‘The Empire’ review: Riding and meandering on a sword’s edge

‘The Empire’ on Disney+ Hotstar  

Towards the end of this sprawling series, the character of Babur, in a conversation with her elder sister Khanzada, says religion is for man — and not the other way round — and inadvertently goes on to compare Hindus and Muslims in his newly-acquired territory, to his two sons between whom he has to choose the heir to his dream.

“Can’t both rule this vast empire?” Khanzada retorts; like a human body could be run by one heart and one mind, an empire needs one ruler. 

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The Empire provides an image makeover to Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur, perhaps one of the most-maligned historical figures in independent India — in popular culture — and opens a window to the Mughal Empire, beyond tales of Salim and Anarkali and Jodha Akbar.

Based on Alex Rutherford’s historical fiction Empire of the Moghul: Raiders From The North, the eight-episode-long first season captures the life of the nomadic, self-doubting, marauding prince who believed his destiny was to form an empire in Hindustan.

As his immensely-readable autobiographical account Baburnama suggests, the founder of the Mughal empire was brutally honest in confessing his faults and limitations. Apart from being a fierce fighter, the Timurid had an eye for natural beauty and could explain it in almost poetic detail. Add three strong women in his eventful life, and we have a compelling narrative waiting to be told. Mounted as the Indian answer to Game of Thrones, the ambitious project has an advantage as the dramatic events and layered characters are rooted in history.

The Empire
  • Season: 1
  • Creator: Nikkhil Advani
  • No. of episodes: 8
  • Cast: Shabana Azmi, Kunal Kapoor, Drashti Dhami, Dino Morea, Aditya Seal, Sahher Bambba, etc.
  • Storyline: In the midst of scheming courtiers, ministers and a dead king, 14-year-old Babur steps up to his destiny and leaves an indelible mark on history

To their credit, director Mitakshara Kumar and writer Bhavani Iyer look beyond the romanticised idea of Mughals in Hindi cinema, and turn at least some uncomfortable chapters as to how the empire came into being: through brutal battles where fratricide was normal, where women of royal households could be pawned in battles to buy time, and how marriages were often political alliances.

Having said that, the series is located in the realm of historical fiction, where gaps in historiography are filled with figments of imagination, sometimes triggered by socio-political compulsions. So we get to see the First Battle of Panipat, but the equally important Battle of Khanwa is glossed over. Similarly, for an emperor who grew up listening to multicultural poetry of Amir Khusro, his interaction with his new subjects, particularly the Sikhs, remain untouched.

Coming from the arid mountains, Babur’s bond with the new land and its rich flora and fauna — something he has written about extensively — remains out of the script. His love for opium and music has been airbrushed, and so is the image of his father Umar Sheikh Mirza.

The modest set design helps in establishing the period, and sets the stage for colour and jewellery that is to mark the Mughal empire in India in future seasons. But how Babur crossed the mighty rivers curiously remains out of the canvas.

Both Kumar and Iyer have cut their teeth in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali school of filmmaking. There is liberal use of Samarkand ikat in costumes, and turquoise is the dominant hue in the colour schemes — so much so, that sometimes it seems that even the fog has a shade of blue. The gloomy background adds to the cold emotions on display.

Like television soaps, OTT platforms also provide employment to actors who are gathering rust because of a lack of challenging opportunities. Both Kunal Kapoor as Babur and Dino Morea as Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, Babur’s bete noir, have put in their best. They bring their physical attributes into play, but an eight-episode series can’t be fuelled just by protein shakes. It requires a fair degree of voice and eye modulation, and both Kapoor and Morea are found wanting despite consistent support from comburent material on paper. Both are fighting inner demons and self-doubt, and hence are very human despite their larger-than-life persona, as somehow the complexity doesn’t feel persuasive enough. The stilted dialogue delivery continues to remind us that they are trying to be part of an era they don’t belong to.

They just had to look around at Shabana Azmi for inspiration; you can’t take your eyes off the seasoned professional. As the domineering maternal grandmother who nurtures Babur’s desires, she is the glue that binds the series together, and provides it with much-needed heft. She shows how one doesn’t need to switch on to Mughal-e-Azam mode to command attention.

Drashti Dhami as the feisty yet elegant Khanzada, who sacrifices her dignity so that the dream of her brother could live on, looks the part in an author-backed role. It is the intriguing brother-sister relationship that keeps you engaged after the initial episodes marked by Shaybani Khan’s savagery and the scheming courtiers of Babur. The performance of Sahhar Bambba as Babur’s royal consort Maham also improves as the series progresses.

Among the supporting cast, Rahul Dev as the trusted Vazir Khan renders a potent performance, and so does Imad Shah as Qasim, the commoner who becomes the confidante of Babur. The homoerotic element in the relationship between Qasim and Babur is neatly handled. Along with Aayam Mehta as the eunuch Aetbaar, the supporting actors lend texture to the proceedings, after some cardboard characters threaten to ruin the show in the first two episodes.

It may not be consistently satisfying, but The Empire sets up a credible foundation for a second season.

The Empire is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar


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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 8:50:03 AM |

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