‘I was destined to play Maharajah Duleep Singh’

‘I was destined to play Maharajah Duleep Singh’

By Bulbul Sharma | | 29 July, 2017
Maharajah Duleep Singh, Bollywood, Punjabi singer, Satinder Sartaaj, actor, Sikh community, Shabana Azmi, The Black Prince, stellar international cast
Satinder Sartaaj.
Having recently made his acting debut with The Black Prince alongside Shabana Azmi and a stellar international cast, Punjabi singer Satinder Sartaaj is today a an example of a Bollywood success story. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his experience of working in a period drama, the challenges that came his way and all about his upcoming projects.

Q. How did The Black Prince happen? Were you looking out for an acting opportunity when the offer came to you?

A. I was touring North America in 2010. The Sikh community has a big presence in Los Angeles, and there were historians who wanted to make this film in both England and California. When they contacted me, I said, “Why not?” History is my love. I think I am an old soul. I love the 18th and 19th centuries, especially when Punjab was not separated.

Q. What triggered your interest in the script?

A. I strongly believe I was destined to play Maharajah Duleep Singh, one because of the startling resemblance we share in terms of our looks, and two because of my respect for his story. The more I read up on his life, the more I realised just how much we share in common. It was a huge honour to be casted as one of the leading lights in Sikh cultural history.

Q. How was it like working with Shabana Azmi? Any specific instance about working with her that has left an indelible mark on you?

A. When she came on board, everyone was thrilled as she was now taking the film to a whole new level. She was so sweet and humble. Shabana Azmi has an amazing presence. She’s an institution in herself and despite the fact she is such a big star, she took the time to teach me a thing or two and always made me feel comfortable. And she taught me English and also about how to really show facial expression on the screen. But the best part was after a few scenes Shabanaji said, “Kavi tells me this is your first film—is it?” And I said yes. She said, “But you are too good, your eyes are speaking so loud.” I was getting really confident because if I got praise from Shabana Azmi, then, well, I must be good!

Q. Being a non-actor, what all preparations were made for playing the lead role in The Black Prince?

A. I did a great deal of research into his story, and I must say it really is fascinating. It helps when you’re so genuinely enthralled with the character you are playing, as it gives you that extra edge. I learnt to speak the Queen’s English as well as basic Victorian manners for my character, which is dark, under playing and submissive at the same time. In some scenes, I had to speak dialogues as long as one and a half pages which were obviously a challenge. Believe it or not, most of my scenes were filmed in a single take much to the amazement of Shabana Azmi who couldn’t believe it was my first film. I also took acting classes in Mumbai from Kishore Namit Kapoor Acting Institute. Since I am a writer, an artiste myself, I would tend to say certain dialogues in my own way, but my director Kavi Raz told me to be myself, leaving everything else to him.  

Q. What was your experience of acting in the movie, especially your journey from a singer-poet to an actor? Did you face any challenge?

A.With films, it is a different kind of feeling because you can cherish it your entire life. When you make a film, you record it on camera and it’s forever, even after you’re gone. I had offers since 2009 when I started my career, but my image is rather different as an artist. People respect me more because of who I am, In fact, my fame started in Canada. I did eight sold-out concerts in Toronto during my first tour.

The most challenging part was that in the morning I had to play the character of a 16-year boy and in the same evening I had to be in his fifties and also the English was not my first language. It was so tough to maintain that Victorian British accent because it was sync sound recording during shooting on the film set.

Q. Historical dramas aren’t easy. There is always a risk involved with making grave errors while recreating historically significant pieces. How did the crew and makers ensure that the film commits no such error?

A. Playing historical figures is very risky and very hard too because it becomes your responsibility to do justice to the character. I look forward to a very positive response from the viewers because it›s historically a very rich film and will enrich the struggled life of the last king of Punjab who is almost a vanished character to many. I gave my best for the film and I hope people will like my acting.

Q. You have created and sung songs in the film too. Also, your first ever duet Beet Janiyan is a part of the movie. What was your thought process when you were writing songs for the venture you are this intrinsically attached with?

A. Honestly, my first and last love is my music and poetry. Five songs used in the film have been written and sung by me, including my first duet song, Beet Janiyan. The aim of making this film was to correct the misrepresented image of Duleep Singh in history, so the thought of portraying that particular image prevailed in this venture of writing the songs for the film.

Q. London premier of the movie garnered an amazing response from the audience. It must be an overwhelming experience as an actor. So what are your expectations from the movie?

A. The response was overwhelming and being the first turban Sikh to represent India in Cannes film festival was a huge honour, I am very thankful to the admirers. The film gives the connection, bond and yearning to be connected to one’s roots. That was his struggle.

Q. You are also the first ever turbaned Sikh to walk the red carpet at Cannes. Your suited up look made a lot of headlines. So how will you remember your Cannes debut?

A. Being the first turban Sikh to represent India in Cannes film festival was a huge honour, I am very thankful to the admirers. 

Q. You had any particular idea when you were working along with your stylist for your Cannes look?

A. I represent the Sikh community, so for sure, I knew I had to be wearing a turban and look my best.

Q. How was it like working with international stars like David Essex OBE, Amanda Root, Jason Flemyng and others?

A. Everyone was brilliant—from day one they made me feel comfortable in my role, sharing their expertise and advice on how to maximise my potential as an actor.

Q. So what after The Black Prince? Any new singing or acting project underway?

A. I am working on the next album in which I am emphasising more on melody and deep poetry. Also, there are tours lined up for US, Australia, and New Zealand.

Q. Would you be interested in doing some typical Bollywood films as well, something akin to what Diljit Dosanjh is doing these days?

A. I don’t believe in planning life, I live in the moment. And this moment is beautiful. I am getting a great response for my work. Rest, I have to go on with many more things in life, and who knows I might just do a film with Drew Barrymore and Kim Kardashian.

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