Disney+ Hotstar’s ‘The Empire’ narrates the rise and death of the 1st Mughal Emperor of India, Babur. It is based on Alex Rutherford’s book Empires of the Moghul. Claimed to be one of the granded series from India, The Empire is the first period drama that traces the coming of the Mughals, but ends up disappointing owing to bad writing and cast.
The series starts on the battlefield of Panipat where Ibrahim Lodi’s Sultanate is confronted by Babur’s (Kunal Kapoor) army. It shows Babur as a conflicted king who suffers the guilt of death of his soldiers for an Empire that seems farfetched.
The show then goes back to Ferghana where Babur is the 14-year-old son of Umar Shaikh, the benevolent king of Ferghana. Umar Shaikh is shown as a good-hearted king who does not have the cunning that running an empire requires but must overcome his softness as Shaibani Khan’s (Dino Morea) forces come knocking on Ferghana’s doors.
Umar Shaikh dies in an earthquake making 14 year old Babur the king of Ferghana. Soft hearted like his father, Babur has much to learn but little time to do it. He is helped by his grandmother Esan Dawlat played by Shabana Azmi and Wazir Khan (Rahul Dev) who plays his commander in Chief.
The young king decides to take the war to Shaibani Khan. He lays siege to Samarkand and establishes his new kingdom there. Babur soon realises that his army is no match to Shaibani Khan’s and accepts defeat. He offers Ferghana to Shaibani in exchange for the safety of his family. Many within the palace, especially Esan Dawlat are unhappy with the king for accepting defeat without fighting.
The series here jumps to 6 years later with Babur ruling Samarkand that is under siege of the forces of Shaibani Khan. The food supply begins to run low and famine like situation develops in Samarkand. Qasim (Imaad Shah), a friend of Babur, informs him of the traitors inside the palace and wins his trust. Unhappy with the famine and living conditions in Samarkand, Babur deems himself an unworthy ruler and again accepts defeat without fighting.
Babur offers a deal to Shaibani Khan, wherein the kingdom of Samarkand will pass on to Shaibani Khan in exchange for safety of the people and Babur leaving Samarkand forever. Shaibani Khan agrees but for one condition and asks for Babur’s Sister Khanzada Begum (Drashti Dhami). Khanzada agrees to the condition and stays behind as Babur and the others leave Samarkand and the siege is finally brought to an end.
Back in Samarkand, Khanzada and Shaibani Khan develop feelings for each other and get married while Babur wandering the forests, attacks small towns in a bid to increase his army to fight Shaibani Khan and save his sister. Babur falls in love with Maham, his commander-in-chief’s daughter and they get married.
Babur finds an unlikely friend in the Shah of Persia who agrees to give his 15,000 strong army to Babur to fight against Shaibani Khan to win Samarkand. Emboldened by the swelling size of his army, Babur takes the battle to Samarkand and defeats Shaibani Khan. However, due to trickery of the Shah, Babur does not ascend the throne of Samarkand and instead becomes the king of Kabul.
Babur and his posterity spend 18 years in Kabul, with Babur’s sons Humayun (Aditya Seal) from Maham and Kamran from Gulrukh (Sahher Bambba) now grown up. Esan Dawlat reveals the important truth behind Babur’s father’s death which angers Babur as he decides to undertake a suicide mission by invading India and beating Ibrahim Lodhi’s Sultanate. Armed with gun powder, Babur defeats the Sultanate and becomes the Emperor of India.
The battle of Succession to the empire begins again as both Humayun and Kamran stake their rightful claim to rule India. In this battle of Empire, where each is on his own and blood runs thicker than water, Khanzada makes an important decision on behalf of Babur.
The Empire is a big-budget show with a huge cast that fails to impress and do justice to the narrative. However, certain characters do inspire.
Shabana Azmi’s Esan Dawlat has a commanding presence on the screen and she utilises the little on-screen time she gets, to deliver a memorable performance that stays and lends legitimacy to the intrigues of an empire.
The show entirely rests on Kunal Kapoor as Babur to portray a benevolent but strict, lost but not defeated king, as he battles inner demons to find the ruler within him. He gives a respectable performance and awes in certain scenes.
Dino Morea as Shaibani Khan looks painfully familiar to Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khalji from Padmavat with similar costume and make up. While on his own he gives a good enough performance. It is Director Mitakshara Kumar who fails him as she sets the bar too high and one gets the feeling that no matter how good Dino Morea’s performance may be, he is playing a second favourite to Ranveer Singh.
The one character that is the shining star amongst this cast is Rahul Dev’s Wazir Khan. He plays commander in chief and guide to Babur and is measured in his role with brilliant acting and dialogue delivery. Rahul Dev develops Wazir Khan as an inseparable part of the script and without him the series seems directionless.
Other actors including Drashti Dhami, Aditya Seal, Sahher Bambba and Imaad Shah give average performance and do not leave a lasting impact on the viewer.
The Empire is a treat for the eyes. It is visually stunning with meticulously crafted sets that make up an exciting viewing experience. The costumes are another highlight for this show and lend more beauty to the scenic backgrounds.
The background score is another positive that The Empire has got going for itself. The music is enchanting and helps move the narrative in a particular direction. The sound effects, too, are well done.
One major positive for The Empire is the portrayal of battle. A series that shows Babur’s life as one long battle has not been weighed down by spending too much time on the battle field and thus while the wars fought number more than 10, it does not become tiresome for the viewer and the series moves effortlessly through the battles.
Stellar performances by Shabana Azmi and Rahul Dev is another brilliant aspect of the series. Surrounded by a cast that falls short on most occasions, these veteran actors carry the show on their shoulders and give the viewer something to appreciate.
Despite having such great sets and costumes, the VFX disappoints and does not blend with the scenes. At some points, the VFX is so disjointed with the narrative that it leaves the viewer in a dissonant state.
While the series is not an accurate historical account of the life and events surrounding Babur, and most of us already know the outcomes of the battles of succession, the writing leaves no scope for suspense and fails to ignite interest from episode to episode and leaves very little for the viewer to continue watching.
Individually, the characters give respectable performances, it is when they are together that they appear out of sync and unnatural, which hurts the story and the poorly written dialogues do not help as conversations become tiresome and appear too fabricated.
One major drawback of the series is its intention to portray goriness in Shaibani Khan’s character which, at times, feels too much and fails to blend in with the story and looks very forced.
Indian period dramas have always suffered from a list of cliched characters who fail to inspire and so is the case with The Empire. The characters lack depth and development and it is difficult to care about them as they move throughout the story in the straitjacket of their roles and seem out of touch with the trials, choices and flaws that humans exhibit.
The makeup fails to keep up with the progress of the story and while the narrative jumps decades, the characters do not seem to age and the writing fails to blend the timelines in a way that it becomes difficult to keep up with the sense of passing time.
The Empire has some good points in terms of its aesthetics and certain performances but 8 episodes seem too long to tell this story and it can only be hoped that in its later seasons, the show will work on its shortcomings. It’s better to watch this one with very little expectations and as a precursor for better seasons in the future.