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How 'Ertugrul' hit a sweet spot in Pakistan

The Turkish show about a 13th century warrior is no ‘Game of Thrones’ clone. The reasons it has caught on in Pakistan are varied and multifold

Engin Altan Düzyatan plays the titular character
Engin Altan Düzyatan plays the titular character

When Esra Bilgiç̧ posted a photograph of herself in a bralette and blazer on Instagram, she couldn’t have known the storm it would stir up weeks later in another country. The Turkish actor, who plays Halime Hatun on Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul), found herself the subject of tweets and posts by Pakistani fans of the series, who felt her attire wasn’t becoming of the noble character she plays. Engin Altan Düzyatan, who plays the series lead, was also attacked for, as one troll put it, “keeping a dog indoors despite being Muslim".

This sort of moral sanctimony on social media isn’t new to the subcontinent, but Diriliş: Ertuğrul has certainly shaken up Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan has endorsed the series multiple times, lauding it for showcasing proper Islamic values. An opposition leader referred to this in the Senate, saying, “You cannot build the state of Madina by broadcasting Ertuğrul." Khan was also criticized for promoting Turkish serials instead of Pakistani ones. The show’s stars said they would love to visit the country; Düzyatan wished fans in broken Urdu on Eid. Even cricket lovers got involved when pacer Mohammad Amir suggested one of the actors looked like Virat Kohli.

Aided by the lockdown—as the record-breaking rerun of Ramayan was in India—the show is pulling in incredible numbers. The dubbed Urdu version of the show on PTV, the national broadcaster, began its telecast on 25 April. According to PTV, 133 million people watched the show in the first 20 days. A dedicated YouTube channel, TRT Ertugrul by PTV, had amassed four million subscribers and 344 million views as of 25 May.

Ertuğrul Gazi of the Kayi tribe was an “Oghuz Turk" who left Central Asia for Anatolia in the 13th century. His son Osman I later founded the Ottoman empire. Not a lot is known about Ertuğrul, which allows for plenty of room to create the image of a noble warrior fighting for the good of his people. “This is part-history, part-mythmaking," says Rehan Rafay Jamil, who grew up in Karachi and is pursuing a PhD in political science at Brown University in the US. “There’s this celebration of Turkey’s Central Asian roots. The nomads are shown as very honourable—values that resonate within Pakistan."

The show ran from 2014-19, with 179 episodes, each around 2 hours long, over five seasons. It is vividly realized: The cast was taught archery and horse-riding by Kazakh and Kyrgyz experts, and creator Mehmet Bozdağ had a Mongolian illustrator create a visual world based on his script. “What kept me hooked," author Annie Zaidi wrote in the magazine Fountain Ink, “was the embedded social history: the manners of a nomad tent, negotiations for pasture lands, moral codes governing bloodshed, the headgear, armour, socks, rugs, fabrics, spoons, poetry, dancing and legends".

The tussles, big and small, between the Kayis and rival factions—Crusaders, Mongols, Byzantine Christians—as well as Seljuk Turks, local clans and other Oghuz tribes, has evoked comparisons with Game Of Thrones. This is true to an extent, says Islamabad-based actor and writer Osman Khalid Butt, but that isn’t the only draw. “There’s a Game of Thrones itch it scratches. Then there’s the reverence for customs and traditions. The show prioritizes the importance of religion and faith, weaving stories from the time of the Holy Prophet seamlessly into the narrative. And most importantly, it does so without ever getting heavy-handed or preachy." And there’s one big difference from the HBO series: Ertuğrul is a moral universe, and, despite the considerable violence, a show about chivalry and honour that you can watch with your parents.

You make me dizi

Over the last two decades, Turkish TV has become its own empire. The country is now the second largest distributor of shows after the US. These series, known as dizi, are watched by legions of devoted fans, from the Middle East to Latin America. They have become an important export, with sales crossing $500 million (around Rs3,700 crore) in 2019. They bring in thousands of tourists every year to the places where the shows have been shot. They are also vital for the spread of Turkish soft power, especially in the Muslim world.

Unlike the Ottoman-era show Muhteşem Yüzyıl, which drew huge numbers in Turkey but also complaints about the characters’ morals, Ertuğrul had the establishment’s backing from the start. It aired on state TV and was endorsed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Pakistan, a close ally, appears to have benefited from the premier’s enthusiasm for the show. Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Faisal Javed Khan said in an interview that Erdoğan “gifted the series" to Imran Khan as a “goodwill gesture", and that PTV did not have to buy the rights.

