History is kicked around like a ragged, misshapen football. The teams are bitterly, passionately partisan. It is a clash of ideologies. Of our identity as a people. Our existence as a country. On one side, we have the vicious Indian version of America’s other pandemic, the raging cancel culture propagated by the Left. Our lot, pathologically in denial, want first to demonise and then erase the memory of Mughals, founders of our pre-eminent and last Empire.
Karnataka can fight a minor battle over Tipu Sultan. UP is on a renaming spree of its cities. For the blindly bigoted super-nationalists, Mughals need to be excised from our collective memory to be demolished – like the Babri Masjid. On the other side are the determined defenders of acknowledging, if not celebrating, our past — wars, warts, vandalism, and wisdom to be gleaned from the evolution of our syncretic culture.
Twitter tirades were par for course against the producers for making a series on Moghuls, who are to be forever demonised as invaders who ruled over the Hindus, forgetting the various dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate. The others left monuments around Delhi but none so magnificent as the Taj Mahal, majestic as Fatehpur Sikri, and the impressive Lal Quila. But the Hindutva brigade will try to denigrate this because they can’t deny their existence. Typically, a new OTT series doesn’t need such a prelude to a review. But these are not normal times, culturally and politically. Everything is grist to the hate mill.
This extended prelude is necessary to see Nikkhil Advani’s new period drama series, The Empire, on Disney + Hotstar as a noteworthy, authentic effort at recreating a chapter of history that is well documented. It is thanks to the Mughals’ penchant for writing memoirs and historical record-keeping, even if they are by scribes appointed by succeeding Mughal emperors. It is good that there are external sources to validate official versions. The first season tells us the troubled and finally triumphant saga of Babur from boy-king to Emperor of Hindustan. Hindustan is held out like a glittering, fabled prize to the 14-year old Babur by his father, a goal and dream to be pursued. Nationalistic critics will see this as an expedition of loot.
If this is one end of the spectrum of criticism, the opposite end is to disparage this ambitious series by comparing it to Game of Thrones and its worldwide fan following that waited for each season in a state of suspended animation and breathless expectation. Let’s dispense with this false comparison. GoT is plausible history mythologised with generous dollops of fantasy.
The continuum of the thread, of Stark-Lannister clash, may owe superficial resemblance to the War of Roses, but it also evokes the mystic memory of dragons conferring legitimacy on the rightful claimant to the Iron Throne, and the dystopian foreboding of zombies from the north breaching the famed wall and its guardians. Add the sex, both necessary for the story and many times merely gratuitous, and you had the world under your spell.
Does The Empire deserve this fierce war of words? The Empire is more modest in its scale and ambition. After all, it is fictionalised history based on Alex Rutherford’s book, Emperors of the Moghul: Raiders from the North. Sumptuously detailed by Indian standards, it is competently dramatised if not with great depth; there are tantalising undertones of home eroticism and unexpected similarities between the hero and the antagonist. It is still the most lavishly made series in our brief tryst with this new platform.
The transition from those interminable daily soaps to well-crafted plausible series is a quantum jump for our film-makers. The series has consistent aesthetics that don’t blind us with tinselly bling like the usual Indian mythological with their plastic beads for pearls and synthetics for silk, wobbly plaster pillars, and eye-hurting colours that have long corrupted public taste of what passes for royal grandeur.
The Empire tries for and achieves tasteful authenticity most of the time, except for some poor CIG generated images of severed hands and bleeding limbs littering a battlefield. Blue tiled walls, lofty pointed arches, weathered stone walls, and simple black and white floors, empty spaces that are not cluttered with ornate furniture, together they create a pleasing aura of visual realism. Except for the long shots of Fergana and Samarkand forts, which look like prettified early Disney fairy tales, a predominance of beige in the palette contrasts nicely with shades of blue, turquoise being the dominant colour. Costumes are in sober colours, flowy robes sometimes trimmed with furs, and striking use of turquoise-studded chunky silver jewellery create ethnic images. A trivial fact gleaned from history: turquoise was one of the chief exports from Indus Valley civilisation to the Middle East.
Cool blues of Kabul and Samarkand give way to warm sandstone and Rajasthani arches. The new royal family ensconced on Delhi’s throne wears gold chokers studded with precious stones. Babur’s descriptions of the verdant land are nowhere celebrated. Humayun’s illness now clouds the post-victory celebration over Ibrahim Lodi at the first battle of Panipat — his war wounds have been stealthily poisoned so that the princess of Kabul, who is Babur’s second wife, can claim the throne for her son who has royal blood in his veins from both sides. Humayun’s mother is a commoner Babur chose when spending his life in tents, waiting to get back Samarkand. The bloody saga of fratricide, harem intrigues, and succession wars that finally destroyed the Mughal empire continues. I suppose the series will unravel these battles between half- brothers. I am anticipating the second season.
