The Empire Review: An Engaging Story of Family & the Casualty That is War
Starring Dino Morea, Kunal Kapoor, Shabana Azmi among others, The Empire is streaming on Disney+Hotstar.
The Empire Review: An Engaging Story of Family & The Casualty That is War
The Empire, adapted from Rutherford’s 'Empire of the Moghul' by Bhavani Iyer and AM Turaz, directed by Mitakshara Kumar, starring a very attractive Dino Morea, Shabana Azmi, Dhristi Dhami and Kunal Kapoor amongst a large cast of others, brought back fond memories of Uzbekistan, which I visited in 2018. It's a country that’s barely a skeletal remainder of what used to be a glorious, thriving, abundant land with passion, blood, sweat and tears infusing the air of Samarkand or Tashkent with the liveliness of life.
The show is not history, not a documentary and is far from a lot of what had probably happened. Like the book, it is historical fiction and deeply rooted in not only a time gone by, but in a time and people that existed this way only in our imagination. There will, of course, be comparisons to Bhansali or Game of Thrones but that is, I feel, equal parts necessary and unnecessary. A piece of art, while existing in a comparative framework, also exists as an individual artistic expression. I don’t see the Americans comparing their bromance films with Dil Chahta Hai or their war and slavery films with a Lagaan, Uri or even Border. For those wanting to watch something that will replicate the magic, scale and quality of Game of Thrones can skip this one, because it is not a show of that stature but it is something else in itself and one should or could watch it for that.
The first thing that hits you is the breathtaking visuals. Barring the sometimes tacky VFX of the palaces, castles and buildings, the actual sets and some special effects are beautiful.
The grand Timurid blue structures, shades of turquoise and indigo, a symbol of the Timurid empire and a colour Uzbekistan is bathed in even today, their intricate detailing, the lavish bed chambers and gloriously maintained gardens, the cobbled streets of some fairytale village and even the camp sites are designed with utmost beauty and care.
Another thing that comes at one almost immediately are the dialogues. South Asian television and cinema has a tendency to make all Muslim characters sound as if they all have a PhD in Urdu literature and speak only in poetry, with the flair of a Mirza Ghalib. The dialogues are very stylised and fall too sharply on the ears and for some, this can be a jarringly annoying experience.
The show has the quality of an epic-meets-Hindi TV serial in parts, full of melodramatic music in the first few episodes and lots of over-the-top crying and emoting. Not only do the first few episodes have loud and obvious music but are also slow, but that is the way the whole thing sets up. It is a slow burner, it takes two three episodes to get going but then it does and picks up a fair amount of pace.
The density of the book and story poses a fair challenge of being able to tell the story, all the important parts, while being entertaining and engaging and this leads to sometimes the script kind of racing through the moments, not allowing us enough time to be able to engage with the story and characters, not allowing us to connect with or care about them enough until we are almost halfway into the season.
For the most part, people are dying and crying and wailing and cursing and fighting and one hardly cares about these people but then, a few episodes in, once you know them a little, it redeems itself just in time. The writing also relies heavily on dialogue, the hammy Urdu poetry and much of intense staring and eye contact, at least in the first few episodes. The plot progresses yes, and rapidly so, yet there is little action and most of this happens in familiar looking glamorous chamber scenes between neurotic power hungry people. A little less of the standing around, telling the audience the intentions of the characters through dialogue versus them actually showing us what they think or want to do would’ve been more engaging, and while the lack of showing is there, the blood, violence and gore that they do show is very realistic and gut wrenchingly believable. Ten points for a great makeup and prosthetics team.
The story is of Babur, a young king trying to claim Samarkand in the face of danger, enemies and instability, his family and especially his sister, her sacrifices and bravery and this entire family’s back and forth with their ever clinging nemesis, Shaybani Khan.
This is Babur before India, a sort of prequel to our Mughal history, before he was an established emperor. This is a story, a very relatable for many people even today, of a young man in the throes of passionate youth, navigating the waters of self discovery, purpose and the desire to make his family (and the people of his kingdom) proud and happy. It is the story of deep familial and sibling love and of the sacrifices and efforts made by women throughout centuries in the wars fought by men, sacrifices and efforts that usually go ignored in our history books and movies.
This is a coming of age story, it is a story about family and the casualty that is war, a situation in which there are no winners.
The star of the show remain the set design, the make up, the beautiful costumes, Dino Morea (who is, obviously, going to be compared to the gorgeous Jason Momoa and is as sexy and as fun to watch) and Shabana Azmi and in parts, Dhami’s calculated and careful vulnerability, not too little not too much. My takeaway from this is that I want to see more of Dino Morea and that hopefully, this will pave the way for more homegrown large scale epics on the small screen.
The Empire is streaming on Disney+Hotstar.
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