Dirilis: Ertugrul, the grand and larger than life TV series charting the life of Ertugrul and eventually his son Osman I, who rose as the founder of the Ottoman Empire, has taken the Muslim world by storm. Originally released on Turkey’s state channel TRT World (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) in 2014, the epic saga weaving through 5 seasons and almost 200 episodes was then released with English subtitles on Netflix. The Pakistani version, dubbed in Urdu and televised in collaboration with PTV as Ertugrul Ghazi, finally made it to Pakistan this year and since then has possessed the psyche of the entire nation.
It all began when Prime Minister Imran Khan, in April while discussing Pakistan-Turkey relations, encouraged people to watch Ertugrul Ghazi on PTV to learn about Islamic culture and values. He spoke about the damaging influence Hollywood and Bollywood films, “propagating vulgarity,” had on the youth and how this rise of vulgar content was root cause of all kinds of sex crimes. “When vulgarity in a society rises, family values fall in a decline,” he said.
The first episode of Ertugrul Ghazi aired on PTV on April 25 and people took it to new heights of popularity, helping it break records as the most watched TV serial in Pakistan. Ertugrul’s Pakistan viewership, according to PTV, was 133.38 million in the first 20 days and the numbers were rising.
Why, and what exactly is the root cause behind this obsessive popularity, you may ask, especially if you’re that one person living under a rock who hasn’t indulged in this Turkish delight yet.
Ertugrul arrived as the hero the entire Muslim Ummah had been waiting for - their knight in shining armour - here to save them from the western bogeyman. While generations had been hooked to Marvel and DC comic superheroes for decades, there had never before been any one contemporary heroic figure that Muslims could relate to.
Ertugrul, born to nobility as the son of the Kai Tribe’s leader Suleyman Shah, was a warrior, a man in love, a loyal son and brother and a leader par excellence. He rode his noble steeds and his skills in swordsmanship helped him fend off the worst of enemies. Here was an ancient hero, born in the 13th century, who was an inspiration even today.
According to the series, which is flagged as fictional though it does borrow heavily from actual Turkish history, the life of Ertugrul was marked by great challenges that included the hardship of difficult migrations across Iraq, Iran and Syria (as they are known today). He also led bloody wars with Mongols, Crusaders and the Byzantine Empire. But he led by example, with kindness and mercy and an infallible commitment to customs and honour. Here was a hero that was human, not mutant. He was not white skinned and troubled (as most western superheroes are); he did not rise from the trauma of a broken family but came from a world where family ties and customs were of utmost importance. Gentle and yet unbelievably strong, dressed in heavy armour with that dark brown beard and turban, Ertugrul was the superhero that no lycra-clad caped and masked mutant could ever be. Ertugrul was a hero that every Muslim could relate to. Tall, handsome and yet noble and merciful, Ertugrul was the ultimate fantasy.
In an exclusive interview with Thrive Global, Engin Altan Duzyatan, the actor who plays the iconic character, spoke about his role and experience of working in the series.
“Before the shootings, the production team and I searched all sources about the era and Ertugrul,” he shared in the interview. “I first had to understand Ertugrul and what he stood for. So it wasn’t just physical training like horse riding, sword or archery; I also studied him mentally. And after that we started practicing horse riding, sword and archery for five months. I spent a lot of time with the actors who are playing my heroes because Ertugrul and his relationship with his heroes had to be real when we started shooting. In the Ertugrul history, he cared a lot for his people, especially, for his brothers in battle. The preparation was hard but it was a big pleasure for me playing the Ertugrul role.”
It is just as big a pleasure watching Ertugrul and the fascination goes much beyond the superhero angle. Visually, the TV series is magnificent, whether you’re looking at the handsome cast (male and female) or the stunning Turkish countryside. The series has been filmed in Riva, a village in the Beykoz district of Istanbul. The characters may speak Turkish (in the original) but so much of their lexicon is familiar, from the way they greet other, praise each other and so on. Their way of life is familiar; they pray, eat together and value family. The wardrobe is also relatable, whether it’s the modest outfits or the accessories. In Pakistan, one sees women in the northern areas as well as Baluchistan dress very similarly.
More than anything, the story of Ertugrul and the way it was presented, served an extremely important purpose of combatting Islamophobia in the world. It reinforced Islam as a peace loving religion and Muslims as brave, kind and principled people. Ertugrul’s respect for his family elders, his respect and camaraderie with his mother and his wife, principles of equality, for example, are just some of the themes addressed without sounding preachy.
The production value of the series had people comparing it in style and magnitude to Game of Thrones, another reason for it igniting curiosity and interest.
“We used the latest technology during our shootings,” Duzyatan said in the aforementioned interview. “We used special effects like other big Hollywood productions. If you want to compete with the world, you have to act like them and use all their technology for making things better. And also, for our action scenes we had a big stunt team called NOMAD. Many Hollywood movies use this crew for their fight scenes or trained by them for their fight scenes. We did the same thing, from the beginning of the first season, we started working with them and they trained us in sword, archery, combat, and horse riding. So, when you do the right things, success comes with it.”
Success for Ertugrul came in a befitting magnitude, especially in Pakistan where hundreds of thousands of fans thronged the cast on social media, in adoration and also in some regrettably embarrassing instances. It motivated the lead actors to even comment and send messages to their fans in Pakistan.
“I love you Pakistan,” Engin Altan Duzyatan posted on his social media. “Thank you for watching us. I hope I can come and meet you all one day.” Esra Bilgic, who plays Ertugrul’s love interest in the story, also wrote to fans in Pakistan, expressing a wish to visit. And Cengiz Coskun, who plays Ertugrul’s friend and comrade Turgut Alp, wrote: “Thank you for your precious love; I hope one day I can visit Pakistan. Stay safe and healthy.”
The overwhelming love did, however, come with some voices of opposition. Veteran film actor, Shaan Shahid felt that instead of encouraging and facilitating foreign content, Pakistan’s state should be funding and facilitating the production of equally good local content. The Turkish state had, after all, helped fund and facilitate Ertugrul. More recently, TV actor and host Yasir Hussain also expressed an opinion on the same lines. He felt that foreign content should not be encouraged and PTV should invest in making a series as big as Ertugrul, using its own actors and technicians. In an Instagram story he suggested that it was a pity that they paid taxes in Pakistan and foreign productions would walk away with the rewards.
Both Shaan and Yasir have a point. While it would be unreasonable to ban Ertugrul or any such production that connects with the people and manages to garner such mammoth viewership as well as loyalty and sentiments, there is a desperate need for local productions to step up. It is more than evident that there are far too many channels and not enough quality content being made. Pakistan’s TV productions can be compared to junk food, manufactured on a cookie cutter belt for quick consumption and very little value. Amongst all the ways in which Ertugrul is inspiring Pakistan, one hopes better productions will also be on the list.