in Vancouver about a hundred years ago. I am also planning a film on Shaheed Udham Singh and Gadar heroes,’’ says Kavi Raz who moved to LA in late 1970 to pursue a career in films.
“As a student in San Francisco where my family had moved from Engalnd, I used to do small drama roles. Then I decided to move to the mecca of entertainment LA to pursue career in Hollywood,’’ Kavi Raz says.
A sharpen his skills, he says he joined the world’s premier Lee Strasber Theatre and Film Institute in West Hollywood. “I was first south Asian to join it.’’
Even as he was a student there, Kavi raz set up his own theatre company called Wandering Players. “I got into doing lots of theatre and TV.’’
He says he had to struggle a lot to get break into Hollywood films. “My biggest difficult was that I was an Indian trying to enter their world. Many times, even the Indian roles I had applied for went to white actors.’’
Ravi Raz vividly recalls how he once lost the role of a Pakistani doctor in a Hollywood movie to a light skinned black actor. “I was waiting in the studios of 20th Century Fox, thinking that I will bag this role, but they chose the light-skinned black guy for that role. It was so difficult in the early days for me.’’
But he got his big break finally when he got a role in the then celebrated TV serial St. Elsewhere. “It was my big break. The great actor Denzil Washington also got his first break on it. Then I started getting roles in more Hollywood films and TV serials.’’
Kavi Raz has not looked back since. (This article appeared in the Times of India on July 10)