‘The Empire’ Review: An ambitious retelling of the story of the rise of Mughals

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

“The ambition of the Mughals of India, from the time of Babur himself, was to found an empire worthy of their glorious ancestors. Hindustan, for them, was never a plunderous foray. It was a homeland to be created and claimed, at a time when anything less than blistering confidence meant instant death,” writes Ira Mukhoty in her brilliant book on the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire in India titled ‘Daughters of the Sun’. Mukhoty’s accounts offer interesting insights about the liberal Timurid tradition of educating their girls in mathematics, history, physics, poetry, astronomy, etc just as boys, which ensured that the Timurid women were among some of the most educated of their age. Among the great Mughal matriarchs, perhaps the most extraordinary was one Khanzada Begum who, at the age of 65, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passages, battling unforgiving weather, to negotiate a deal on the behalf of her nephew, Humayun. The new Disney+ Hotstar series ‘The Empire’ brings us face to face with a young Khanzada (essayed by Drashti Dhami), who at the age of 23, is forced to marry the ferocious Uzbek warlord Shaybani aka Wormwood Khan (portrayed by Dino Morea) in order to help secure a safe passage for Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (played by Kunal Kapoor), her younger brother, long before Babur’s famous exploits against the Lodi dynasty during the First battle of Panipat in 1526.

Now, it is generally believed that Babur is unusually candid about almost everything in his autobiography ‘Bāburnāma’. Perhaps, the only time he loses his blunt frankness is when he talks about losing Khanzada to Shaybani Khan whilst he fled Samarkand. Babur’s failure as a young ruler in Central Asia (Fergana, Samarkand, and Kabul) as well as his inability to prevent Khanzada from falling in the hands of Shaybani Khan shapes up the rest of his life. The Nikkhil Advani-created series based on the novel series ‘Empire of the Moghul’ by Alex Rutherford introduces us to an eleven-year-old Babur who doesn’t even know how to properly hold a sword. When his liberal-minded father Umar Sheikh Mirza, ruler of the Fergana Valley, tells him about the cultural diversity of India, the home of Indo-Persian Sufi poet and scholar Amīr Khusrau, he is mightily impressed. But his father’s sudden death in 1494 and the constant threat of Shaybani Khan devoid him of his childhood as he is plunged into a never ending war. Fast forward to 1526, a battle-hardened Babur barely escapes his death at the hands of Ibrahim Lodi’s forces in Panipat, as he reminisces how he has been evading death all his life. Is it just coincidence? Or destiny has someone grand in store for him?

The eight-episode series is directed by Mitakshara Kumar whom Advani handpicked because of her work as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s assistant on his period epics, ‘Bajirao Mastani’ and ‘Padmaavat’. Mitakshara is also one of the co-writers on the series. Now, in the recent times, Mughal rulers have been described as barbaric marauders who saw India as a place of plunder as opposed to the traditional view that portrays them as civilized rulers who embraced India as their adopted motherland. But Advani has gone on record to say that he is merely interested in telling the story that is there in the source material: “I am just telling the story that is there in the source material. There will be contrasting views, interpretations, people might say, 'This other book says this.' We are not claiming that we have been factual; we are claiming that we are following the book. The book, for all intentions and purposes, is historical fiction.”

‘The Empire’ is an ambitious retelling of the story of the rise of Mughals. The series presents a largely unexplored story of a young Babur and his struggle to protect the honour of his family as well as his kingdom. It’s shot across multiple locations in India and Uzbekistan. We are talking about a massive production on an unprecedented scale as far as the Indian entertainment space is concerned. Needless to say, the show’s period detail is striking, particularly from the third episode onwards (for some reason the first couple of episodes lack in terms of visual grandeur that the rest of the season offers). Also, the acting performances are solid all around. While Dino Morea is fun to watch as the menacing Shaybani Khan, Kunal Kapoor looks quite earnest as Babur. Rahul Dev and Shabana Azmi bring a certain conviction to the series though their brilliant performances. But the real show stealer is Drashti Dhami as Khanzada. The rest of the cast support them well with Imaad Shah deserving a special mention. However, the male actors, in particular, fail to capture the nuances, especially with regards to the language and diction. It is definitely one critical area that Advani and team ought to have worked on more. But that’s something for the connoisseurs to notice, for the average viewer may not pay much heed to these inconsistencies.

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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