It isn’t uncommon to see people lose their shit on Indian Twitter and demand something be boycotted for the heck of it. It takes one uninformed idiot to tweet something and unleash a swarm of jobless human bots. Remember the hilarious Snapchat snafu, where people gave Indian ecommerce platform, Snapdeal, a bad rating on PlayStore instead of Snapchat? Or how they cancelled Spiderman actor Tom Holland for a tweet he never made?
The past weekend, many of us woke up to see #UninstallHotstar trending on Twitter, Hotstar being a mammoth Indian subscription-based OTT platform.
On further research (which means, I went on Twitter and clicked on the hashtag), I found that several Indians were enraged that The Empire – an ambitious show that chronicles the rise and fall of the Mughal Sultanate – was now streaming in India, featuring Indian actors, on Indian digital screens. The angry hashtag stemmed from how several proud Indians felt the showrunners glorified the Mughal invaders and was, therefore, an insult to India’s history as a nation.
The inherent xenophobia on display notwithstanding, I had to witness the show for myself. If only the trolls could actually watch the series like I did, they’d realise that their hate towards the show was kinda justified. Mainly because “the biggest show India has ever seen” is just excruciatingly painful to get through.
The Empire is adapted from Alex Rutherfords’s book Raiders from the North, the first in the historical fiction series, Empire of the Moghul. When I say historical fiction, you best believe it, because this is not what you were taught in history class. That was far less boring.
Featuring actor Kunal Kapoor as Babur, the first emperor of the Mughal dynasty, the show takes us from his adolescent years in Fergana in Uzbekistan to his final days in India.
However, unlike other period dramas, The Empire has no anchoring plot to hold your attention. Among period dramas, the Baahubali films are a grand revenge tale, while Jodhaa Akbar is a tale of love and politics.
This show just... is.
It has no specific reason to exist, apart from the fact that someone decided to give money and control to writer-director Nikhil Advani even after debacles like Salaam-e-Ishq and Chandni Chowk to China.
Okay, this is going to be quick because there’s very little the series gets right.
First off, the costume and set design are splendid. Even when it’s not practical as a set to build and we get a CGI panoramic shot of a palace or fort in its place, it’s decent and can hold its ground when compared to international shows. Sadly, I’m afraid that’s where most of the budget went.
There’s also decent special effects and fight choreography, with ample use of blood and visceral gore to keep slasher fans like me intrigued.
The cinematography by Nigam Bomzan deserves mention here, because even when everything around it is failing, you get some beautiful, well-thought-out shots.
What Doesn’t Work
We have to address the dragon in the room. The Empire is being called India’s Game of Thrones. And the comparisons to the show are warranted, no matter what the cast and crew say.
They tried, and they failed miserably.
The Empire has plot threads that are eerily similar to GoT, as well as shot-by-shot copies of several iconic scenes from the HBO show.
Two men standing over an icy wall staring at a wild incoming army. Check. The hero’s army ready for battle as the camera pans sideways to show the general marching forward. Check. A woman tied in a loveless marriage who learns to take control of the monster she married. Check.
In fact, the poster of the series in which Babur looks at an oncoming horde is a straight-up reference to Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards. They even have a discount Lord Varys, complete with an eerily similar backstory about him losing his testicles.
I’ve often wondered why despite being in one of Bollywood’s most loved films, Rang De Basanti, we hardly get to see Kunal Kapoor in other films or shows. But when you put him in the shoes of someone like Babur and make him the leading man in a series, it becomes apparent why that is so.
He just can’t act or emote to save his life. At no point did I empathise with his character or his struggles as a just leader. His character has been written with very little complexity, and the fact that he yells in every fight scene like I do after a night of chilli chicken says a lot about how we don’t get much to hold on to with him.
But Kapoor shines when compared to the antagonist Shaybani Khan, played by actor Dino Morea, who is at once a combination of Khal Drogo and Ramsay Bolton.
Much like actual dinos, I’d forgotten about Morea’s existence until I saw him looming on the show billboards. I was happy for him – he’d finally gotten a bigger paycheck after admitting he had a tough time getting acting gigs despite a couple of hits to his name. But, boy, does he still struggle to act. His character gets the worst origin story, the worst edits, the worst lines, and the worst death midway through the series.
The show also stars Rahul Dev and Shabana Azmi – two decent actors who play Babur’s close aides – but who look like they felt unwell midway through the production.
A brave decision taken by the showrunners was to cast Toranj Kayvon, who is of Persian origin, and Kallirroi Tziafeta, who is Greek, in two major roles. While other Indian-origin stage and film actors run circles around them in Urdu, they struggle to get the words properly out of their mouths. It’s a crying shame, really, and it physically hurts to see them struggle like that, sticking out like sore thumbs.
The first three episodes have timeline jumps between Babur’s childhood and adulthood, and I swear they haven’t done a single thing to distinguish the two timelines except that Kunal Kapoor, obviously, couldn’t play a child. The actors don’t age in this series, even if the plot spans 18 years. The dialogue is so simple and pointless at times that the show may as well have been in Dothraki to make it sound at least a bit interesting.
Honestly, the one person who’d have made a lot of profit off this series is the one who rented the fog machines to the production. If you need to hide the lack of extras on screen or the choppy CGI, that’s what you use in buttloads to cover it up – especially in scenes like the historical Battle of Panipat. The battle is famous in our history books because we all know Babur fought Ibrahim Lodi, but we are never introduced to the latter before this point to help us understand why he is the bad guy. One of Indian history’s biggest battles, and we have no stakes.
Now that IPL has been pushed to indefinite purgatory until September and Game of Thrones season 8 is nothing but a horrid yet faint fever dream, Hotstar needs something to keep their Indian audiences paying their monthly dues. However, I am not sure if investing in hackneyed concepts is the way to go about it.
I sincerely hope they don’t already plan on a second season of The Empire because, unlike George R. R. Martin, Alex Rutherford actually went ahead and finished his book series.
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