The Empire review: Horrendous Hotstar show rips off Game of Thrones, apes Sanjay Leela Bhansali
The Empire review: A potentially engaging story of palace intrigue is wasted in Disney+ Hotstar's consistently dull adaptation of Alex Rutherford's Mughal era novels.
With entire scenes lifted from Game of Thrones, forts that look like they’re made of polystyrene, and stone floors that wobble when people fall on them, The Empire would be unintentionally hilarious if it wasn’t so unbearably dull. I wonder when Disney+ Hotstar will realize that making tall claims about its titles always backfires. OK, Computer wasn’t the country’s first science-fiction comedy, and The Empire, going by its subpar CGI and cheap prosthetics, is certainly not ‘the biggest show created in India’.
What an oddly directed project this is. Basic techniques like insert shots, or blocking, seem to be alien concepts to series director Mitakshara Kumar. It seems as though she instructed her crew to simply switch the cameras on and point them in the general direction of her actors, who perform their scenes with a collective deer-in-the-headlights look. But the storytelling, remarkably, is even more lackluster than the visual approach.
The Empire is at once episodic and unnecessarily non-linear. I would complain about the action cutting across timelines just when things are about to get interesting, but that is a complaint predicated on the assumption that things get interesting at all. They don’t. This is somewhat stunning because, conservatively speaking, at least 60% of this show is set inside the politically charged personal chambers of Mughals.
The Empire treats potent themes like greed, ambition, and power as if they’re the gangrenous legs of a slain ‘sipahi’. Instead, it devotes an interminable amount of time to talk. So much talking. People say the word ‘darasal’ a lot. And all of it is done in grim tones, as if each time a character opens their mouth, they anticipate that it’ll be the last time. It’s almost as if they know they’re being filmed. “Talwar se zameen fateh ki jaati hai aur akal se logon ki wafadari,” Emperor Babur says in one scene. But the show never bothers to convey this strategy visually. Perhaps it feels we’re too slow to follow along?
Ironically, Babur, fond as he is of loyalty, allows himself to get stabbed in the back on several occasions. One of those backstabbers is played by none other than Imaad Shah. Spare a thought for the poor guy, who’s been typecast to such a tragic degree that even for a show set in the Mughal era, he’s called upon to play a stoner.
Based on the novels by Alex Rutherford (who I recently learned isn’t even a real person, but actually a married couple, concealed as if under a trench coat), The Empire is a bloated, bulbous mess. It’s relatively short — eight episodes ranging from 35 minutes to 50 minutes long — but watching Prince of Persia cutscenes play on a loop for three days would seem like a smoother ride.
Technically, it’s sort of like a cradle-to-the-grave story of Babur, the first Mughal king, but at no point does actor Kunal Kapoor appear to age. In fact, this is a major sticking-point. It’s virtually impossible to tell who’s who, and what period in history we’ve been dropped into, because nobody seems to grow older. And then there’s the categorically confounding decision to cast Sahher Bambba (22, reportedly) as Maham Begum, the mother of Humayun, played by Aditya Seal (who is supposedly 33). It shows.
Dino Morea in a still from The Empire.
But we haven't even discussed Dino Morea, who plays the villainous Muhammad Shaybani Khan like a cross between Jared Leto’s Joker and Ranveer Singh's Alauddin Khilji. In one scene, he’s shown carving a carcass, and honestly, if he’d suddenly turned into a cannibal and eaten one of his henchmen, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. That’s the level of otherisation on display here.
His first ‘confrontation’ with Babur is so dramatically inert that it’s like watching blades of grass swaying in the breeze. There are, however, a couple of bright spots in the bleak tapestry of this show’s cast. Rahul Dev brings terrific gravitas to Wazir Khan, a father-figure to Babur. In an act more heroic than any you'd see on the show, he makes the writing seem much better than it actually is with his measured delivery and relatively toned-down demeanour.
But then, Shabana Azmi saunters in and almost singlehandedly elevates the entire enterprise. What Dino Morea can’t manage in four episodes she accomplishes with four nearly imperceptible twitches of her brow.
Like a season eight episode of GoT directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (not a compliment), The Empire is difficult to recommend. Perhaps its biggest contribution to the entertainment industry at large is setting Karan Johar up for success, if he ever gets around to making Takht.