The Empire Review: The Magnum Opus, Starring Shabana Azmi, Kunal Kapoor, Drashti Dhami And Dino Morea, Strikes Blank

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By the time good old Babur reached India with his invasive impulses, I was exhausted beyond belief. The Empire (earlier titled The Moghuls and based on Alex Rutherford’s Empire Of The Moghuls) is an extremely taxing watch. It moves at a brisk enough pace but lacks grace. It doesn’t quite follow the etiquettes and rules of a decent journey. Often the pace slackens. And sometimes scenes just swish by in a rush, as if the editors (Sagar Manik, Atanu Mukherjee) were being briefed to get on with the show. (Will you?!)


The attempts to humanise the show’s villain Shaybani (Dino Morea) are especially disastrous. We get quick flashes, as though the details were too gruesome, from Shaybani’s childhood where he was apparently branded on his cheek and raped by a gentleman who looks at the poor boy as though he were a chicken leg. We are supposed to believe that this is reason enough for Shaybani to plunder loot maul ravage and, yes, rape thousands and to tell Babur the king of Samarkhand to leave his sister behind and vacate his kingdom.Babur obliges. And then spends time flogging himself in repentance while his grandmother watches from a safe distance.


If this part of the narration reminds you of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat then the resemblances are not at all coincidental. The director Mitakshara Kumar has assisted Bhansali. The Empire has Bajirao Mastani and Padmaavat written all over its frames. To her credit the director does have a flair for the epic. The battle scenes are diligently mounted and executed with an expansive elan.



But the director’s vision is let down by the cornucopia of corny courtly conspiracies. They may be true (though I doubt that Humayun’s Choti Ammi entered his bedroom and touched him inappropriately, as the series shows). The way the courtly intrigue exposes itself in the long and winding narrative, is not only unbelievable it lacks the epic credibility of Bhansali’s cinema. (We are not even going into The Game Of Thrones).


The other major problem, and perhaps the biggest hurdle to its cogency, is Kunal Kapoor as Babur. Since this is Babur’s story, the plot needed an actor with an imposing implosive presence. I am afraid flaring nostrils just won’t do. Kapoor comes across as weak and not only because history often caught him on the wrong foot. His troubled relationship with his grandmother Aisan Daulat Beghum is fuelled by Shabana Azmi’s stately presence. But Babur’s all-crucial relationship with his sister falls flat because both the actors portraying the relationship fail to rise to the occasion.


As for Dino Morea as Shaybani, he compares very poorly with Ranveer Singh’s Allauddin Khilji. The latter was consistently evil, as he was meant to be. Dino’s Shaybani goes from marauder to loverboy, to putty in Babur’s sister’s hand. She, the sister Khanzada Beghum, who is held captive by Shaybani, suffers from Stockholm syndrome long before Stockholm existed. Visionaries, I tell you!


In one very pointed homage to Bhansali, Khanzada Beghum unfurls reams of red velvet cloth from her belly and lets it drift towards Shaybani who looks a little taken aback.



Even more problematic is Babur’s ambiguous relationship with his best friend Qasim (Imaad Shah). They are obviously attracted to each other. But their mutual passion is squandered in battles far more extraneous and decisive.


At the end of this arduous excursion into the Moghuls invasive arrogance, I was left with many unanswered questions: why get an impersonator to do a Bhansali? Why are good actors like Rahul Dev and Aditya Seal so underused? Why does the series repeatedly invoke the grandeur of Bhansali; but not his grace and vision? Why doesn't Shabana Azmi’s Nanijaan have one grey hair on her head?


Now that’s a performance to ‘dye’ for.







Image source: Hotstar, Youtube/DisneyHotstar, Instagram/thedinomorea


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