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“Our aim is to make the biggest show India has ever seen,” The Empire creator, director, and executive producer Nikkhil Advani said on Tuesday at a virtual press conference for the Disney+ Hotstar series that premieres Friday, August 27. It is arguably one of the most ambitious undertakings that streaming television has attempted in India: depict the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire. The first season alone took a year and a half to make, that too during COVID-19. And should it go on long enough, The Empire is looking at a saga that spans two centuries and stretches from Uzbekistan in the north to southern India, from the foundation days with Babur to the kingdom’s effective end with Aurangzeb. But it’s not entirely concerned with the exact details as in history.
After all, The Empire is based on the historical fiction novel series Empire of the Moghul, written by Alex Rutherford — the collective pen name for English husband-wife duo Michael and Diana Preston — and published as six volumes between 2009 and 2015. Advani noted they are responsible to Rutherford’s books and the legions of fans they have, beginning with the first novel “Raiders from the North”. It tells the story of a young king called Babur from Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, and his early struggles in and around Samarkand, a major city in what is today Uzbekistan. The Empire was partly filmed in Uzbekistan, with Advani calling themselves “lucky” to go where the dynasty had its birth.
But the Disney+ Hotstar series won’t be fully tethered to the book. Instead, it will distil its events and arcs, The Empire director Mitakshara Kumar said. Kumar cut her teeth by working under Sanjay Leela Bhansali who’s the only one to make period dramas at this scale, she noted. The scope and intrigue teased in The Empire trailer has made some sections of the Internet draw comparisons to Game of Thrones, though Kumar — who only watched the HBO epic fantasy series after filming, and because everyone told her to — isn’t buying them: “You’ve those kinds of characters, but it’s more fantasy, I don’t see the comparisons. But if you think it looks like it, I will humbly accept the compliment. I’m very glad I didn’t see it when I was working on The Empire though.”
Speaking of characters, The Empire is drawing on an ensemble cast for its first season. Rang De Basanti alum Kunal Kapoor is set as the aforementioned Babur, whose arc spans 25 years on the show. Screen legend Shabana Azmi plays his grandmother and kingmaker Aisan Daulat Begum — everyone was nervous on set around given her stature, but she turned out to be a “chill dude”, Aditya Seal (Tum Bin 2) said who plays Babur’s son Humayun. Then there’s ‘00s-mainstay Dino Morea as the first season villain Shaybani Khan, an Uzbek warrior who came into conflict with Babur. Rounding out the cast are TV serial veteran Drashti Dhami as Babur’s elder sister Khanzada Begum, and Sahher Bambba (Pal Pal Dil Ke Pass) as Babur’s third wife and Humayun’s mother Maham Begum.
All of The Empire’s main cast members credited Kumar for her love and attention to detail that she poured into the Hotstar Specials series, with Dhami going so far to note that the director worked harder than she had on her character. “Mitakshara helped me early on, made me live Khanzada. Every day I went on set, I grew into it,” Dhami added. Azmi liked that The Empire’s female characters are very strong, and hoped for “far more visibility” for them in the industry. Morea, who likes to always think of an animal when he plays a character, revealed that Kumar gave him the idea of a panther. He watched National Geographic to study how a panther moves — stealthy, agile, fast, and menacing — and hope to bring some of that gait to his portrayal of Shaybani.
“Working with Nikkhil and Mitakshara is like being on two different sets,” Kapoor said. “Nikkhil has incredible empathy for his actors but his shooting style is guerrilla, full chaos. On the other hand, Mitakshara’s set is almost like Vipassanā, it’s so quiet. They are two completely different minds.” Azmi chimed in, and said she thinks “that’s the difference between men and women. Men see the big picture, women see the details.” She explained how once Kumar walked towards her as if she had some notes, only to walk past her and then point out a detail in the background of the set to an artist. “They made a really good team together,” Azmi added. Kumar, in turn, praised Azmi for her eye — she asked them to look at birds as reference for costumes, so that no two colours would cancel each other.
Azmi added that she wanted to keep the tribal nature of the costume and felt that “if the look is right, it would help the character.” The 70-year-old Hyderabad native took on the role of Aisan Daulat because she had “always wanted to play a historical figure. She is so interesting, a female kingmaker when otherwise they are usually men. All the machinations in the empire are hers.” Plus, Azmi has a soft spot for Urdu, so that helped. But she was also wary of slipping into a theatrical mood. With Urdu and period dramas, Azmi said, “you automatically enter the Mughal-e-Azam voice. Because you don’t have many reference points. I had to learn the dialogue but I should not be pontificating. It’s important not to lose the emotion that is in the characters and the scenes.”
Kapoor believes the writers made their job easy, as the script was very detailed and the character graph was so clear. He also credited the crew and Disney+ Hotstar for the “courage” to put up a show on this scale: “I’ve never been part of something this humungous. They made an entire city on set, I got lost.” What he focused on himself were the subtle changes between the two versions of his characters 25 years apart — and how Babur felt about himself across that span of time. He tried understanding the mindset of people who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries. Kapoor added: “You’ve to understand their world, their values, and how they think.” Morea echoed those words, and noted that he created playlists for different scenes to get into the mood of the moment.
Morea and Kapoor don’t share too many scenes together on The Empire, Kapoor revealed, but there’s an intensity of hate they have as characters. “This show is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Morea added.
All episodes of The Empire season 1 are out Friday, August 27 on Disney+ Hotstar. It will be available in Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, and Kannada.