The Empire review: Finally, a decent Hindi historical series
The 8-episode series isn't great, but beats out its contemporaries in scale and intent
In 1494, Emperor Umar Shaikh of Ferghana is feeding pigeons in his palace, while his eldest son, Babur, takes lessons in sword-fighting. All of a sudden, there's an earthquake. It ruptures the front façade of the fort, stranding three generations of royalty--including Babur's grandmother--on the side of a cliff. Ferghana's Umar Shaikh did die in a freak accident, though it hardly would've been this dramatic. Still, the moment somehow works inside The Empire, a show about fathers, sons and the upswings of fate.
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Dino Morea, Rahul Dev, Drashti Dhami, Aditya Seal
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Rating: 3 star
A little before the accident, Umar Shaikh and Babur are strolling in the gardens. They discuss the poetry of Amir Khusrau, how he combined Persian and Brij in his playful verses. "They speak Persian in Hindustan?" Babur asks. "They have many people, many tongues," Umar Shaikh answers--a sentiment that Bhuj, a recent Mughal-bashing war film also on Disney+ Hotstar, would love to contradict.
Created by Nikkhil Advani and directed by debutante Mitakshara Kumar, The Empire is a sharp, supple series. It adapts a set of historical fiction novels by Alex Rutherford; the first season, which runs for 8 episodes, is centred entirely on Babur. At 12, he's crowned the king of Ferghana--but flees when Uzbek leader Shaibani Khan (Dino Morea) captures his fort. Babur spends much of his adult life winning back Ferghana and Samarkand (also captured by Shaibani). His aim, though, remains Hindustan, a mysterious gilded land then ruled by the mighty Ibrahim Lodhi.
Grown-up Babur is played by Kunal Kapoor. A no-brainer, I first thought, the actor's sharp features and flowing locks easy to pick out in battle. But The Empire is also invested in Babur as a person and a patriarch. Early on, he's accused of being too empathetic and 'soft-hearted': when he opens up the royal granary because people are starving, it's seen as a sign of weakness. Kunal portrays the first Mughal emperor as a man torn apart by conflict. Shabana Azmi, as Babur's straight-talking grandmother, is frequently rankled by his indecisions. Her tough-love sets him straight, unlike the other sort of love he finds (on that note, has Imaad Shah been typecast? After Bombay Begums, he's once again stuck in a queer triangle).
Having the most fun is Dino Morea as a ruthless marauder. He's got big shoes to fill: Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat, Saif Ali Khan in Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior. Dino doesn't try to top those performances; rather, he adopts them and improvises on them. If Shaibani Khan isn't shown chewing meat--as Alauddin Khilji and Udaybhan Rathore clearly were--it's because he's busy chewing scenery. His wardrobe is a blast: lavish kaftans, furry armour, a pendant the size of a bluetooth speaker. The flamboyance is laid on so thick that later attempts to humanize the character fall flat. His relationship with Babur's sister, Khanzada (Drashti Dhami), first as his captive and then his wife, is awkwardly resolved, with a lakeside parting out of the Karan Johar playbook.
Unlike other recent Hindi historicals, The Empire doesn't obsess over its characters' religion (the only time Babur uses the word 'mazhab' is as a metaphor). Instead, the focus is squarely on statecraft. Mitakshara and co-writer Bhavani Iyer fill their screenplay with deceits and double-crossings. The reveals are fun to watch, though not as provocative or gasp-inducing as the ones in Game of Thrones. The show suffers in the shadow of that global hit: Shaibani is Khal Drogo, Humayun (Aditya Seal) is John, Khanzada is Arya, Daenerys and Cersei rolled into one.
In the Indian arena, The Empire beats out its contemporaries in scale and ambition. Some of the exterior shots and battlefield vistas are stunning to behold. A chunk of them were shot in Uzbekstan--and it shows. The action, too, is smoothly choreographed and rendered. Babur getting combat lessons as a kid is chimed with a later flourish. In the final battle, a volley of arrows and canonballs rain down from the sky. I'll look out for Season 2, just to see how they scale up from here. The Empire has found its feet. Will it now strike back?