The Empire is a bold and beautiful attempt to break stereotype in Indian TV serials

Mir Ayood Ali Khan

Disney plus Hotstar have pulled off an impossible feat. They made a TV serial on the founder of Mughal Dynasty in India, Zaheeruddin Mohammed Babar. Beginning from late 1980s, the intensification in campaign against Babri Masjid in Ayodhya there were concerted efforts to paint the entire Muslim population of India as ‘Babur ki Aulad’ or progeny of Babur. The effects of the demolition of the mosque by zealot mobs on December 6, 1992 are still reverberating in public mind and behavior.

In such an atmosphere, one would think that it is impossible to make a TV series like The Empire on the Mughals beginning with Babur.  Even in the past when the atmosphere was not as volatile as it is today, only one or two feeble attempts were made to make films on Babur.

Idealized portrait of Babur, early 17th century

However, the subject of Mughals was never taboo.  One of the all time great movie made in India on the love story of Prince Saleem and commoner Anarkali is Mughal-e-Azam.There were also other interesting movies on the Mughals like Jodha Akbar, Taj Mahal, Anarkali, Nur Jahan etc.

With Disney plus Hotstar agreeing to get involved with the making of The Empire based on the set of novels—The Empire of the Mughal–Raiders of the North–written by Alex Rutherford there was no looking back. The first eight-part series is written by Mitakshara Kumar and Bhavani Iyer is making waves in the country. Mitakshara Kumar has directed it.  She has done a wonderful job.

The story begins when Babur was only about 12 years of age. He was the son of the governor of Ferghana in Central Asia who was more a poet, philosopher and mystique than a military man or a tough administrator. His lessons to his son Babur include a brief poetry session on Amir Khusro of India who wrote in a mix of Persian and Brij Bhasha. That language later turned out to be the prototype of Urdu.

On the death of his father, Babur is crowned as governor of Ferghana when he was only 12 years of age. From there begins a tumultuous life journey of Babur who is shown in the series as disinclined to wage wars and indulge in loot and bloodshed. He spends most years of his life in winning Ferghana, losing it, winning Samarkand and losing it too. He becomes a wanderer king until he finds a foothold in Afghanistan through marriage to the daughter of a recently dead king. At that time, he was already married to the daughter of his general and he loved her the most.

At the prodding of people close to him, he takes the route to Delhi where Ibrahim Lodhi, a king with roots in Afghanistan, was in power. He enters the battlefield with a lesser number of men than his opponent who had also deployed a large force of elephants that Babur had never faced earlier. At a time in the war when he has almost accepted defeat and wanted to flee the battlefield arrives his old friend, Qasim, with barrels full of gun powder and cannons. He returns to the battle of Panipat with renewed vigour and hope. He is joined in the battlefield by his son Humayun who had defied his orders, gathered some force and came to fight alongside his father.

The 1526 battle is won. But it leaves behind a badly injured Humayun. The journey of Babur in The Empire stops here for no obvious reason. It gives the impression as if Babur did not face any other formidable opposition in India during his brief four or five years of rule which is historically wrong.

The story takes us back to a king who is back on the horn of dilemma. Then comes the crisis of succession which he fails to resolve.  His sister uses her influence to put Humayan on the throne leaving brother Kamran Mirza fuming.

Kunal Kapoor in the role of Babur has excelled his previous film appearances whereas Dino Morea outshine in the mostly stonehearted character of Shabani Khan, Babur’s arch enemy. Drashti Dhami, as Babur’s sister with wisdom and steely determination, shines. She never gives a moment where she could be slipping out of her character.

Rahul Dev as the most loyal general of Babur pulls out an impressive feat.

Imad Shah, veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah’s son, as Babur’s ‘comrade in arms’ lends noteworthy support. The series shows him as a person who cannot share Babur’s proximity with anyone. At one point, Babur had to deal with him harshly to show that he cannot be ‘the friend’ of Qasim alone.  He loves his harem and as well as other members of the family.

Topping the list of actors is veteran Shabana Azmi. As a tough Nanijaan of Babur who is also loving at the same time Azmi’s presence makes a huge difference to the characterization in the series.

The sets are beautiful but hugely flawed. The palaces and forts are filled with turquoise blue hues all along which gives a good feeling but the sets as unreal, painting like.

Simply put, The Empire sets a new beginning in Indian TV serials.