Ertugrul Ghazi, or Dirilis Ertugrul, is a Turkish television show that has recently taken up Pakistan by a storm. Based on the life of the father of Osman, the founder of the Ottoman empire, Ertugrul, the show goes through various political ups and downs of Ertugrul’s personal and political life and the struggles of his tribe. Clocking over 68 million views on its first episode on YouTube, the series has broken almost all records of viewership when it comes to Pakistani television shows seen on digital platforms. Even a big hit tv show hit 20 million or so views which is less than half of Ertugrul’s first episode’s views.
And it’s not just the YouTube views that are making the statement when it comes to Ertugrul Ghazi. The show itself has become somewhat of a cultural moment in the Pakistani discourse. Prime Minister Imran Khan encouraged everyone to watch it. Post his tweets and his public endorsement of the show, whether it’s Tiktok or Twitter, memes or talk shows, debates online or offline – everyone was talking about it.
Various Pakistani stakeholders lashed out at the government and Pakistan Television/PTV (the state-owned television channel) for procuring ‘foreign content’ while ignoring the locally produced tv shows (curiously, PTV has been running content from other private channels as well). However, Pakistan television regularly ran Turkish soaps back in the 90s. A tv channel in Pakistan to this day almost exclusively dubs foreign tv shows, and it runs dubbed international shows as their primary content.
The lead actors of the show have been appearing on various tv channels and sending out messages of solidarity and gratitude for the Pakistani audiences for making Ertugrul a raging success and one of its lead actresses just landed a massive ad campaign.
A commentator, in a think piece in a leading daily, likened the show to ISIS. Some said it doesn’t ‘promote Pakistani culture’.
The hate against the show demonstrably comes from quarters quick to criticize Imran Khan’s policies and his government. The criticism also stems from a school of thought that is wary of the celebration of overtly religious symbols. While there is merit in understanding that Ertugrul is fictionalized and dramatized version of history, erasure of Muslim culture or ignoring the impact of Muslim history on our region is reasonably ignorant.
The reason why Ertugrul Ghazi fits into the Pakistani narrative ideally is that it is easy to identify with: a righteous Muslim protagonist for a majority Muslim population tired of seeing itself caricatured in Bollywood films, the regular staple for Pakistanis when it comes to entertainment. It had the righteous hero effectively battling it out with his enemies instead of the sloppy action Pakistanis were used to seeing in their films. Ertugrul Ghazi is a very well-made, well-produced show (the screenwriter of the series is post-graduate expert in sociology). It caters to kitchen politics too but is so much more than just two women fighting over a rich, handsome man with a big house. The show has sages (Ibn al Arabi, a noted scholar we have all grown up reading about), horses, sword fights, political struggles, villains who aren’t stupid and stereotypical and heroes and heroines that grow as the series progresses. Ertugrul Ghazi also attracts in the male audiences too, which were almost entirely ignored by Pakistani media houses.
Despite the presence of great actors and fantastic directors, who regularly try to make the best out of the content they’re given and the commercial model they have to follow, every leading tv show in Pakistan right now is focused on marriage. With mostly Romeo-Juliet like stories, entertainment television primarily showcases household politics. Perhaps it was the limited variety of content and the lack of proper infrastructure for Pakistani artists that didn’t allow Pakistan’s own brand of entertainment to be marketed as its soft power whereas India had been establishing itself as a credible representative of South Asian entertainment across the world. India also elevated its nationalism through films like Chak De India, Swades, Dangal (all films that did very well in Pakistan too) whereas Pakistani media and its relationship with nationalism could have been called buffoonery at best. Pakistan produced low-grade, laughable films that showed the male protagonists dodging bullets by just veering the other way as he prayed. This is why, for the longest time, even Pakistanis wouldn’t flock to the cinema for a Pakistani film as quickly as they would for a Bollywood feature. Indian films were well-made, full of entertainment value. Pakistani films were few and far in between, lacked quality and provided almost no value for money. Post Zia ul Haque’s era, cinemas were shutting down to build malls and the entertainment industry continued to be in tatters.
