Director: Mitakshara Kumar
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Dev, Dino Morea, Shabana Azmi, Drashti Dhami
At eight episodes, The Empire, helmed by Mitakshara Kumar and created by Nikhil Advani and Emmay Entertainment, is too ponderous, too preachy to hold attention. The non-linear form adds to the chaotic manner in which the series retells Emperor Babur’s life, fraught with battles, palace intrigues, jealousies, treachery, marriage of convenience and a fight between his two sons (Humayun and Kamran) when he is on his death bed. Most of us with a basic knowledge of Indian history would know all of this, including the fact that Babur was merely 14 when his father died leaving the kingdom of Ferghana to the boy.
Babur’s biggest hurdle comes in the form of Shaibani Khan (Dino Morea), who is obsessed with taking control of Ferghana and neighbouring Samarkand, and his vile ways are no match for the the Emperor. Khan even gets Babur’s sister, Khanzada Begum (Drashti Dhami), and they actually marry in a barter arrangement.
But the twist, when it comes, reveals clearly that two women were the brain behind Babur: Khanzada and Babur’s paternal grandmother, Aisan Daulat Begum (Shabana Azmi). The episodes convey that here was an emperor who was not strong-willed enough to carry out the business of the State. Often, he let his heart rule, sometimes putting his head on the block or nearly. He was no marauding conqueror. “Have I unleashed a lust for power that will consume our children,” he asks his first wife – one of the many signs of his humanness. And this comes as a refreshing whiff of breeze at a time when innumerable debates on Babur, who set foot on this land centuries ago, are trying to obliterate his memory.
History of course lends itself to fascinating interpretations, and both Kumar and the novel by Alex Rutherford (a pen name used by Diana Preston and her husband, Michael Preston) which has been the inspiration for the series, may have taken liberties on how they chose to narrate the story. I have no quarrel with this.
But what disappointed me was that the work coming from a director who has been associated with the likes of Rohan Sippy (Bluff Master, 2005) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Bajirao Mastani and Padmavat) is patchy and technically shoddy. The sets look as if they have been made of plastic and cardboard, the battles do not reflect state-of-the art computer graphics.
There is nothing much either to talk about about casting; the best pick among the lot is Azmi, who as Aisan Daulat was not just clever, but shrewd enough to nudge the boy king towards a path of glory. But that did not happen initially; Babur lost both Ferghana (which he inherits) and Samarkand time and again before he finally looked towards Hindustan, a dream his father had and which the son ultimately realised. With the aid of his grandmother and trusted lieutenant, Wazir Khan (Rahul Dev), Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in the Battle of Panipat and clinched Delhi – laying the foundation for the Moghul empire in India.
Sadly, the main player, Kunal Kapoor as Babur, struggles in vain to infuse his character with power and punch, tempered though with a rare kind of humanism. He just cannot rise up to all these, and a miscast of this sort pulls down The Empire, which falls back on – or so it would seem – rich costumes and lovely visuals.
Streaming now on Disney+Hotstar.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and an author)