Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Dino Morea, Shabana Azmi, Drashti Dhami, Aditya Seal, Rahul Dev, Imaad Shah, Sahher Bambba & ensemble.
Stream on: Disney Hotstar (Unavailable in South Africa)
Adapted from the book Empire Of The Moghul: Raiders From The North by Alex Rutherford, The Empire scales the journey of Mughal emperor, Babur, from the age of 14 to 47 when he died (dare you to call it a spoiler, this is literally 7th-grade history chapter). The show talks about the highs and lows of Babur’s life in this part fiction, partly inspired by a real-life tale. We meet him in the war where swords are blood bathed and one inside the palace where the mind is the weapon. The ‘Game Of Thrones’ in between all of this takes the center stage and relationships are put to test.
If you are a History enthusiast, you must know that Babur’s life is an open book. The Mughal Emperor was known for a lot of things, literally reflecting his life in Baburnama (his autobiography). Even the fact that he was bis*xual and was attracted to a boy he saw in the market at the age of 17. The Empire, which takes creative liberties for cinematic enhancing stands on the basis of this very tale and decides to take you inside the palace more than the wars he fought.
In the supremely able hands of writer Bhavani Iyer, who adapts Alex Rutherford’s fictionalized account of Babur’s life, The Empire becomes more than a costume drama. This is not the first time someone is trying to replicate Mughal history on screen and investing hoards of cash. But the majority of them except the Sanjay Leela Bhansali universe, end up becoming just costume dramas. Also, add to that the new age obsession of demonizing Mughals to show how peace was never a word taught to them.
This is where Bhavani Iyer’s talent contributes the most. These are people who have led normal lives and have had humane sides to them. Neither one of them is barbaric & nor all of them continuously talk in high-pitched voices. Enmity is never the fodder Iyer gives priority to. The writing that introduces multiple characters makes sure it gives everyone layers to justify their presence on screen.
Not to reveal much, a lot of The Empire is the inner catharsis that Babur went through. Of course, he was great at war, but a war lurked in his family and that was the toughest he ever fought. The writing looks at his life through the perspective of his sister Khanzada (Drashti Dhami). Of course, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s shadow can be seen throughout (in a good way). The fact that Mitakshara Kumar seems to be inspired by his work is evident in her frames. I am living for the wide-angle shots envisioned by her and captured by Nigam Bomzan and Yiannis Manolopoulos.
Also, this is a sort of the Avengers assembling from the Bhansali universe. Mitakshara has been an AD on Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani. Bhavani Iyer has penned Black and Guzaarish with the filmmaker, AM Turaz credited for dialogues and lyrics in The Empire, has closely worked with SLB. And composer-singer Shail Hada is a long-time confidant of the maverick filmmaker. So you see why the vibe feels too familiar.
I can’t stop without crediting the art department that does a pristinely beautiful job at creating this universe to create a separate piece of art. The set pieces don’t look like they were made for a day. Some are even built-in and out completely. Clothes don’t make the actors look like they are having an out-of-body experience. Everything is era-appropriate and made sure to fit the cinematic language that every frame is busy speaking.
Of course, there is Shabana Azmi, Kunal Kapoor, Dino Morea, who have all done fabulous jobs, but I would want to talk about the one that surprised me the most. Drashti Dhami, an actor who can speak with her wide eyes, is a rare trait only found in some. She becomes Khanzada, the clever girl, who has to face the hardship life puts her through. She isn’t a damsel but a saviour and also gives Babur his purpose and motivation.
Shabana Azmi becomes Esan Da Walat, who technically is the reason why all of it happens. My experience is not enough to judge an actor of Azmi’s stature and she only leaves me asking for more in every frame. Her attitude and the command over every frame.
Kunal Kapoor as Babur is a safe choice. His demeanour does half the job and the actor manages to fill the rest half with his performance. He manages to bring the pain on his face gradually, but in the opening, it seems like he is still warming up. Dino Morea gets one of his best characters so far. Of course, there are imprints of Ranveer Singh’s Allaudin Khilji throughout. The way he conducts himself, his walk, to him clapping like a maniac. But Morea manages to somehow not make it look caricatured to an extent cringe kicks in.
Imaad Shah is Imaad Shah and he somehow plays his characters with the same ease but makes them look different. Aditya Seal in his brief role gets a part where he finally gets to show he knows something about the business he is in. The finale seems to be hinting at a season 2 and Seal becoming the lead. Well, a huge responsibility is on its way.
While the Bhansali vibe has come alive outside his universe for the first time, the poetry stays intact with him. There is everything in the frame in The Empire but not enough poetry all the time. The only scene that turned out to be the most poetic was when Khanzada makes a shocking revelation to Shaibani Khan in his last moments, chills! You will see. There is even a scene similar to Padmaavat’s Raghav Chaitanya and Padmaavati’s first meeting. That becomes a bit too much.
The Empire is a huge step in creating extravagant shows for the Indian OTT. Witness the saga that talks about love, war and betrayal.