The Empire review: Full marks for ambition, yet familiar clichés abound
The makers of The Empire deserve to be rewarded for the scale and the feel, with the chance to follow up with future seasons. But they desperately need to get their act together in terms of writing and casting.
The ambition on view in Hotstar Specials The Empire is sprawling. Based on the historical fiction novel series Empire of the Moghul by Alex Rutherford, the centuries-spanning saga seems ripe for a grand audio-visual retelling in India’s rapidly growing streaming market. The lust for power, the machinations of warlords, the founding of empires, family dynamics, betrayal from within – a game of takhts, if you will.
Season 1 of the show, created by Nikkhil Advani and Emmay Entertainment, and directed by Mitakshara Kumar, is based on the first volume of the six-part series, 'Raiders from the North.' In this first chapter of the epic saga, Timurid warrior Babur, convinced of the greatness of his bloodline, seeks an empire that is worthy of it. Hindustan is a distant dream, but a perpetual one nonetheless. Before he can embark upon what he sees as his destiny, Babur must first handle the reigns of a shaky, nascent empire and vanquish his immediate foes.
There is much to appreciate in The Empire, primarily in terms of its look and feel. This kind of show would have been no easy feat to pull off, particularly because it started shooting a little before the pandemic struck in 2020. Much of it was completed later in the year, after lockdown restrictions were eased. Director Mitakshara Kumar is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali alumna, and the pedigree shows.
The multitude of indoor spaces inhabited by the characters through the season seem rather reminiscent of the Bhansali oeuvre, particularly Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat. The production design by Priya Suhass is lavish, the detail in each frame is impeccable. While some of the CGI backdrops do stick out at times, they are at least functional for the most.
If the aim was to create a hitherto unseen scale for an Indian streaming show, at least that much was certainly achieved.
What makes the show a bit of a mixed bag — favouring the bottom end more than the top, to be honest — is its incoherent plotting and staging. That the show is no historical account is clear. While I am not familiar with the source material, what you see in this first season is a strangely insipid storyline beginning with Babur’s teenage years and going as late into his life as it possibly can, while setting things up for the seasons to follow.
Familiar clichés abound. Look no further than the neglected wife of the polygamous ruler who is convinced it is her son who deserves the throne, not the cooler kid of the more favoured begum. There are two of these at various points on this first season alone, and this stealing of Kaikeyi’s thunder is only one of the many been-there-seen-that elements of The Empire.
The young king’s unconditionally loyal Kattappa? Check. Brutal, hirsute, marauding warlord as anti-hero? Check. Strong-willed matriarchal figures of the Sivagami vintage? Double check. You think about it, and much of what you see on the show can be found in the two Baahubali films and the last two Bhansali pictures.
To make matters worse, much of the scenes in the first few episodes are banal at best, though to be fair, you do have some richer scenes as the season progresses. The leaps in time are incoherent; and borrowing that most inane eccentricity of the Indian daily soap, the female characters do not seem to age even though the story spans over two decades.
There is also a certain stilted quality about the manner in which characters occupy their space and perform on screen. While some of it must be a function of the almost theatrical language used, I cannot quite understand why India’s period pieces from the medieval and post-medieval era never seem to move past this rigid style that limits characters from seeming fully fleshed out as people. It makes matters worse that the writing of most characters just lacks enough depth. They are tropes, not fully developed people, and they spout lines that do not mean much for the most. Believe me, it hurts the story.
It does not help that the casting is not particularly strong either. Kunal Kapoor cuts an impressive figure as Babur, and so does Dino Morea as his nemesis Shaybani Khan. But they are caricatures at the end of the day, as are many of the supporting characters. Drashti Dhami as Babur’s sister Khanzada and Sahher Bambba as one of his wives are perhaps the most impressive on the show (after Shabani Azmi, of course, who makes the most of the under-utilised Naani-jaan character she is saddled with.)
Striking young Aditya Seal makes a late entry into the season as Humayan, and doubtlessly he’ll be one of the key characters in the second season of the show. Plenty more characters are built to no end, either meeting pointless deaths against the run of play, or just coming in for convenient reasons to push the story forward.
For what they have managed to pull off in terms of scale and feel, the makers of The Empire deserve to be rewarded, with the chance to follow up with future seasons. But they desperately need to get their act together in terms of writing and casting. It is hard to emphasise just how weakly scripted the show is. And what will weigh most heavily against it is the lack of great moments, memorable scenes, and iconic characters over its eight-episode season. There is still a potential five seasons of this exciting story to be told, if the books are any measure of it. The time to course-correct is now.
The Empire is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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