The Empire shows yet again why Hindi cinema can't get Mughals right

Given the track record of Hindi cinema, it comes as no surprise that Kunal Kapoor is cast as Babur, a pale, slant-eyed, wispy-bearded, Chagatai-Turkic speaking foreign invader.

Reshmi Dasgupta September 02, 2021 09:46:48 IST
The Empire shows yet again why Hindi cinema can't get Mughals right

Kunal Kapoor as Babur in The Empire

On the face of it, if Jamaican-Brit Jodie Turner-Smith could be chosen to play the Tudor monarch Henry VIII’s short-lived second queen Anne Boleyn on TV in 2021, there is no reason why Kunal Kapoor cannot be the 16th century Mongol invader Babur in the new web series The Empire. After all, Priyanka Chopra Jonas was roped in to play Mary Kom in the biopic of the Manipuri boxer, and Elizabeth Taylor played the Ptolemaic Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Cultural appropriation is the usual cry in the West these days, when a white person assays the role of a non-white character, but not so when it happens the other way round. In India, it is more complicated. Much has to do with the ‘saleability’ of the actors as the masses do not base their movie preferences on altruistic precepts such as gender or racial parity. Dharmendra playing medieval queen Razia Sultan’s Abyssinian lover Yakut is okay with Indian audiences.

Thus the casting of the very North Indian-looking Kunal Kapoor as Babur (inexplicably sporting a diamond nose pin on his aquiline proboscis) was probably based precisely on such considerations. The same goes for making Indo-Italian actor Dino Morea play the wily Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan as a kohl-wearing, long-locked, battle-scarred sadist despite no available records showing he had any such specific cosmetic predilections or affectations.

Sometimes, it pays to be different. There is really no need to show all medieval villains as mere avatars of Ranveer Singh’s version of Allaudin Khilji (right down to the kajal, cackles, and casual cruelty) from Padmaavat or the muscle-bound barbarian Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) from Game of Thrones. In fact, opting for an ethnically accurate portrayal of both Babur and Shaybani Khan may have gone down unexpectedly well with at least Indian audiences in the context of the current situation.

India, of course, has long accepted indigenous actors playing, say, Japanese and Chinese characters too, with just some clichéd makeup hacks. So, adding Mr-Spock-like slanting eyebrows to Shabana Azmi’s very familiar face is still enough for us Indians to believe she is Babur’s feisty maternal grandmother Aisan Daulat Begum, a lady of pure Turkic-Mongol lineage. Of course, her impeccable Urdu as Babur’s 'Naani-jaan' is more improbable than her eyebrows.

It is said that the young, soon-to-be-evicted emir of Ferghana, Zahir-ud-din Mohammed was given the title Babur — meaning ‘tiger’ in Persian, which was the language of the court elite, and ‘beaver’ in his native tongue Chagatai Turkic, that is now extinct — as his wider circle could not pronounce his proper name. Therefore, the chances of any of them speaking Urdu, that too with the cutting finesse of Azmi’s Aisan Daulat Begum are rather slim.

Be that as it may, it is highly unlikely that casting a hirsute Kapoor is an attempt to gloss over fact that Babur was a pale, slant-eyed, wispy-bearded, Chagatai-Turkic speaking foreign invader, not a bronze-skinned, Urdu-spouting indigenous successor to the many Lodi, Tughlaq, Khilji, and Mameluk sultans of India.

Subcontinental actors playing historical characters who hailed from the far side of the Hindu Kush is just a convenience, not a devious connivance.

But this series is not the first ‘offender’ when it comes to reimagining identities. The original ‘sin’ was the casting of the emphatically Punjabi, square-jawed, and bushy-moustached stentorian Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam in 1960. Then the green-eyed, sharp-nosed Hrithik Roshan reprised the same role in Jodhaa Akbar in 2008. Bollywood clearly forgot the third Mughal emperor was a direct descendant of Mongol conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur.

The Empire shows yet again why Hindi cinema cant get Mughals right

Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar and Dilip Kumar as Jehangir in Mughal-e-Azam

If Prithviraj Kapoor has been imprinted on the Indian audiences’ minds as the template for Akbar — not to mention a limpid-eyed Dilip Kumar as the besotted Prince Salim aka Jehangir — then Kunal Kapoor as their formidable ancestor Babur is perfectly plausible. Even round-eyed Drashti Dhami as Babur’s beloved older sister and confidante Khanzada Begum and Roman-nosed Rahul Dev as Babur’s trusted Mongol general Wazir Khan are par for the course.

Given the potential for all web series to reach audiences beyond ‘home’ markets these days, of course, the producers could have ventured beyond merely shooting in Uzbekistan, and actually signed on Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh or Kyrghyz actors. They share the same ancestry as Babur, and certainly look more like the first three Mughal rulers than most Indian actors do, as the folios of Baburnama, currently displayed in museums around the world, would corroborate.

Although Babur’s original memoir in Chagatai-Turkic was not illustrated, his grandson Akbar did produce several gloriously illustrated versions to embellish the Persian translation he commissioned some 80 years later. There were still enough people around to provide the miniature portraitists of Akbar’s time with reasonably accurate descriptions of the facial features and sartorial particulars of his ancestors. And they did not look remotely North Indian.

Some may say that the distinct facial features and clothes of the early Mughals, as well as their links to the region in Central Asia once called Moghulistan — now split between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Uyghur areas of China — might put ideas into the heads of India’s increasingly belligerent northern neighbour. But that argument does not wash as the Mongols once ruled China too, long before a latter-day branch decided to try their luck in India.

The soft power benefits of coopting actors from Central Asia into an Indian web series — given the popularity of Bollywood movies and music there — also merits consideration. There is no denying Babur was a Central Asian invader, but he did start a dynasty in India. This connection with those nations could serve us in good stead with developments in Afghanistan (another country with historical links) creating a need for India to seek out other friends in the region.

Having a Jamaican play a British queen is clearly pushing the envelope on imagined identities. Since we are used to the production of, say, William Shakespeare’s plays in many countries outside the white sphere, there is no reason to stick to realism beyond a point in the portrayal of the early Mughals (Mongols) as South Asians either. But in the case of The Empire, authenticity would have been more daring than sticking to acceptability as the main consideration.

The Empire is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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