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Exclusive! The Empire director Mitakshara Kumar: SLB is my teacher, a lot of him will reflect in my work

In an exclusive chat with OTTplay, Mitakshara Kumar also shared her thoughts on Kabir Khan's recent comment about being 'distressed' on seeing films that demonise Mughals.

Aishwarya Vasudevan
Aug 27, 2021
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Mitakshara Kumar/Instagram

It's a dream directorial debut for Mitakshara Kumar who has helmed Disney+ Hotstar's latest web series The Empire. Being a protégé of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see that her first project as a director is larger than life, much like her mentor. In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, Mitakshara revealed how working with SLB helped her create The Empire and the kind of creative liberties they took while making it. The filmmaker also reacted to comparisons of the series with Game of Thrones and also spoke about the look of Dino Morea's character being compared to Ranveer Singh’s Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat among other things

Excerpts...

What's your current state of mind with the release of The Empire and promotions?

Excited and nervous altogether. It's been very overwhelming. When we made the show, we knew we're doing something for the first time on OTT. Obviously, we gave it our best, but this is much more than I think I personally expected. The kind of traction that the show was getting, I'm just hoping that there is some promise in the show. That's why people (including the Hotstar team) are going all out. But the thing is, when there's so much excitement about something, the nervousness becomes even more so. I just hope we live up to everyone's expectations.

Did you read the book Empire of the Moghul by Alex Rutherford before getting on to the project?

I read it after this project came my way. So, the thing is, I met Monisha and Nikkhil in 2017 when I was still working on Padmaavat as an associate. I met them at a party for P.O.W. - Bandi Yuddh Ke which was their show. My husband was the lead in that show, and I met them there. I had a 10-minute conversation with Monisha, and she said, 'You know what, we would like to work with you sometime in the future.' And I was like, 'okay'. I think I forgot, and they also forgot. I continued working. Then suddenly in 2019, I get this call saying 'Nikkhil wants to meet you' and called me to the office. He said, 'There's a show we're doing, The Empire, we would like you to direct it.' I was like, 'Why me?' He replied, 'Monisha has a lot of faith in you, and she hasn't forgotten you for the last two and a half years. She just said that put our money behind this girl.' So that's how the show actually happened to me. The first thing I got was the Bible, which Bhavani and Nikkhil had already worked on. So, I read that Bible and after that, I read the book. I was already on board when I read the book.

How far did you stick to the book series while adapting it for the screen in The Empire? Was there any scope to take creative liberties?

Yes, there was. We have stayed very true to the events in the book - this is when he was born, this is when he became king, this is when he went to this place, and this is when he went to that place. So, all of that we kept true to the book. It's a 500-page book and there are so many characters, these small characters that keep coming and going. There are so many incidences that repeat themselves over and over again. We just culminated a lot of that, like five characters together became one. We thought of combining those into one person and make that a more important character emotionally and to create the drama. So that's the key creative liberty we took but because it's based on history and not a fantasy show. The book anyway, is a fictional event of history, so we stuck to it as much as we could in terms of events, characters, the love story, all of some things we have taken liberties with but pretty much stuck to the book.

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Kunal Kapoor - The Empire

People are touting The Empire as India's answer to Game of Thrones. What do you have to say about the comparisons?

See, I did watch Game of Thrones after we finished shooting, I saw it in March after the show was completed. This year I saw it and I'm very glad, it's a beautiful show. When I heard the comparisons, I constantly said, 'don't compare, don't compare'.

First of all, we don't have the budget for Game of Thrones to start only. It's a very unfair comparison to people who spent millions of dollars in one episode. We don't have that, so that's what I tell people in the beginning. But having said that, when I saw the show, I do understand. See the thing is, when you do watch Hindi films, series which have been on OTT based on historical, the costume and drama - it's all a little larger than life, slightly over the top. But here, because I wanted to keep it very authentic to the time and the people that they (Moghuls) were, we kept it very subtle. What happened was the jewellery was very basic, it was not shiny gold, it was more silver. The costumes had more earthy palettes, so it automatically gives you a very Hollywood-ish feel to it. As everything was toned down, it is very subdued. I think that's one reason where the comparison comes.

Secondly, people were from Uzbekistan, it's a cold country. So, the colour palette that I went for, was darker. We had to use a lot of furs. Okay, so that is another thing I think where the comparison comes. I understand, visually people comparing because of the sets and all. But they also took the references from Indian history. All the detailing that they do, the costumes come from Indian history. They take references from our past, so why shouldn't we? Game of Thrones is a fantasy, it's about so many different clans and all of them fighting for that one throne. Our storyline is very different. If there is one thing which will make me happy with the comparison, it would be that we have very very strong female characters just like Game of Thrones and that is something I will be very proud about. If my characters are as strong as Cersei Lannister or Sansa Stark was, it's a huge achievement for me as a female director.

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Mitakshara Kumar

What do you have to say about comparisons of Dino Morea's look with that of Khilji in Padmaavat?

