As Kumar rolls out The Empire, the team on its making, and shooting the historical drama amid the pandemic
Kapoor as Babur; (right) Morea as Muhammad Shaybani Khan
Retelling the events leading up to the First Battle of Panipat, led by Mughal emperor Babur, on screen is a tall order. The challenge is heightened when you have to recreate the 16th century battle amid the biggest setback of the 21st century — COVID. So, how did creator-producer Nikkhil Advani and director Mitakshara Kumar create The Empire — featuring Kunal Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Dino Morea, among others — in the face of such obstacles? “Detailed research, patience and with the help of an army of people,” says Kumar, who walks us through the making of the Disney+ Hotstar offering.
Setting up the stage
It helped that Kumar trained Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s projects, Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018), two of the country’s most ambitious period dramas. The director admits her eye for precision was often a joke on set. “Nikkhil would tell me no one is checking if the flags in the battle sequences are aligned or not. But when one is making a show of this nature, we might as well perfect it.”
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Azmi as Aisan Daulat Begum
The beginning — adapting the first book from Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series into a screenplay — was not daunting for writers Kumar and Bhavani Iyer, courtesy the book’s thorough research and gripping story. But bringing alive the screenplay was a different ball game altogether. Much like mentor Bhansali, who had once famously said that he scores for his songs while in the shower, Kumar says music played a key part in visualising the world. “Music helps me transport myself to that era. I visualise everything.”
After developing the screenplay through 2017-18, came the detailed storyboarding by Advani and her. The duo roped in cinematographer Nigam Bomzan to support their vision on ground. “We have not had a historical series in Indian digital entertainment, but we’ve had shows like Tipu Sultan or even Bharat Ek Khoj, which were brilliant. Sadly, we stopped making them. There is no visual reference for a DoP [director of photography] for stories belonging to that era, besides all the [international] shows and films.” Even as his lens captured the visual grandeur of the era, Bomzan says his focus was on the story. “In this case, it was more of the conflict of an individual’s mind and his internal battles. We never let the backdrop of royalty overpower the story of Babur.”
Dhami as Khanzada Begum
He remembers being a ball of nerves before shooting the first battle sequence at Film City in January 2020. “It is difficult to shoot large-scale battles, and the realisation dawned on me as I drove to the set at 5 am. All I could see was several tents in a row, with a sea of people getting into their costumes. When the time came to film the battle, there were an additional number of horses, elephants and cannons. It was nerve-wracking, but then there was Nikhil [director for the war scenes] who was calm and brought in his years of experience. He had all the shots broken down beforehand. He was patient as that’s the only way one can shoot with animals in the midst of live explosions that we were doing.”
Monisha Advani, producer
The responsibility of dressing Kapoor’s Babur and Morea’s Shaybani Khan in the finest while staying true to the nomadic vibe of the clan was given to costume designer Sheetal Sharma. She fell back on the paintings and books to study their sartorial evolution. “We have used a lot of central Asian embroidery. Textile-wise, we have used raw jute and handloom fabrics, taking inspiration from the rugs of Persia.” For the artillery, Sharma added a touch of mushroom leather and faux fur to make the armour look more powerful. While the women — Aisan Daulat Begum and Khanzada Begum portrayed by Azmi and Drashti Dhami respectively — were draped in earthy tones, with a slight splash of blues and reds, it was their jewellery that was paid attention to. “We’ve used a lot of rustic antique jewellery and beautiful stones like turquoise and blue sapphire.”
Director Mitakshara Kumar
Babur’s biggest enemy — the pandemic
It was sheer luck that the makers had scheduled the primary war sequences in the first schedule. Only 21 days into the shoot, the team found themselves facing an entirely unexpected enemy — the pandemic. The shoot was halted for five months as the country went into lockdown, and shoots were suspended till August. As the team returned to the set in September, Kumar remembers wondering how she would pull off a period drama in the face of the COVID-induced restrictions. “It was a nightmare post COVID. You couldn’t shoot with more than 50 people, so scenes had to be reconstructed to accommodate the crowd. The looks of the characters had to be reworked as the number of people on screen reduced, but the scene had to stand out. We worked around the logistical limitations, including shooting intimate sequences first. We shot a lot less, which is why 90 days stretched to 120 days,” recounts Kumar.
The Samarkand palace recreated in Wai
The biggest blow of the pandemic was having to drop the 35-day schedule in Uzbekistan that was slated for 2020. “Real locations lend authenticity. No one will notice, but I would have preferred a bustling set with 300 junior artistes. That said, as a director, I feel my finesse will show if the show is grand despite all these limitations.”
With the Uzbekistan schedule out the window, art director Priya S found herself shouldering a daunting task — to recreate the central Asian country in Mumbai. “Wai became Babur’s Samarkand. Film City [housed] Shaybani Khan’s tent. In Madh Island, we [built] Fergana Darbar. Budget was the biggest challenge,” she recalls. Primarily an architect, Priya says she studied the architecture of Uzbekistan to rise to the job. “We tried to do justice to the beautiful Uzbekistan architecture by way of colourful mosaics, religious symbols, and abstract geometrical patterns. [These are found] on almost every palace, mosque, and minaret, and characterise the turquoise-hued country,” she explains.