It was a reality far too acute for Pakistani cinema-owners to ignore: post-Pulwama, when Pakistan banned Indian content, footfall in the cinemas fell. Post-Covid19, cinema-owners are ready to or have already shut down their shops. Pakistan doesn’t produce enough films, the government doesn’t recognize the entertainment industry as a legitimate industry and people have no choice but to switch back to Pakistani television shows.
In Pakistani television shows, a woman who is ‘too empowered’ or has a career and doesn’t regret it would never work in a commercial model such as this. I had pitched a script I had written to a production house and was told, “If we show the girl as someone who moves on from her husband this easily, our audiences won’t like it,” he told me asking me to rewrite the script. Another content expert told me when I had pitched another story that no one would produce my writing about a woman who falls in love with another man even though she’s in an abusive marriage. The disruption caused by Ertugrul in mainstream and digital media should be rightfully shaking up those who have the power to create and produce shows in Pakistan.
Perhaps Ertugrul’s success will change the future of Pakistani content. There are already rumours of Mehmet Bozdag, the creator of the series, talking about collaboration with Pakistani production houses. Or, if no one wants to learn from Ertugrul’s success, they will ask Mehmet to recreate Romeo and Juliet again. Minus the horses. Perhaps this may even help Pakistan propel its soft power to a greater scale.
On the political front, Pakistan and Turkey enjoy fantastic relations now more than ever. Imran Khan and Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed a joint press conference earlier this year and the Pakistani PM thanked Erdogan for speaking up against Indian aggression in Kashmir. Just a few days ago, PM Imran Khan announced the ‘new map’ of Kashmir, as the world marked a year of India stripping away the special status of Kashmir. Dawn reported that PM Khan “hailed the new map as the “first step” towards resolution of the nearly 73-year-old dispute”. He also emphasized on a political solution to the dispute.
Indian hawks have not responded well to the new map, as was expected. Shishir Gupta, in a piece printed in Hindustan Times, called the map ‘so-called’ and a ‘cartographic hallucination’. A few days later, Mr. Gupta also published a piece speaking about the deepening ties between Turkey and Pakistan, stating that “Turkey had emerged as the “the hub of anti-India activities” next only to Pakistan”.
“Turkey has been providing lucrative scholarships and running exchange programmes for Indian Kashmiri and Muslim students to study in Turkey through state-sponsored NGOs. Once the students land in Turkey, they are approached and taken over by the Pakistan proxies operating there,” the “intelligence” report claims, according to Mr. Gupta’s piece.
The point ultimately becomes that deepening ties between Pakistan and Turkey make New Delhi defense think tanks uncomfortable. It is the rise of a new power dynamic with Pakistan allying even more closely with China (although some of Bollywood’s biggest films have earned massive revenue from Chinese markets) and Turkey and India is perhaps isolating itself by relying far too much on the United States and Israel. Donald Trump and PM Modi were smiling at crowds in India together as recently as earlier this year and in 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu made headlines by posing with the who’s who in Bollywood (Amitabh, Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Madhur Bhandarkar and Prasoon Joshi, among others).
Pakistan’s close friendship with China and Turkey could undoubtedly be the bloc that worries New Delhi as of now. But despite Turkey reportedly making its way into India to promote Turkey’s soft image and foster exchange programs and tourism, the power of media in today’s world will do more talking than anything else.
It’s unfortunate that Pakistan and India, due to their own terse history, have got to now rely on other states to create power blocs against each other. Pakistan and India share more history together with each other than with any of the other countries they’re allying with to create a balance of power. Pakistani and Indian content creators, artists, technicians and thinkers share more with each other in terms of language, culture and origins. That is why Pakistani artists made quite a splash when they crossed over to Bollywood. That is why India’s streaming and media giant, Zee, is now hosting content from Pakistan and commissioning original projects, despite the strained relations between two countries.
Perhaps when Jinnah envisioned partition, he had imagined a separate autonomous state for Muslims but not an enemy state on the other side. But with the Kashmir issue still remaining a bone of contention and the rise of right-wing politics in India, this continues to be a pipe dream.