The Empire On Disney+ Hotstar Review: A Weak Cocktail of Fact And Fiction

Adapted from the book Raiders from the North, The Empire is visibly conceived to be the beginning of a multi-part franchise spanning generations of Mughal rulers
Shabana Azmi in a still from The Empire
Shabana Azmi in a still from The Empire

Creator: Nikkhil Advani
Director: Mitakshara Kumar
Writers: Bhavani Iyer, Mitakshara Kumar, A.M. Turaz

Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Dino Morea, Shabana Azmi, Drashti Dhami, Rahul Dev, Aditya Seal, Sahher Bambba, Toranj Kavyon, Imaad Shah

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

The Empire is not short of ambition. First, there's the narrative scale. "The rise and fall of the Mughal dynasty" is a vast tagline. Adapted from the first book (Raiders from the North) of a six-volume historical fiction series, The Empire is visibly conceived to be the beginning of a multi-part franchise spanning generations of Mughal rulers. This eight-episode season dramatizes – with a capital D (I'd say "Fiction with a capital F" but that sounds crude) – the origins of the dynasty through the life of its famous founder, Babur. Then there's the emotional scale. The Empire is essentially designed to be a Crown-style family opera of power, deceit and thrones. The women of the show – a ruthless grandmother, a shrewd elder sister, an angelic first wife, a scheming second wife – pull the strings. Babur himself is presented as a King perpetually in search of a kingdom, a drifter in pursuit of his own destiny. 

The first half of the series has Babur (Mehroos Mir, Kunal Kapoor) play a version of Orlando Bloom's Paris from Troy, a rightful heir trying to overcome his big and blusterous heart. The second half turns him into a gentler version of Logan Roy from Succession, an ageing father torn between fading and transferring. Last but not least, there's the physical scale. The most lavish production in the Indian streaming space yet, The Empire spares no expense in bringing sexy back. The palaces, the marble, the medieval Asian landscapes and the attire aside, the centerpiece of the story is the 1526 Battle of Panipat between Babur and Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodi. Those severed limbs and angry elephants don't come cheap. The snow doesn't fall at will. 

But size is futile in the Bhansali-verse of Hindi cinema. Every homegrown period epic that isn't an audacious Baahubali-level fantasy is automatically measured on a scale of 1 to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The Empire is a 5 at best, largely because the machinations of the long format – almost 350 minutes of storytelling – doesn't quite allow the material to be as maddeningly meticulous as a feature film. The result is a middling mixtape of familiar visual and narrative tropes. Director Mitakshara Kumar is listed as an associate director on both Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, and you can see strands of both movies sprinkled across Babur's arc. For instance, after Babur is forced to forsake his sister Khanzada (Drashti Dhami) in exchange for a safe retreat from Samarkand, his hallucinatory descent into lunacy is similar to Bajirao's delirium in the dying moments of the film. The composition of the sequence – the banks of a river, the tents, the underwater thrashing – is uncanny. The styling of the villain, Dino Morea's Shaybani Khan, reeks of a heavy Ranveer-as-Alauddin-Khalji scent. The kohl-eyed monster has letters delivered through human body parts, he rips out the tongues of overzealous advisors, skins dead bears for fun and covers a semi-naked woman with a bloody rug. He has eccentric tics too – though it often looks like a rugged Morea on a '90s ramp walk flaunting the latest "Mint Moghul" collection – and seems to be a heartbeat away from going full-Jack-Sparrow. 

That's the problem with something like The Empire in 2021. Even the striking examples of visual flair – like a lyrical death at the end of the fifth episode featuring slow-motion betrayal, and the unravelling of red cloth between two characters against the backdrop of a snowy mountain range – feel like lesser siblings of the Magnum Opus™ oeuvre. It must be mentioned that visual flair is not the same as visual curiosity; one is designing, the other is discovering. With makers like Santosh Sivan, Mani Ratnam and Bhansali, the former was rarely sacrificed at the altar of the latter. The tacky elements of The Empire – like the screensaver-level aerial VFX shots of kingdoms, the unimaginative choreography of battle scenes, the midnight invasions – don't stand a chance. The cinematography is more character-based than moment-based, which is why it's hard to distinguish one region from another – and there are many regions. 

The period palette can't afford to be so derivative. Rahul Dev's part, for instance, is the exact same as his Asoka role 20 years ago – as a trusted general who protects and grooms a young King in the wilderness. The performances can't afford to be wooden vehicles of exposition. Kunal Kapoor lacks the depth of a truly interesting and philosophical ruler; the sudden leaps of time are jarring, partly due to the half-hearted cosmetics (everyone is ageless) but largely due to no subtle variations in body language. The leap from Kazakhstan to Kabul is literally invisible; one moment he's discussing the prospect of marrying the princess, and the next moment he's a father to two 18-year-old sons, Humayun (Aditya Seal) and Kamran (Karan Pandit). It's not just him – the transitions are rushed, Babur's wives look younger than their male children, and I couldn't tell that Khanzada and Babur were siblings till she was traded away to Shaybani. (Call it incestous undertones or my general inability to identify on-screen relationships, this is disorienting stuff). These little details matter.

