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The Empire review: Slow pace hurts this otherwise decent effort at portraying Mughal history

Release Date: 27 Aug 2021

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Keyur Seta

Created by Nikkhil Advani and directed by Mitakshara Kumar, the Disney+ Hotstar show has quality performances.

Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur was the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India and creator Nikkhil Advani and director Mitakshara Kumar’s period drama The Empire features his life story.

The Disney+ Hotstar show is an adaptation of Alex Rutherford’s historical novel Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North. The producers also make it clear in a long disclaimer at the very beginning that the show does not vouch for the historical accuracy of any of the events portrayed and that it is meant only for entertainment.

The Empire starts when the teenage Babur, who loses his father in an accident, is given the responsibility of ruling Fergana, a mediæval kingdom now divided among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, by his maternal grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum (Shabana Azmi). After much struggle, Babur takes over Samarkand, the fabled capital of the 14th century conqueror Timur.

But the cruel Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan (Dino Morea) has his eyes on Samarkand. Given the circumstances, Babur sues for peace and agrees to hand over the city to Shaybani and go on a quest to Kabul, in modern-day Afghanistan. Shaybani agrees, but on condition that Babur’s sister Khanzada (Drashti Dhami) be given to him as a bride. Much to Babur’s shock, Khanzada agrees for the sake of her family and the people of Samarkand.

But Khanzada's sacrifice is not enough to keep the peace between Babur and Shaybani and the two eventually cross paths again. This time Babur is well prepared. The show also focuses on Babur’s arrival in India.

Each episode of The Empire is a visual treat. Whether it is the rich interiors of the palaces or of temporary settlements, a lot of thought has gone into the detailing. What makes the frames more eye-pleasing are the costumes, which are elaborate yet subtle. You cannot also overlook the contribution of the cinematography team while applauding the visuals.

The fight and stunt scenes are effective. Given that this is a web-series, the makers have been liberal with the use of gore. The VFX, however, is a let-down, particularly when it comes to images of the exteriors of the majestic palaces. They look more like palaces in animated movies.

But the biggest problem with this web-series is its uneven pacing and structure. The Empire is not a smooth ride at the start, thanks to the needlessly non-linear narrative. The screenplay gets streamlined when the battle lines are drawn between Babur and Shaybani Khan. But just when you think the show is set to move on to an exciting finalé, its pace flags again. Not only in the trailers, but also when the story is established at the start of the series, we are given the impression that The Empire will focus on the grudge between Babur and Shaybani. But this chapter ends quite soon in an underwhelming manner, leaving the viewer feeling dissatisfied.

In the popular imagination, Babur is generally believed to have been a strong and determined emperor. While The Empire does portray him as a fearless warrior, the series also shows Babur as someone who wasn't afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve. This is where Kunal Kapoor’s casting appears apt. The actor strikes a fine balance between being powerful and being vulnerable.

Drashti Dhami is the real star of the show, however, with her portrayal of the strong-willed Khanzada. She exudes power and commands respect even when she is going through emotional turmoil. And Shabana Azmi, but of course, plays a complex character quite effortlessly.

Dino Morea, who has been having a great second innings as an actor in web-series with good performances in Hostages (Season 2) and Tandav (2021), gets an even meatier part here and rises to the occasion. Sahher Bambba, who made her debut in the romantic dud Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas, also excels in a challenging role. Aditya Seal, Rahul Dev and Imaad Shah are convincing in their supporting roles.

If only the creative team had sorted out the narrative kinks, The Empire would have been a memorable historical entertainer.

The Empire is now available on Disney+ Hotstar.


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Disney+ Hotstar

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