The Turkish docu-drama series, Dirlis Ertugrul (Ertugrul Ghazi) has taken Pakistan by storm. Dubbed in Urdu and aired on the state network, Pakistan Television (PTV), it has broken all records. Launched on the first day of Ramadan amid the pandemic lockdown, more than 120 million people have watched it so far.
Even the series’ producer and actors did not expect it would become so popular. Based on the real-life character, Ertugrul Ghazi (1191-1281), the docu-drama has of necessity been dramatized for greater effect. This is the nature of the art of film-making. Ertugrul was the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Sultanate.
Played by Turkish actor Engin Altan Duzyatan, the docu-drama’s hero Ertugrul represents the quintessential leader Muslims admire most. Courageous, uninterested in titles or positions, his life’s mission was to fight for truth and justice by confronting tyrants and oppressors. There was no shortage of villains, then as now. He fought against the Crusaders (defeated and driven out of Palestine by Salahuddin Ayyubi  but still present in the region), the Byzantines and the Mongol hordes and laid the foundations for his small Kayi tribe transforming them from sheep herders to a global power that lasted nearly 600 years.
After Sultan Aleaddin, with his power base in Aleppo (in present-day Syria) was poisoned by his court advisor, Sadettin Kopek, Ertugrul revolted against Kopek’s government, and proclaimed his own state. It was based around the city of Sogut, located south east of Istanbul.
Ertugrul Ghazi is a story of courage and hope interspersed with great entertainment including some remarkable horse-riding scenes. Spanning several hundred episodes, the docu-drama of necessity has a very large cast. The costumes are attractive and accurately reflect the time period.
Most actors have also played their roles with remarkable sophistication including Serdar Gokhan as Sulayman Shah, (father of Ertugrul), Huyla Korel Darcan (Hyma Hatun as mother of Ertugrul) and Ozman Sirgood who portrays Ibn Arabi superbly. Cengiz Coskun as Turgut Alp has also performed extremely well. His axe-wielding skills have won many hearts as did his prolonged torture he endured at the hands of the Crusaders.
The series’ creator, Mehmet Bozdag has done a superb job writing a script that did not have much material except the historical figure of Ertugrul Gazi (buried in Sogut, Turkey) to go by. He has weaved a truly remarkable story that contains all the elements required to create an exciting story line. It contains history, international intrigue, tribal warfare as well as family disputes. There are heroes and villains, big and small, and characters in-between.
Directed by Metin Gunay, the actors have performed their roles with such impressive skills that many viewers came to identify with the characters in the drama series. This is reflected in the reaction of Pakistani admirers that want the actors and actresses to behave in real life the same way they played in the series.
The quality of a great actor/actress is to perform the role in such a way that it becomes identified with him/her. There are examples from Western movies as well: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra; Denzil Washington as Malcolm X, Sean Connery as James Bond and Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar and Hamza (in the movie, The Message). Several actors have played the role of James Bond but none comes close to the style and finesse of Sean Connery.
Music as well as the theme song also play a major role in how the docu-drama appeals to viewers. Ertugrul’s composer, Zeynep Alasya has done a very good job. Music makes the series come alive.
Lead actors have developed a huge following and led to vigorous debate on the social media, both for and against the airing of the series in Pakistan. As the viewership numbers show, the overwhelming majority have become infatuated with the series. There are detractors too. Some have questioned the series’ historical accuracy (they should read history); others are griping about its negative effect on Pakistan’s local industry (improve your quality beyond family conflicts and vulgar behaviour). There are some that have even indulged in Freudian psychoanalysis of the Pakistani male.
The lead actress, Esra Bilgiç who plays the role of Halime Sultan and wife of Ertugrul Ghazi, has clearly enchanted most viewers. Her acting portraying the Seljuk princess and Ertugrul’s dutiful wife is superb. She has developed a huge following in Pakistan. Her admirers even found her Instagram page. When they saw pictures of her in less than modest attire, they were upset. In their innocence, they did not realize that she is an actress, merely playing a role. They expect her to live the character in real life that she portrays in Ertugrul Ghazi. They see her as the wife of a great Islamic warrior and hero, not just an actress!
Resorting to Freudian psychoanalysis of the Pakistani male mind, one commentator, Aimun Faisal, wrote: “If you are a Pakistani man, here’s why this Turkish woman has you simultaneously exasperated and enchanted.”
Proceeding along this psychoanalytical path—one wonders what qualifications does she have for such analysis—Ms. Faisal continues: “Ever spurred on by their commitment to religiosity and piety, Muslim men from Pakistan… felt it their spiritual duty to educate her, or advice (sic) her, or berate her— depending on their self-confidence—on the ethics of being a pious Muslim woman.”
Undeterred by her unsubstantiated claims, Ms. Faisal plunges headlong into her diatribe against the Pakistani male attributing to him religiosity (are there no religious women in Pakistan?), at once the object of her loathing and fear, that informs her opinions.
“For years, Pakistani men had successfully maintained a dichotomy between the foreign, white woman and the Muslim, brown woman. The foreign, white woman is an object of desire and lust, at once a woman to be feared, because of her colour, and a woman to be conquered, because of her sex.” Really? Where did she get such ideas from; has she done any survey of what the Pakistani males think?
And here is the crux of her ‘masterpiece’. “The brown woman on the other hand, is supposed to embody the brown man’s ideology. She is the keeper of the private sphere, and should submit entirely to the authority of the brown man.
“With a Turkish actress, it gets complicated. They want this woman to be Muslim and they need this woman to remain desirable.”
So, there you have it from a brown woman who simply does not cut it when it comes to matching the beauty of a stunningly attractive Turkish woman. Esra Bilgiç has large hazel eyes and a face so innocent that she would pass for an angel. It is her portrayal of Halime that has captivated audiences worldwide. Unfortunately, Pakistani actresses, despite their questionable talent, just do not come close to Bilgiç in terms of beauty.
It is, however, pointless to waste time with commentators that suffer from an acute sense of inferiority complex. Their real beef is that the drama series promotes a narrative that Pakistan’s tiny but noisy secular tribe loathes. Ertugrul revives their worst nightmare: it promotes Islamic values instead of the vulgar culture of Bollywood, and is based on historical facts although of necessity, dramatized for greater effect.
Regardless of the griping of its detractors, Ertugrul Ghazi has won the hearts and minds of most people in Pakistan. The series and its actors deserve respect and admiration for being at once entertaining and inspiring.