Reviews TV + Movies

How The Empire Fails In LGBT Representation

If you sensed the homoerotic bond between Qasim and Babur - you are not the only one. Qasim clearly has feelings for his baadshah, yet for all its boldness and woke-ness, the show refuses to explicitly mention or depict the character’s sexuality.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead)

Much has been said about Disney+ Hotstar’s latest offering The Empire: from being prematurely (and erroneously) labelled as India’s Game Of Thrones to being boycotted for its romanticisation of the first Mughal emperor, Babur. Based on Alex Rutherford’s historical fiction Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North, this eight-episode show is a praiseworthy effort of creating big-budget epics on the small screen, yet falls short in almost every aspect – from its writing and structure, to its horrendous VFX effects. Baby steps?

Yet no critique has mentioned the show’s treatment of the character of Qasim, a fictional confidante of Babur, who is one of the only two queer characters in the series – the other being the eunuch Aetbaar, played by Aayam Mehta (whose screen-time and presence in the plot is close to insignificant). If you sensed the homoerotic bond between Qasim and Babur – you are not the only one. Qasim clearly has feelings for his baadshah, yet for all its boldness and woke-ness, the show refuses to explicitly mention or depict the character’s sexuality. Taking a page right out of Disney’s playbook at queer-coding characters but not making it obvious so as not to ruffle the feathers of its majorly conservative audience, it is left to us viewers to read between the lines and interpret the situation onscreen (although Babur’s firm rejection of his friend’s “mohabbat” and the offer of only “dosti” can be dubious only to the densest heterosexuals).

Furthermore, it is no secret that the real life Babur, in his own words, admitted to having strong affections for an adolescent boy, coincidentally named Baburi. Although he never acted on it (or perhaps he simply deigned it too embarrassing to pen in his autobiography), this admission highlights the same-sex tendencies of Babur and puts into question his sexuality.

But the show’s crucial transgression is not its historical inaccuracies or the ambiguity of Qasim’s sexuality, but the way it treats the character with little to no dignity or respect. What starts out as a brave and righteous character abruptly turns into a petty, hedonistic rogue. When he should have been the voice of reason and comfort during Babur’s downward spiral during his exile, Qasim only encourages him to indulge in pleasure. His jealousy towards Babur’s paramour, Maham, is not nearly as irritating as his rivalry with Babur’s mentor and guardian, Wazir Khan. For some ridiculous reason, Qasim seems to view this parental figure, who has been the King’s political advisor and protector for years, as a rival for Babur’s attention. None of this is helped by Imaad Shah’s portrayal of the character, whose modern mannerisms and diction seems out of place in the historical context.

Speaking of Wazir Khan, his death is probably the most absurd and undeserved of all in the show – at the hands of Qasim. During a midnight siege of Samarkand, Qasim and Wazir encounter a group of armed soldiers leading to an uninteresting fight scene where, in an effort to rescue Wazir from the grasp of the enemy, Qasim accidentally stabs him to death. Insert the facepalm emoji. Additionally, it is revealed that Qasim had kept valuable information from Babur which ultimately leads him to Babur’s banishment.

Cut to several years later, where Babur is losing a war to Ibrahim Lodi. He has lost all hope and has decided to pack up and leave. But, lo and behold! Here comes Qasim to save Babur’s day once again – this time with gunpowder and cannons. Babur is relieved, of course, and gains a renewed enthusiasm for battle, claiming to have forgiven Qasim a long time ago. But Qasim confesses about his hand in the death of Wazir Khan, a fact that Babur hadn’t known, and this creates a chasm between them once again – although not wide enough to refuse Qasim’s artillery against Lodi. Babur wins the battle, thus cementing his stake on Hindustan, but not before Qasim is blown to bits by a cannon that backfires while trying to save Babur’s life. In an attempt to stray away from the stereotypical portrayal of LGBT characters, The Empire ironically falls under the “bury your gays” trope where the queer character meets their demise at the end of the story.

Throughout the show, Qasim is treated like a prop to create unnecessary drama in one episode, or as a resourceful aide who conveniently shows up for Babur’s benefit in another. His entire arc centres around pleasing and helping an unappreciative man who cannot return his feelings. One might argue that in a show about politics, war and conspiracies, any character can be portrayed as petty, conniving and decadent regardless of their sexual orientation. Most of the straight characters in the show have these qualities, so why is it an issue when it is a queer character? Perhaps it is because in most of Indian media for the longest time, queer characters have always been portrayed as comic reliefs or tragic figures, or subjects of disdain and disgust. Queer characters have rarely had the opportunity or privilege of being fully-developed figures with layered nuance or positivity. Representation is paramount, but so is presentation.

This controversial show obviously has bigger issues to deal with, but better portrayal of queer characters should definitely be on the agenda of all films and shows who are looking to include one. It is high time we treat LGBTQ+ characters on-screen with dignity, without falling prey to the usual stereotypes and tropes of storytelling. Perhaps, the next season of The Empire will give Aetbaar a bigger role or introduce a better queer character – if it ever gets renewed, that is.

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Anurag Mukhia is a student of English Literature from Darjeeling. He spends his free time making LGBT-related content on Instagram and YouTube. He also likes to travel, read, write and aspires to be a teacher.
Anurag Mukhia

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