Inside a restaurant in Istanbul, two women perched at the bar face an exquisitely lit aquarium that extends toward the ceiling. “I still haven’t watched your show. When is it on?” Peri (Defne Kayalar) turns to ask her friend, Melisa (Nesrin Cavadzade), when a group of young fans approaches her for a selfie. “Forget about it. You don’t have to bother,” Melisa replies. “I’m curious. Only to see you. It’s not like I’m going to watch an entire Turkish soap opera,” Peri says disdainfully, sipping her wine.
When these characters meet again in the last episode of the 2020 Turkish Netflix original series Bir Baskadir, we learn that Melisa’s show is about to be cancelled. “I thought this show is such a piece of shit. It will run forever…the worse the show, the more people like it,” Melisa observes with exasperation.
Indeed, soap operas are often seen as the antithesis of high art, a guilty pleasure best unacknowledged. Yet Turkish “soap operas”, or dizis, have crossed Turkey’s borders and found open admirers on distant shores. In 2015, the Indian television channel Zee Zindagi, famous for its eclectic repertoire of programmes from Pakistan, South Korea, Brazil, and Ukraine, broadcast a Turkish syndicated television series for the first time. Although Adını Feriha Koydum was a hit in India, it would take Turkish television a few more years to mirror, if not surpass, the dizzying success of Pakistani television dramas like Humsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai starring the undeniably magnetic Fawad Khan.
When Jaish-e-Mohammed militants attacked Indian Army soldiers in the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016, cross-border flows of popular culture came to a standstill. “Unfortunate stance of Mia Sharif at UN”, tweeted Zee’s Chairman, alluding to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s sharp criticism of India in his UN General Assembly address just days after the attack. “Zee is considering stopping Zindagi programs from Pak, as well artists from there should leave.” With that astonishing announcement, Pakistani programmes went off the air, leaving behind a trail of beleaguered Indian fans.
Dizis filled the void. “They felt different from the usual Indian and Pakistani shows,” Jean Roy, an avid viewer based in Goa, told me. “Bolder, but not vulgar,” she said, recalling when she would tune in to watch Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? – a story about a rape survivor’s pursuit of justice – on Zee Zindagi. “The angle of the camera, the way it lingered, the choreography… it was different. The acting felt more natural too.” Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? had become so popular it was eventually adapted to the Indian screen as Kya Qusoor Hai Amala Ka?, predictably leading to comparisons between the two.
In an interview with Fatima Bhutto, author of New Kings of the World: The Rise and Rise of Eastern Pop Culture in the World, Fatmagül’s screenwriter, Ece Yörenç, suggested that Indian producers had refused to make the protagonist an empowered woman at the end of her ordeal unlike, it is assumed, the Turkish original. At any rate, Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne? appears to have made a more lasting impression than its Indian counterpart if a 148-page discussion thread on an online fan forum lovingly dissecting the series is any indicator.
As Turkish dizis gained prominence, relations between India and Turkey grew tense. “Despite the resolutions affected by the United Nations Security Council, Kashmir is still besieged. Eight million people are still stuck in Kashmir, they cannot get out,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, referring to the lockdown enforced in Kashmir after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to Turkey.
A few months later, during a joint session of the Pakistani parliament, Erdoğan compared Kashmir with Çanakkale (Gallipoli), where Ottoman forces had once fought against the Allies. “It was Çanakkale yesterday and Kashmir today; there is no difference between the two,” he asserted. India responded: “We call upon the Turkish leadership not to interfere in India’s internal affairs and develop a proper understanding of the facts, including the grave threat posed by terrorism emanating from Pakistan to India and the region.”