As I worked on Padmaavat, my very conscious effort was to stay away from that. Honestly, Sanjay Leela Bhansali is my teacher, of course, a lot of him will reflect in my work. I constantly used to tell my costume people and my hair team 'let's not go there'. I actually did my referencing a lot from The Vikings, I have not seen that either. But the look was from that and also from Marco Polo. I saw a lot of those images probably Khilji was also referenced on a lot of those characters. We tried lots of looks, we tried deadlocks on Dino, we tried this long hair and even a bald look for which pictures I can't share. Everybody was like that long hair looks better, so we kept the long hair which got compared with Khilji. If we would have kept the bald look, people would have called it Marco Polo and also compare it with Sanjay Dutt's look from Panipat. People will always find comparisons, but it was not to copy anyone.

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Dino Morea - The Empire

You have been associated with Sanjay Leela Bhansali for many projects. He is known to make movies on a grand scale. How has that experience helped you?

Oh, immensely. I'm from film Institute and I have done my direction from there. I've learned a lot over there, from technicalities to everything. But how to really bring your vision alive is something I've learned from Sanjay sir, and I continue to do so. The finer art of paying attention to detail, that, I think, is the biggest teaching he has given me. Also, I feel, that is my strong point.

Nobody can compare with him, what he does, how he thinks, how his mind works, nobody can do that. But having trained under him for six years, I got a little finesse in my craft. I was a film student, I understand films, shot taking and all of that. But the world that he creates and the small thing that matters, it's so important to him. He’s a stickler for detail and that's something I've learned from him. Those small things, subconsciously, the audience's note, make all the difference.

What was the most challenging aspect about the shoot of such a massive project with a humongous cast, different locations, costumes etc?

I think COVID-19 was our biggest challenge. We had done one big schedule before the pandemic, which was in Rajasthan. So, a big battle sequence we had already shot and that was out of the way. But having said that, we couldn't go to Uzbekistan that was the biggest setback and all of us were just heartbroken because we went thrice or maybe four times for recce and referencing. Everything was done, the locations were done, the tickets were booked, all of that was done. Then suddenly, this happened, we just could not go. So that was very heartbreaking. Then Priya Suhas, my production designer created a beautiful set in Mumbai. But I always feel the real location is a real location. The depth, the texturing - that you get on a live location. Those cities are 1000s of years old and they're beautiful. So that was one challenge - not being able to go, that was a setback.

The second was the member limitation, firstly, we couldn't shoot for six months. So, it was a very big cost for Emmay Entertainment and Hotstar because the teams still had to be paid and people were still working in the lockdown. Then, when we could shoot, there was a cap on the number of heads that could be on set and that was only 50. In a show like this, our sets only were so huge, 50 people would have just filled up a corner. We needed nearly 500 people to fill the darbar. We had to rework the entire schedule; all the big scenes had to be done later. We decided to push them to December or January, we were hoping things will be better.

Of course, the costs increase as some of the sets had to be remade for the big scenes later. It was challenging and to shoot with a double mask and shield - I used to give instructions, and nobody could hear me, only I could hear myself, my voice would be trapped inside my shield. It's very satisfying eventually to what we have done because we got used to it. Human nature is such - anything that you give as a challenge to humanity, we do bounce back and find a way around it. Gradually, we got accustomed to how things were, it took more time as tests kept happening and the sets were sanitized twice a day. The whole process became slower, but it was very satisfying eventually when you see what comes on screen.

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The Empire cast

Do you feel there's a stereotypical way in which we've been portraying the Moghuls in cinema, especially in the recent past?

See cinema, I have only seen Mughal-e-Azam and Jodhaa Akbar which actually have Moghul characters and they are love stories. They were fictionalized accounts again. What happens is, we have never met kings and queens or seen how they behave. We only go by what we see in the cinema. Prithviraj Kapoor was a great actor, and he had a commanding personality. But people think that the emperors talk like that only. Even if they will be in their personal chambers with just their family, they will still talk like that. So that we do make it stereotypical.

There have been a few shows, I think on TV, and I just find everything so loud. If you're a king, you don't have to be commanding and shouting instructions to everyone around. You might be a king but you're also a human being. So, we have at least tried to go right on that aspect. He is a king in front of his subjects, but he is also saddled with a lot of self-doubt and vulnerability. Kings can be wrong; they can have weaknesses and why not? So that is what we have tried to show.

Kabir Khan recently commented saying that he is distressed about watching films that demonise Moghuls. What are your thoughts on that?

That's a very politically charged question and I'm a very politically incorrect person. I have my stand, but I think this is not the time for that. I just feel humanity is above everything else. I'm a proud Indian and as a Hindu, I'm very proud but I don't have to go shout it from the rooftops. I know what my beliefs are, I know what I stand for. But having said that, there is nothing bigger than humanity and nobody is black and white, there are shades of grey in all of us. For me, religion doesn't play a part in how good or bad a person is, let's just keep it that way.

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