It would all depend on how receptive you are to the Mughal rule and to the Battle of Panipat in 1526 AD. Victor Babur or loser Ibrahim Lodhi? If you’re dismissive of the outcome as something that happened between two invaders who had no business to be in Hindustan, you’ll probably watch this 8-episode series with disinterest. Maybe, even disgust.
If, on the other hand, you can view it, as the makers say in their disclaimer, as pure entertainment, then it is the story of a much-humanised Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (Kunal Kapoor) who lived and died a troubled man. Because he had a conscience.
Based on the book, Empire Of The Moghul – Raiders From The North by the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Diana Preston who’ve written a series of historical fiction under the pen name Alex Rutherford, whether it’s the Ramayan or the Moghuls, palace intrigue is nearly always heightened when the king has to choose between sons born to different mothers. And history has a way of repeating itself as Babur had half-brother Jibran whose mother aspired for the throne for him. Decades later, Babur is thrown in the same situation. Humayun or Kamran, who’ll be his heir to the much-coveted takht in Hindustan?
But before triumphing over Lodhi to enter the golden land of Hindustan, Babur has to battle the cruel Shaibani Khan (Dino Morea), fight for Ferghana, Samarkand and Kabul, and face a new moral dilemma in each episode. By the end, writer-director Mitakshara Kumar, and co-writer Bhavani Iyer, present Babur as a sensitive man who hated bloodshed and placed familial harmony over royal conquest.
He philosophises with lines like, ‘Jeet maut ki hi hoti hai’, ‘Maarne se zyada jaan bachane mein bahaduri hai’, asks, ‘Bevajai kyun mara?’ and believes that it’s better to bow your head than sacrifice the head of your people.
It’s an early interest in far-off Hindustan that was stirred in him by his gentle father (Khalid Siddiqui) who was drawn to poetry and music and talked to him about mixing Farsi with Brijbhasha, ‘Like the diverse people of Hindustan’. Once he’s conquered Hindustan, ‘Badshah Babur’ also makes the right noises about Hindus and Muslims as being the same, that is, they’re human beings. What a revelation.
Babur’s a man constantly in a dilemma. Choose between family safety or a bloody battle for the throne? Choose between sister or the rest of the family? When struck by remorse and helplessness, he self-flagellates; he throws open the shahi godown to save the starving awam and it’s a wrench with his conscience when the throne and his duties force him to break a vow.
He’s a feminist too who vows to his sister that when he’s the emperor, women will be allowed to sword fight. A vow that doesn’t make an appearance when he grows up. But it’s strong women like his maternal grandmother (Shabana Azmi) and Khanzada, his sister (Dr Ashti Dhami) who are the strongest influences in his life after he wears the crown at the tender age of 14.
The influence of Sanjay Leela Bhansali on his protegee Mitakshara Kumar is visually apparent with the characterisation of the evil Shaibani Khan who’s moulded somewhat like Ranveer Singh’s Khilji in Padmaavat. There are perfectly symmetrical shots with the focus centred and a revolving top shot of Shaibani whirling as he makes one of his wicked announcements.
Shaibani Khan crucifies young sons in front of their father before beheading him, crushes a new emperor’s head with his own crown, slashes somebody’s finger and skins an animal with meat hanging as the décor on the side. But he’s humanised too. He dislikes disrespect to women and elders, deeply loves his wife (Babur’s sister, but that’s another story), and he had a sad past where he was branded and nearly sodomised.
Babur’s grandmother is the one who has all the lines that prop up the Moghuls with pride. She talks proudly about Taimur and Chenghis Khan and there’s much bandying of shahi khoon, royal blood. It’s Nani who believes that Babur was born to be the badshah, it’s she who pushes Babur to stay strong with comments like, ‘Tears provide strength to the enemy’ and warns him not to be weak like his father.
Dialogues hover around bloodline, taj (crown) and takht (throne). ‘Tareek gawah hai’ pops up once in a while and Hindustan is referred to as an ‘azeem’ and ‘dilchasp’ mulk. Hindustan is the big prize for Babur and his dynasty and the Kohinoor diamond also makes an appearance.
There are some good lines like when Babur tests son Humayun (Aditya Seal) in a rapid-fire round of choices. And another where the other son rues, “So Humayun’s the product of love while I’m the result of a political alliance.”
Kunal Kapoor is physically impressive with the right bearing, king-like and yet gentle. Rahul Dev as Wazir Khan, the father figure, is well cast as a great warrior, mentor and loyal presence. Shabana Azmi carries off the inspirational Nani with expected ease in her dialogue delivery. Dino Morea also gives credibility to cruelty. Imaaduddin Shah as Qasim and Mehroos Mir as young Babur are other actors who contribute well.
Expect the usual special effects for war scenes and women who don’t quite age with the years. A bit of back-and-forth between a young Babur and the grown-up one sometimes takes a while to settle down.
When Babur sister, well played by Ashti, adds her bit to the tome titled ‘Baburnama’, you know history is always part fiction. Take it with a pinch of salt.