Turkish shows have been popular in Pakistan since the start of the 2010s, playing in dubbed versions on TV, with some channels specializing in dizi. They soon started taking viewership away from local series. In 2012, an association of TV producers rallied against the “foreign content" dominating the TRPs (similar protests continue today). That year, an estimated 55 million tuned in to the last episode of Aşk-i-Memnu.

Esra Bilgiç as Halime Hatun in the Turkish series ‘Diriliş: Ertuğrul’
Esra Bilgiç as Halime Hatun in the Turkish series ‘Diriliş: Ertuğrul’

Ertuğrul wasn’t on Pakistani TV till last month. Instead, it built up a loyal but limited following amongst those who could access it on Netflix and other, less official streaming sites (and didn’t mind English subtitles). One of these early viewers was Dr Osama Siddique, a legal scholar, policy reform adviser and author, who recalled the “desperation among Ertuğrul fans to find new episodes" when Netflix ran out of them. Still, the show might have remained a cult hit in Pakistan had Imran Khan not praised it last October, and again early this year, and asked that it be dubbed in Urdu. PTV obliged, and Ertuğrul appeared on Pakistani televisions on the first day of Ramzan.

Watching ‘Ertuğrul’ in Urdu

Given the stereotyping of Muslim characters by Hollywood—and, more recently, by Hindi historical films—it isn’t surprising that Pakistani viewers have been looking to dizi for heroes. Butt told me the last Hindi film he saw on the big screen was Padmaavat, and that he found the depiction of Alauddin Khilji as a “violent barbarian" disturbing. “Ertuğrul is an antidote to that depiction. The drama aims to show a very different side of Islam and of Muslims, ridding some of the obvious misconceptions and stereotypes associated with us."

Ertuğrul is a reversal in other ways as well. Everyone in it speaks Turkish, whether Byzantine Christian or Mongol—revenge for years of “Arabic" English in Western film and TV. And it’s the Muslim tribesmen, not the Crusaders, whose lives are turned into legend.

Siddique, who lives in Lahore, started watching Ertuğrul online after seeing his mother and sister get hooked to it. It gives him and his mother something to talk about; they recently tried to come up with an unconvincing actor on the show, and agreed on just one. Because it’s so big on values, the series has a cross-generational appeal. “Parents are loving it," says Neelam Ejaz, who works with the World Bank in Islamabad. “Mine are following it every day. The timing was such that once iftar was over, people usually went to the lounge to chill for a while, and that’s when this played."

As much as Ertuğrul is a product of Erdoğan-era Turkey’s enthusiasm for all things Ottoman, some also see it fitting into a certain self-image of Pakistan. “I think the Pakistani state has long looked to identify the national mythology with Islamic conquest," says Karachi-based cultural critic Ahmer Naqvi. “There’s a conscious effort to create a narrative of Pakistan as the latest manifestation of Muslim expansionism." Umair Javed, assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Science, offers a similar view, writing over email: “The show channels pan-Islamism as well as overt Muslim political and civilizational revivalism, both of which are pretty common themes in Pakistani urban popular culture."

Pakistan has a proud history of high-quality TV, but the domestic dramas are beginning to seem similar, says Naqvi. “Ertuğrul hits that sweet spot where it helps that the Pakistani state has already created this propaganda, but at the same time it’s a high-production quality show in a TV landscape producing a one-tone kind of drama."

Other people I spoke to saw the show’s politics in a different light. For Zohaib Abdullah, a doctor in Karachi, the series comes alive when Ibn Arabi, a real-life Sufi mystic, is introduced. He feels the titular character’s vision of a state founded on Islamic principles is what resonates across borders. “(Ertuğrul) isn’t building an empire," Abdullah says, “he’s creating a state." Siddique attributes the show’s success to universal themes like the pursuit of justice, rather than religious metaphors or neo-Ottomanism.

I first heard of Ertuğrul from a friend in Delhi, who told me his friends were posting Ibn Arabi’s lines on Facebook. The series is all the rage in Kashmir, where, even as internet services have remained suspended or severely limited for over nine months, flash drives with episodes have been exchanging hands. It might not be long before the show takes the rest of the country by storm. Ertuğrul talking to Halime in Hindi? Stranger things have happened.

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