‘The Empire’, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, is a grand retelling of how Mughal king Babur came to rule India.

Kunal Kapoor, Khalid Siddiqui, Drashti Dhami and Shabana Azmi in the poster of The Empire Disney+Hotstar
Flix Review Saturday, August 28, 2021 - 15:34

When the promos of The Empire, now streaming on Disney+Hotstar, were released, there were strong reactions. While some chose the now familiar path of social media outrage, Game of Thrones fans experienced a strong sense of déjà vu, as did Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s fans who loved the lavish looking palaces and costumes. The Mughals have always been a popular subject with filmmakers in India. One of the biggest films ever made in India is Mughal-e-Azam— Salim, (Emperor Jehangir as we knew him later) and Anarkali’s tragic love story is India’s answer to Romeo and Juliet, while the Taj Mahal cuts across all religious divides to be the symbol of love.

In many ways, The Empire, based on the historical fiction novels by Alex Rutherford (the pen name of couple Diane and Michael Preston), is India’s answer to the iconic HBO show Game of Thrones. Ambition, greed, politics, love and loss are all themes common to both shows. Sadly, what isn’t common is the quality of writing and acting that elevated GOT from a masala potboiler of the medieval era, to a story we invested almost a decade of our lives in.

The Empire’s eight episodes of over 45 minutes each are an adaptation of the first book by Alex Rutherford, Raiders of the North, that traces the history of Emperor Babur (Kunal Kapoor) and how he came to become the ruler of India. While most of us were first introduced to him straight away at the first battle of Panipat in our history textbooks, Babur originally came from the kingdom of Fergana, now in modern day Uzbekistan. His lineage traces back to Gengis Khan and Timur— as his maternal grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum (Shabana Azmi) reminds her son-in-law, Babur’s father Umar Sheikh Mirza (Khalid Siddqui). When Umar Sheikh dies unexpectedly, Babur ascends to the throne as a teenager. In addition to his ambitious grandmother, young Babur’s family has his mother and elder sister Khanzada (Drashti Dhami) who becomes a key figure in the household and kingdom many years later. 

The series traces Babur’s adventures and misadventures in the battlefield, his long-standing enmity with Shaybani Khan (Dino Morea), his obsession with conquering his family’s old seat of power, Samarkand, and his struggle to make peace with the price he has to pay for power. He is constantly reminded that he was destined to be an emperor and to rule. But Babur, as a character in the show, seems unsure about whether that is what he wants for himself. A major chunk of the eight episodes is devoted to the story of Khanzada, whose characterisation seems to be inspired by Daenerys and Sansa from GOT. While she is handed over to evil Shaybani in a peace settlement like Sansa, she manages to win his trust and love like how Daenerys tamed Khal Drogo.

It looks like the brief given to Dino in playing Shaybani was to create a mashup of Ranveer Singh’s depiction of Allauddin Khilji and Ramsay Bolton, while dressed in Drogo’s wardrobe. The writers seem to have directly lifted scenes and sequences from Game of Thrones— whether it’s a prince being killed by the crown he has wanted or siblings uniting after years of separation and abuse.

While The Empire is at the top of its game in the production design and costumes department, it fails to get us personally invested in any of its characters. Perhaps this is because the only good actor here is veteran performer Shabana Azmi, who outshines everyone else with just her presence. Kunal Kapoor plays Babur with an almost constantly confused expression. While his dilemma is quite Shakespearean, to be or not to be an ambitious ruthless emperor, the writing also seems uncertain of where to pitch his character. Drashti Dhami tries sincerely to underplay and bring a gravitas to Khanzada, but her stoicism distances us from feeling her pain.

One must give bonus marks, though, to the makers for not concealing Babur’s alleged bisexuality and his equation with a young man Qasim (Imaad Shah). He reminds us and Babur almost every time he is on screen that they are more than ‘just good friends’. According to translations of his memoir Baburnama, the late emperor had apparently recorded his infatuation with a young man whose real name was reportedly Baburi. Babur went on to marry multiple women and have several children. His eldest son and heir Humayun (Aditya Seal) is likely to be the subject of the next season.

Another huge problem with the series is its refusal to realistically age its characters while opting for a non-linear narrative. I have aged more in the past 18 months than Kunal Kapoor ages in 18 years. Though Babur was just 47 when he died and perhaps had great genes, no one looks the same over 25 years. Whether you like it or not, two generations looking the same age completely throws you off as a viewer. To compound the problem, the first couple of episodes have a non-linear narrative, with Babur’s voiceover suddenly popping in to remind us that we have been watching a flashback. It makes you wonder why creator Nikkhil Advani, director Mitakshara Kumar and writers Bhavani Iyer, Mitakshara Kumar and AM Turaz took these creative calls.

The Empire is an ambitious and sincere attempt to tackle a brand-new genre in the Indian OTT space, and it prompted me to go find out more about Babur than what textbooks had taught us. But for better or for worse, movies or shows are primarily meant to entertain, and it is this crucial element where the show finds itself wanting.

To quote Babur from a letter he wrote to his son Humayun, “Although your letter can be read if every sort of pains be taken, yet it cannot be quite understood because of that obscure wording of yours. In the future write without elaboration. Use plain, clear words.” 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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