Meanwhile, the television channel Zee Zindagi morphed into a video-on-demand service promising television shows from around the world. For middle-class Indians with high-speed internet and a curiosity for foreign cultures, the possibilities were now seemingly endless. In the early months of the pandemic, fans went online to rewatch the dizis they had first encountered on television. For others, dizis were a novelty. “I totally left Bollywood or Indian TV dramas when I start Turkish drama awesome story no one can beat (sic),” reads a viewer’s comment on Youtube. For viewers like Mridula Kairab, an Indian resident of New Jersey, Indian soap operas had become tiresome with their quarrelling characters and moralizing plotlines.
Dizis felt lighter. They illuminated stories of romantic love and heartbreak – not unlike the “romcom” – and often offered an expansive, more nuanced take on human relationships. “I was really struck by their attention to female friendship,” said Annie Philip, a journalist based in Bangalore, who stumbled into the world of dizis a year into the pandemic. “The ‘heroine’ usually has a female best friend, but this relationship is never romanticised. Conflict is shown to be part and parcel of friendship, true to real life, and it is handled well.”
For her podcast, Navya Naveli Nanda – granddaughter of Bollywood stars Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan – spoke to her mother, Shweta, and Jaya, about their shared love for Turkish television. “We only survived the lockdown because of our Turkish shows,” she said, revealing how the family had named a group chat after one such show. “I’ve done my PhD in Turkish shows,” quipped Jaya, before the video cuts to a conspiratorial Navya. “The things I did to get the subscription to watch that show was crazy.”
Navya doesn’t reveal the name of the dizi but a story that did resonate widely among Indian audiences was Diriliş: Ertuğrul about the life of the 13th-century warrior, Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman Bey, who founded the Ottoman Empire. Diriliş: Ertuğrul was first broadcast in Turkey in 2014 by the state broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) to a mostly appreciative domestic Turkish audience. Conservative populations discovered in Ertuğrul (Engin Altan Düzyatan) – who is depicted in the series as a noble self-righteous warrior fighting against foreign enemies – a compelling script to recover a sense of national pride briefly ruptured by a failed coup attempt against Erdoğan’s regime in 2016.
For critics, Diriliş: Ertuğrul was an example of how popular culture could be wielded to serve Erdoğan’s political ambitions. A clip from the series’ theme song, they point out, was used in a commercial to rally popular support for the 2017 referendum that sought to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one designed to concentrate power in the hands of Erdogan. Symbolic gestures such as these, they say, enable Erdoğan to represent himself as a modern-day Ertuğrul to the Turkish people.
Remarkably, Diriliş: Ertuğrul‘s influence extends not only to Turkish audiences but to Muslim communities across the globe. Culture critic Bhutto observed that “it is a superbly shot, emotive drama that plays out all of Turkey’s — and the Muslim world’s — fantasies and anxieties…” In India, Diriliş: Ertuğrul‘ appeal among Muslim fans lies in its imaginative promise of emancipation. “The reasons for Diriliş’s popularity among Indian Muslims are actually very local: they have emerged from India’s contemporary socio-political crisis,” writes Ikramul Haque and Saheed Meo in Scroll.in. “It offers them a visual space to re-imagine themselves, and reactivate their struggle for justice and rights.”
In Hyderabad, a Muslim entrepreneur opened a restaurant eponymously named after the series and adorned its walls with posters of its main characters. Several babies in Kashmir have been named Ertuğrul. But to situate the series’ soft power in politics alone does not explain the totality of its appeal to Indian fans – Muslim or not. Some viewers engaged with the series as a story brilliantly told. They immersed themselves in its many impressive battle scenes and marvelled over the show’s masterful cinematography and attention to character-building with little regard for political subtext.
Diriliş: Ertuğru is one of several locally produced dizis that Netflix has made available to Indian viewers. With its recent move to produce its own original series, however, the range of Turkish dramas has diversified considerably. Unlike dizis produced for local Turkish television channels – where a single episode typically runs between 90 and 120 minutes – an episode of a Netflix Turkish original series averages about 45 minutes – broadly in line with the expectations of a global viewership. For Turkish producers, Netflix represents an opportunity to internationalize and escape the pressures of a volatile domestic market in which shows are routinely cancelled when they fail to achieve timely commercial success. It has forced Turkish producers to tell Turkish stories in a globally compelling way, argues the academic Bilge Yesil in her essay, “Transnationalization of Turkish Dramas: Exploring the Convergence of Local and Global Market Imperatives”.
