In 1494, Emperor Umar Shaikh of Ferghana is feeding pigeons in his palace, while his eldest son, Babur, takes lessons in sword-fighting. All of a sudden, there’s an earthquake. It ruptures the front façade of the fort, stranding three generations of royalty — including Babur’s grandmother — on the side of a cliff.
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Ferghana’s Umar Shaikh did die in a freak accident, though it hardly would have been this dramatic. Still, the moment somehow works inside The Empire, a show about fathers, sons and the upswings of fate.
A little before the accident, Umar Shaikh and Babur are strolling in the gardens. They discuss the poetry of Amir Khusrau, how he combined Persian and Brij in his playful verses. “They speak Persian in Hindustan?” Babur asks. “They have many people, many tongues,” Umar Shaikh answers — a sentiment that Bhuj, a recent Mughal-bashing war film also on Disney+ Hotstar, would love to contradict.
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Created by Nikkhil Advani and directed by debutante Mitakshara Kumar, The Empire is a sharp, supple series. It adopts a set of historical fiction novels by Alex Rutherford; Season 1 is centred entirely on Babur. At 12, he’s crowned the king of Ferghana but flees when Uzbek leader Shaibani Khan (Dino Morea) captures his fort. Babur spends much of his life winning back Ferghana and Samarkand. His aim, though, remains Hindustan ruled by the mighty Ibrahim Lodhi.
Grown-up Babur is played by Kunal Kapoor. A no-brainer, I first thought, the actor’s sharp features and flowing locks easy to pick out in battle. But The Empire is also invested in Babur as a person and a patriarch. Early on, he’s accused of being too empathetic and ‘soft-hearted’: when he opens up the royal granary because people are starving, it’s seen as a sign of weakness. Kapoor portrays the first Mughal emperor as a man torn apart by conflict.
Shabana Azmi, as Babur’s grandmother, is rankled by his indecisions. Her toughlove sets him straight, unlike the other sort of love he finds (on that note, has Imaad Shah been typecast? After Bombay Begums, he’s once again stuck in a queer triangle). In the Indian arena, The Empire beats out its contemporaries in scale and ambition. Some of the exterior shots and battlefield vistas are stunning to behold. A chunk of them were shot in Uzbekstan — and it shows. The action, too, is smoothly choreographed and rendered. I’ll look out for Season 2, just to see how they scale up from here. The Empire has found its feet. Will it now strike back?
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