Getting the look of setting and characters right is half the battle won. The second challenge is to tell a known story — vaguely known to most people and history students/buffs more aware of the details — in an engaging narrative that establishes relationships, motives, and the turbulent war-torn times where warlords were on a rampage of conquering small fiefdoms. Holding on to your land and throne is a fraught exercise. Babur (Kunal Kapoor with luxurious locks and thickly bearded, unlike the wispy curl sprouting on Babur’s chin that we see in miniatures) experienced this in his exiled days where he bought peace (temporary) by trading a safe passage for his family out of Samarkand. He yielded his throne to the feared warlord Shaybani Khan (hard to recognise Dino Morea). His beloved older sister Khanzada (Drashti Dhami) is the price (and prize) demanded, and Babur agrees.
The bargain is reported to be historically accurate. The transaction underlines that Babur held his family dearer than his throne that had been under siege for six years. He had won the impregnable fortress with the help of a young local boy Qasim (Imaad Shah), who he had rescued from a mob (Incidentally, the homoerotic undertone of this friendship of unequals is subtle). Khanzada is a proud and a skilled swordswoman, learning the kingly sport from watching young Babur being tutored by Wazir Khan (Rahul Dev, sporting a glass eye and the bearing of a warrior). He is a mentor and father figure to Babur till he dies in battle.
12-year-old Babur needs a father figure. The death of Umar Sheikh Mirza, the Amir of Fergana, is the result of a fateful choice made by Aisan Daulat Begum, more familiarly addressed as Shah Begum. She is his mother-in-law, and both are involved in a freak accident where Umar Mirza falls to death from the fortress wall during an earthquake when she lets go of his hand as they are being pulled from the ruins. She chooses the young grandson to groom and mentor for greatness.
No one could have played Shah Begum other than Shabana Azmi, pitch-perfect as expected. Surrounded by court intrigues and the plots of the late Amir’s mistress to put her son on the throne, it is Shah Begum’s intelligence and foresight that saved Babur and guided him on his uncertain journey. She helped him put trustworthy men in positions of power to forestall traitors who went over to Shaybani Khan, waiting for his chance to grab Fergana and then Samarkand.
Areeba Sundus writes in her article 4 Women who ruled over the Mughal World: “She was the one who saved him from conspiracies, taught him initial lessons of warfare and diplomatic affairs.” In his disconcertingly frank Baburnama, the founder of the Empire is never less than deferential to the women of his family, especially his grandmother (“there were few women like her”, he writes) and an older sister who became his chief counsel after the grandmother died — guilty but unapologetic, shunned by the grandson who knows how she let his father die. Shabana embodies the redoubtable Shah Begum’s sagacity, strength, and superior intelligence in her bearing, speech and voice inflections with such palpable power without ever lapsing into magniloquence that you don’t notice others when she is on screen.
Drashti Dhami grows into the resilient Khanzada after a love-hate relationship with Shaybani Khan. She thaws after discovering his sad childhood — the backgrounder is so sketchy you can miss it amongst all the action — that he is scarred as the son of a loose woman. At least, that’s what is implied. So he grows into this monster, strutting his machismo, and yet, we see him lost in the melody a musician strums on a Timurid version of the harp. We see him skinning a bear — eagle-eyed watchers have traced it to Lannister doing the same in GoT. The script writers are not apologetic about their eclectic borrowing, brave in these days of global audiences. In short, Shaybani Khan is the larger than life antagonist, sometimes modelled on Padmaavat’s Alauddin Khilji. Not surprising, since director Mitakshara Kumar is groomed in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s school of excess. To be fair, she is more restrained, and gives a hint of complexities under the warrior avatars of her men.
In this narrative full of the sound and fury of savage battles, there are quiet moments where complex feelings run more deeply than an obvious subtext. If nothing else, The Empire has made us research into the life and power of Mughal women operating in a patriarchal system. Here is a gem, Babur’s letter to Khanzada: “You’re a heroine; my saviour. My Goddess; my good-luck charm. Without your sacrifice, I and mine would never have survived. I certainly wouldn’t have lived to conquer Kabul and make plans to expand my rule. You shall not only join my family but become the head. You shall be Padshah Begum, for you are the light of our clan. We exist because of you.”
Baburnama tells us he is a man who appreciates the arts and a passionate creator of gardens. In an early episode, his father talks of Amir Khusro’s poetry in the fables he spins around Hindustan. He quotes the famous couplet that begins with a line in Persian and followed by the next line in Hindavi:
ze-hāl-e-miskīñ makun taġhāful
durā.e naināñ banā.e batiyāñ,
ki tāb-e-hijrāñ nadāram ai jaañ
na lehū kaahe lagā.e chhatiyāñ
The enthralled boy listens, but there isn’t much time for poetry in the strife-riven life of Timur’s great-great-grandson. This brings us to the question of language and ethnicity. Baburnama is written in Chagatai Turkic. We are familiar with Persianised Urdu in Mughal courts and happily accept anachronisms. Could they have cast an Uzbek or Tajik character as Babur for ethnic credibility? It is comforting to see a typical North-Indian man play a Timurid princeling who became India’s emperor. That is one way of owning history.
If we look back at Hindi films, right from Chengiz Khan to the Chinese wife of Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani and the comic villainy of Dr.Dang in Karma, we went along with Indians sporting slanting eyebrows, and a Maharashtrian actress speaking sing-song Hindi to pass for a Chinese nurse. It results in unintended comedy at times, but that’s somehow endearing. We are like that only. And thank god for the acceptance.