The life of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur wasn’t anything if not tumultuous. From the time he inherited his first kingdom to the time, desperate for a kingdom, he turned his gaze towards Hindustan, Babur was engaged in a relentless tug-of-war to capture Samarkand and keep a hold over Ferghana. Then came his travails in Hindustan, overcoming the warring Rajputs and encountering the pugnacious Lodis to establish himself as the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty. In between, he also wrote, what is generally regarded as one of the world’s finest autobiographical works, The Baburnama. As author Amitav Ghosh mentions in a classic essay: ‘What made him pen this immense book? How on earth did he find the time? Between the moment when he gained his first kingdom at the age of 12 and his death 35 years later, there was hardly a quiet day in Babur’s life.’ If any historical figure in India lived a life calling for a sumptuous OTT series, it is Babur!
The problem with The Empire is that there’s more drama in those 47 words in Amitav Ghosh’s essay than in the almost 360-minute runtime of the series.
Fittingly enough, the series begins with the epoch-changing Battle of Panipat of 1526 with Babur reflecting on destiny and how life and death hangs forever in balance. Flashback to Samarkand 30 years ago. Probably in a nod to contemporary majoritarian sensibilities (not surprisingly, the Battle of Khanwa against Rana Sanga is glossed over), Babur is shown being introduced by his father, Umar Shaikh, to the works of Amir Khusro, the fusion he brought between Braj bhasha and Persian, and the wondrous beauty of Hindustan (Babur was never enamoured with this land).
There’s trouble brewing with Shaibani Khan [Dino Morea, all fire and brimstone, a cross between Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat and yesteryear star Joginder in Ranga Khush mode] threatening to invade Ferghana. Following the death of Umar Shaikh, Babur’s grandmother, Esan Dawlat [Shabana Azmi], puts him on the throne in a court thick with conniving courtiers. There’s also a bastard son whose mother is queering the pitch for the young prince. But none of the cloak-and-dagger stuff really comes across in this banal telling.
What’s more, despite the almost six hours and more that the series runs, what we have is a whistle-stop Babur-by-the-numbers feel to his many expeditions. So much so that I for one came away without any clarity on either Kabul or Herat or the transitions in time and place. It does not help that the make-up department seems to have been given leave of absence after the first dabs of greasepaint as no one seems to age. And with so many places and so many characters, it becomes one messy muddle to figure out. The performances lack spine and the stilted dialogue delivery, with the younger actors clearly out of their depth with the language, undermines the verisimilitude that matters in historical fiction like this.
The best parts of the series pertain to the emperor’s diffidence about his own destiny, his self-doubts. Those are the only bits where a character comes across as three-dimensional. Unfortunately, the series is too busy aspiring for the scale of Game of Thrones (in which it fails miserably) or aping the look and feel of a set from a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film (which it does quite admirably) to bother about these subtleties.
‘The rise and fall of the Mughal dynasty’ is a huge ask for a show’s tagline. Even bigger is the platform’s claim that this is ‘the biggest show created in India’. If one were to judge the series purely on ambition, the makers deserve full marks. Now, if only they address the tacky visual effects and the unimaginative staging of battle scenes, plug the holes in the writing, and give some heart and soul to the characters, forthcoming seasons might just live up to the ambition.
Title: The Empire
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Dino Morea, Shabana Azmi, Drashti Dhami, Rahul Dev, Aditya Seal, Sahher Bambba, Toranj Kavyon, Imaad Shah
Director: Mitakshara Kumar
Rating: Two and a half stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)