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The Empire review: Babur origin story is bland historical fiction

This epic series borrows from Game Of Thrones, Baahubali and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, but is unspeakably dull

Kunal Kapoor in ‘The Empire’
Kunal Kapoor in ‘The Empire’

The Empire—a new Disney+ Hotstar epic about the reluctant rise of the Mughal emperor Babur—cannot be faulted on scale, or ambition, or grandiosity. The show is (mostly) impressively mounted and reasonably well-performed, and while the historical novels it is based on may be excessively dubious, that is not the way to judge a sprawling sword-and-sandal epic. Even falling back on period tropes is forgivable. The biggest chink in this show’s armour is, tragically, the one least possible to overlook: The Empire is unspeakably dull.

We begin with a barely adolescent Babur, wielding a wooden sword as he trains, preparing to someday fight his way out of a skirmish. The princeling isn’t good enough; his sister—who is more gifted—learns from a distance, since women aren’t allowed to learn the art of combat. Babur recognises this injustice and announces that once he is king, all that will change. As a viewer, however, nothing appears to have changed at all, this scene itself feeling like it could have come from any number of old historical soaps or films.

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The Empire may be created by Nikkhil Advani, but it bears the distinct scent of another director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The show’s director, Mitakshara Kumar, assisted Bhansali on Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat, while its writer Bhavani Iyer wrote Black and Guzaarish. They not only pay homage to Bhansali’s signature opulence but also borrow characters and motivations from his movies, while also unwisely lifting scenes and plot points directly from Game Of Thrones and even Baahubali.

It is likely the actual source material didn’t inspire them. The show is based on books by “Alex Rutherford”, a pen name for British writers Diana and Michael Preston, who clearly enjoy writing silly, sensationalist historical fiction. I couldn’t make it through the first page of Raiders From The North, the novel this first season is based on. It is tragic that the life of Babur—an emperor who was known, above all, for being an excellent and thorough diarist—has been reduced to this generic, unoriginal story of power and succession.

Babur is played by a sincere and committed Kunal Kapoor, who looks the part, but a fundamental issue in following this narrative of growth and rise is that the emperor never actually seems to age as an adult, even as the eight-episode series spans decades. Bafflingly, it even hops across timelines while the principal cast stubbornly looks the same, from fiery grandmothers to bitter warlords. Shaibani Khan, the villain of the series, first terrorises the teenaged Babur (where he was played mercifully by a child actor) and goes on to battle Babur the thoughtful Emperor, but Dino Morea, who plays Khan, stays the same while the child grows into a contemporary.

Shaibani Khan could have been an interesting adversary, and Morea has an infectiously good time playing a maniac, but the character is too ridiculous for a show that pretends to take itself seriously. He plays chess with big rocks and swings around a sword shaped like a can-opener. He’s clearly modelled on Ranveer Singh’s bloodthirsty Alauddin Khilji from Padmaavat, but in an early scene he skins a bear menacingly mid-conversation, the way Tywin Lannister once skinned a stag in Game Of Thrones. Later, as Babur’s sister Khanzada gets a Daenerys Targaryen arc, Shaibani becomes a Khal Drogo stand-in who kills an aspiring king with the crown he wants.

To their credit, Kumar and Iyer create some interesting and complicated female characters who seem to be the real ones controlling the chessboard. It is historically chronicled that women behind the crown held together the Mughal empire—from Babur’s grandmother and sister (whom we meet in The Empire) to Akbar’s foster mothers to Jahangir’s wife Noor Jahan, who ruled the empire alongside him—and the series rightly lauds them. Shabana Azmi invariably shines as Babur’s overpower grandmother Ehsan Daulat Begum, bestowing credibility merely by appearing on screen. Yet the show offers more conversations about strategy than it does actual strategy. It never feels compelling enough.

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The Empire gets better. Each episode is more tolerable than the last. Halfway through, some characters seemed to find their footing—but that could also be me making peace with the tedium on offer. This turquoise-coloured season features dodgy visual effects, poignant moments underscored by tinkly ambient massage parlour music, and one scene where I swear a drowning woman actually shouted “Humein bacha leejiye please!” At this rate of improvement, season 2 ought to be solid. In which case I recommend you read a summary of this season instead of actually watching it.

Palace intrigue as a genre can take on many shapes: a melodramatic soap opera, an excuse for jingoistic chest-thumping, an exploration of realpolitik, a cautionary tale drawing parallels with real-world leaders, a fantasy pulling together multiple strands of journeying heroes. The only real requirement is right there on the label: palace intrigue must intrigue. There is no edge to The Empire. It never draws blood. All the swords are wooden.

Streaming tip of the week:

Audiences eager for a great historical series should head to Rome on Disney+ Hotstar. The magnificent HBO show depicts ancient Rome going from Republic to Empire, and it’ll have you devouring encyclopaedia entries to keep up. As Caesar said, “Alea iacta est”.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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