Giant Sikh figure’s life in spotlight as South Asian film fest returns

Lineup of May 11-22 event turns toward artistic, ambitious fare after crowd-pleasing beginnings.

As a child growing up in Royal Leamington Spa, a small British town known for its Regency architecture, Kavi Raz had heard of Maharajah Duleep Singh. But Raz didn’t know the history of the last ruler of the Sikh kingdom, which in 1849 became the last major region of the Indian subcontinent to be annexed by the British Empire.

“Every year, we used to get on a small bus, and visit the gravestone of Maharajah Duleep Singh, but I had no idea who he was. He was never discussed, his story was never propagated,” says Raz, who eventually moved to California, and pursued a career as an actor and filmmaker, starring in St. Elsewhere as a recurring character for the TV show’s first two seasons and making guest appearances elsewhere on ’80s TV: The A-Team, M*A*S*H* and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It was only when Raz began to research the story of the man also known as The Black Prince of Perthshire for a biopic that he “learned so much about him, about Sikh history, about the waning years of the Khalsa Raj (Sikh rule) . . . This is our take. We have researched it really well, been truthful to history, and pointed out many facts — because things that have been written about that era is usually from a British perspective.”

That biopic is titled The Black Prince and now opens the sixth annual International Film Festival of South Asia, which bills itself as the largest South Asian film festival in North America, and runs from May 11 to 22 in Toronto. The film stars popular Punjabi singer and actor Satinder Sartaaj in the title role and veteran Indian film actress and activist Shabana Azmi (Fire, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) as his mother Maharani Jinda Kaur.

Other films in this year’s lineup include Wolf and Sheep (from Afghanistan, and filmed in Dari), Harikatha Prasanga (an Indian film in the Kannada language) and Live From Dhaka (in Bengali, from Bangladesh).

“It’s really a celebration of South Asian cinema,” says Sunny Gill, founder and president of IFFSA Toronto. Besides screenings of shorts, documentaries and features, the festival also features seminars, workshops and concerts, with most events hosted in Brampton; other screenings in venues across the GTA include the controversial Hindi film Lipstick Under My Burkha at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas.

“This year we really focused on the content, and looked at films that did well at international festivals . . . When we started, we had no film background, and we would get entertaining films. We were focused on the commercial aspect. But now with the help of our ambassadors like (Swiss filmmaker) Anup Singh and (former general manager of India’s National Film Development Corporation) Vikramjit Roy, we try and find films that are acclaimed on an international stage.”

IFFSA Toronto also highlights local talent such as YouTube star and filmmaker Rupan Bal, who returns to the festival as both a director of three music films and an actor in the short feature Horses in the Closet. “The film has to do with LGBTQ issues within the Sikh community,” says Bal, adding that its inclusion in IFFSA Toronto’s roster is a testament to the festival’s commitment to diversity. “The film was made to highlight the issue, that even though we talk about everyone being equal in the Sikh community, it’s not the case . . . We read (the Sikh holy book) Guru Granth Sahib, but many times we don’t apply its teachings.”

For Rakhi Mutta, the filmmaker behind Anarkali, a web series based on the lives of young South Asian women in the GTA, IFFSA Toronto “does an excellent job of showcasing and highlighting South Asian films . . . and providing filmmakers with a platform to network and promote current projects.” She adds that that she’s excited about The Black Prince and “cannot wait to see an actor of Shabana Azmi’s calibre on screen.”

For the Toronto Star article please click here