In the Netflix original series As the Crow Flies, this is all too palpable. Set in a newsroom in modern-day Istanbul, it tells the story of an obsessive young reporter, Asli, who resorts to manipulation and sabotage to take down a veteran news anchor, Lale, who is both her idol and nemesis. The show is uninterested in commenting on Turkish national identity. It focuses on physical beauty and modern lifestyles, which Yesil identifies as hallmarks of the globalised Turkish series.
As the Crow Flies stylish, good-looking, and impeccably dressed protagonist, Lale, enjoys the high status of a prestigious career at a revered television news channel that also affords her the luxuries of living in an impossibly beautiful bungalow. The “beauty factor”, as the Turkish academic, Senem Çevik, describes it, is an essential part of the dizi’s global soft power appeal and applies as much to places as it does to people. Dizi actors and actresses are attractive to the point of distraction, and many are in fact former models. “The characters eat delicious food all the time but there’s no evidence of it on their bodies,” Annie said drily. Stories often unfold in dreamy locations. When Jean described the coastal landscapes featured in Fatmagül, I asked her if she had any plans to visit Turkey, realising I already knew the answer. “Oh yes, most definitely. Turkey is on our bucket list of places to go.”
Shared cultural affinities are often cited as the reason for the dizi’s unparalleled success in the Arab world, but that logic has rarely been applied to countries beyond the Middle East, such as India. “The characters are modern, but they also follow their culture and traditions, they respect their elders, just as we do,” observed Mridula, who became an admirer of dizis after watching the syndicated Turkish drizi, Kara Para Aşk on Netflix.
In Bir Baskadir, a Netflix original production, this duality is handled with equal parts compassion and humor. Meryem (Öykü Karayel), a cleaner who works in the homes of the wealthy, suffers from periodic fainting spells. She is skeptical about the merits of psychotherapy – a skepticism she has inherited from her trusted hodja, her priest – but she is curious to try. “Your job is hard. I guess you must have had to study a long time. How long did you?’ she asks her psychiatrist, Peri, with deep admiration. “Six years,” Peri replies. Meryem shakes her head, genuinely baffled. “All that time and you’re not even a real doctor.”
As a Netflix original, Bir Baskadir is quite unlike the dizi its own characters turn to for pleasure and refuge. We often find Meryem curled up on her sofa in her modest living room, partaking in whatever plot twist has unfolded in the love life of the character played by Melisa. In real life, too, dizis entice viewers with their promise of vicarious romance and emotional experience otherwise denied to them in their day to day. Referring to the popular Turkish dizi, Siyah Beyaz Aşk, which tells the tale of an unlikely romance between a female doctor and a mafia leader, an Indian fan writes rapturously in an online review, “I watched this in Hindi, so I want to say mujhe inke mohabbat se mohabbat ho gayi” (I fell in love with their love). Turkish television has something to offer everyone.
At the time of writing, Turkey and Syria were struck by a series of earthquakes, some say among the deadliest in recent history. Despite recent and ongoing diplomatic tensions, the Indian government has, under the strategically named “Operation Dost”, provided Turkey with humanitarian assistance. “Dost is the word in Hindi and Turkish which means friends. And this operation shows our friendship,” remarked Firat Sunel, Turkey’s Ambassador to India.
In this period of national mourning, it’s no surprise that the streaming website, Turkish123, has indefinitely suspended its services. Some dizi actors, such as Mert Firat, are using their platforms to rally for global humanitarian support. “Turkish TV series are watched in more than 120 countries. The world knows our culture. They know us. We need their support.”