It's not easy to overlook the Bollywoodised Hindi and stilted dialogue delivery – especially from the younger actors, who sound like they're going to flash their credit cards any second. The rousing background score attempts to hide the discomfort of the cast, who in turn appear to be rehearsing at an elaborate costume ball. The few songs are an afterthought, and the cultural integrity of the environment is almost non-existent. Someone like Imaad Shah then, who is usually the better actor in a frame, tries to overcompensate for the inertia around him with distracting variations. Shabana Azmi, as Babur's grandmother, is reduced to a ruthless troll – she mocks her son for his "dariya dil" before he dies, and then subjects her existential grandson to what the Australian cricket team once called "mental disintegration". It is admittedly entertaining to watch, but more on the lines of low-key cringe-thrills than high-pitched melodrama. 

However, I do like the personalized rendering of Babur's legacy. His journey as an emperor is almost incidental, and secondary to his journey as an individual. His moral struggles with his confidantes, friends and family members within the walls are far more engrossing than his outdoor conquests. His decisions are an extension of his inner turmoil, not a consequence of it. The makers may have missed an aesthetic trick or two by not featuring his memoir – the Baburnama – extensively enough, and by therefore not constructing him as a thinker. I suppose the casting and source material have a lot to do with that, but adapting does not necessarily mean translating – the vacuum of what exists is just as important as the rhythm of what doesn't. As a result, eight episodes feel like – for lack of a better analogy – the kind of tourist that prefers a prepaid package tour of multiple destinations rather than a traveller who submits to the whims of serendipity. The series dutifully halts at all the platforms without really exiting the station. Lest I descend into innuendos, I'm going to stop here. You get the gist. There's no sense of accumulation, and by extension, no emotional crescendo – a device that Bhansali has copyrighted and mastered.

Now that we've discussed the pixelated elephants of the battlefield, it's time to address the elephant in the room. When I was growing up in the '90s, history was just another schoolbook. We studied Kings and kingdoms, cultures and eras. I learned about Mughals and Marathas, not Muslims and Hindus. I read about atrocities and achievements, not good and bad. The chapter on one presented the other as a rival – as opposed to 'enemy' – and vice versa. But in the India of 2021, history is a religious statement. It is a moral declaration. In this climate of rampant Islamophobia and intolerance, it's a minor miracle that The Empire – a massive series based on the most hated "foreign invaders" in new-age India – exists on a major streaming platform. It's admirable. 

But to praise The Empire for its intent is to also acquit its diplomatic identity. I suspect only an all-Mughal story could have been subjected to such free fictionalization – or what one might call "creative license". (I also suspect that, post the Padmaavat outrage, this is why big names are missing despite the budget). I couldn't help but sense that a lot of The Empire is conceived to not offend one side rather than examine the other. The eggshells are loud. For example, early on, we see Babur's father – who is about to die in a badly filmed accident – waxing eloquent about the beauty and diversity of Hindustan, a country he always dreamed of conquering. Later on, there is not one visual sign of this splendid new land even after Babur wins the Battle of Panipat; he may as well still be plotting in his Kabul or Fergana palaces. He then repeats his father's words, praising this magical place while looking over a generic heaven-like landscape – even though we know for a fact that Babur had mixed feelings about India. You'd think he's an industrialist visiting Hindustan on an offsite, not an ambitious King setting out to kickstart a three-century empire. Then there's the Good-Muslim-Bad-Muslim syndrome, where Babur is virtually framed as a righteous 'Rajput' ruler opposite the debauched and evil Shaybani Khan.

The word "Hindu" is never uttered, except one time in the end when Babur randomly uses a woke Hindu-Muslim metaphor to explain his conflict between two potential successors. Granted that Babur didn't do battle with many Hindu Kings, but the important one – the Battle of Khanwa against Rajput leader Rana Sanga – is missing. It may not have made a difference, but its omission is a symbol of how The Empire is an insured reaction to today's climate and not a brave indictment of it. I'm not sure how subsequent seasons – of Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb (if that happens) – plan to be so geo-neutral, given that the dynasty is now firmly established. But the message is clear: Choose one spirit or the other, but no mixing of spirits. No mixing of Indians and foreigners unless Indians are noble and heroic. No mixing of foreigners with Indians if foreigners are human and heroic. No mixing, period. The hangover is not worth the (political) party. The wrath is not worth the (post-truth) empire. All that's left is sanitized ambition.

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