Two odd months ago, Halime Sultan swooped into Pakistan, the Seljuk warrior princess turning a dominating eye towards our local audience and ensnaring it immediately. She was the quintessential ‘Islamic’ heroine; beautiful in her traditional headgear and headdress, as brave and righteous as her hero, the infamous Ertugrul Ghazi. She was also an indication of what Pakistani audiences apparently want to see.
Pakistan has been smitten by the tale of Dirilis: Ertugrul ever since the Turkish drama began airing on national TV, dubbed in Urdu. It is the ideal pretend-Islamic story — though there is almost no historical evidence of it being true and even its scriptwriter has admitted it’s mostly made up. It is laced with religious references and has lead characters that are absolutely holier-than-thou, valiantly vanquishing villains while never straying from the straight and narrow path of all that is blessed. It’s all a bit too good to be true, but when it comes to stories from history, it seems that’s how audiences like them.
Similarly, Pakistan has been smitten with Princess Halime. She presents a heady concoction: covetable but also meant to be respected, the perfect mother, daughter and sister but also the love interest of Ertugrul, traditional in appearance but quite capable of fighting for honour and fending off villains. Local audiences have seen plenty of overtly made-up glamour girls. They already have their fill of long-suffering pious bahus and lovelorn, wronged leading ladies in local dramas. In contrast, Halime is unique. Moreover, she appeals to popular notions of how a ‘Muslim’ woman should be — nevermind that there is absolutely no historical evidence that she ever even existed. She quickly became a sensation.
So has Esra Bilgic, the Turkish actress who plays the character. Esra’s tryst in Dirilis: Ertugrul ended in 2018 but, for Pakistan — having only just become acquainted with the show — she is Halime.
Pakistanis are totally smitten with Princess Halime and Esra Bilgic, who plays the iconic character in Ertugrul: Ghazi. What does the Turkish actress make of her newfound celebrity in a country 3,000 miles away?
Her social media following has suddenly boomed with a huge influx of Pakistani followers and, since then, the comments section is frequented by plenty of observations in Urdu. Many refer to Esra as Halime, thereby passing the litmus test of a character truly being popular, where audiences start calling actors by their on-screen names.
Another gauge of Esra’s immense popularity in Pakistan is how her fans don’t shy away from schooling her when they feel that she is going astray. She is often complimented when they think that she’s looking beautiful but, should they discover her in risqué clothing or posing with a man other than their beloved Ertugrul, or simply living her life the way any normal modern woman would, they don’t refrain from showing their disapproval. That’s Pakistani love for you — in its most pure, unadulterated form.
How does Esra feel about her newly acquired Pakistani fandom? Ever since Ertugrul spread its wings to Pakistan and began breaking viewership records — sometimes, even outnumbering its views in its native Turkey — the drama’s cast and crew, including Esra, have frequently reached out to their newly acquired audience via messages on social media. They have thanked their Pakistani fans for their appreciation and, in times of grief, they have also commiserated with us. For instance, many of the cast members offered their condolences via social media when PIA flight PK8303 crashed. Esra went the extra mile and even reached out to the family of fashion model Zara Abid, who died in the plane crash. Zara had once complimented Esra on her Instagram feed.
Of course, this awareness about Pakistan is a consequence of the show’s continued popularity. In an exclusive conversation with Icon, Esra comments, “When I saw the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Turkish news channels, saying that a successful project such as Ertugrul should be aired on their local channel, I felt surprised and proud at the same time. If we didn’t have a pandemic upon us, I would have visited Pakistan several times by now.”
Similar comments have been made by her fellow cast members from Ertugrul. Does this mean that, once the coronavirus pandemic has finally run its course, we will be seeing some of them in Pakistan? In the case of Esra, at least, the answer is in the affirmative. “Yes, better late than never!” she confirms. “We will meet when all this is over, when I will be working with Pakistani brands. I’m sharing, for the first time, that I’m about to work with three of Pakistan’s most loved brands. This will soon be announced by the press as well.”
Which brands are these? I wish that I could have grilled Esra about this. Unfortunately, an extensively planned exclusive interview with the actress could not go as planned, hampered by an obstacle course that traversed translators, a manager and Esra’s busy work schedule. In this social media age, where distances can be eliminated by a mere WhatsApp phone call, and despite my persistence, I still could not communicate at length with the actress. Even the lure of an extensive interview in a Pakistani newspaper couldn’t do the trick, although it is bound to be read avidly by Esra’s colossal Pakistani fan following. It is unfortunate from the perspective of an interviewer but even from Esra’s point of view, she could have utilised this chance to allow Pakistan to get to know her better, especially since she is planning to make her mark in our market soon.
In our limited communication, Esra said that she could not disclose the brands’ names yet but they are three of ‘Pakistan’s most-loved’. This revelation, of course, does not come as a surprise. Soon after Dirilis: Ertugrul became successful in Pakistan, local actors such as Shaan Shahid and Yasir Hussain had predicted that it was likely that the series’ cast members will be enlisted for product endorsements in Pakistan. This could mean less endorsements for local actors. But from brands’ perspectives and knowing the drama’s huge fan following, it could potentially haul in huge profits.
What is the key to the Dirilis: Ertugrul’s success? According to Esra, even she and her co-actors couldn’t have predicted the drama’s massive popularity. “When we first started [shooting, back in 2014], we did know that the project would succeed and be appreciated, but the success Ertugrul got was beyond our estimates. No one, including me, thought that it would become this huge and be known all over the world.”
She continues, “The reason why Ertugrul found so much love and support outside of Anatolian lands is that the emotions that we all experience are the same. Of course, the whole crew worked very hard and put in their sincere efforts.”
Talking about her enactment of Halime Sultan, her first-ever acting role, Esra says, “I read about 13th century Anatolia when I was preparing for the character. If today I had to play Halime again, I don’t think that I would do anything differently. I’m more experienced now and my knowledge of camerawork and acting has expanded. However, I would still play Halime with the same emotions. What the script made me feel will not change in a hundred years. I feel so proud to have been able to play such a holy character.”
Looking back over her Ertugrul days, Esra provides some interesting insights for avid fans: “My favourite co-stars were Altan, who plays the title character of Ertugrul, Hulya, who plays Hayme Ana, and Ezgi, the actress who plays Banu Cicek. I love each one of them and I still watch our scenes from the drama.”
Does she have any particular favourite scenes? “It is difficult to choose a single scene from 116 episodes,” she says, “but the scene in which I tell Ertugrul that I’m expecting my second child and the one in which we fight the bandits together are incredible.”
Dirilis: Ertugrul may have only just become a hit in Pakistan but the series wrapped up in Turkey some years ago. Life has moved onwards for the actors: Esra is now playing the lead role in Roma, a Turkish crime drama story, and studying law at the Istanbul City University.
She also has an interesting documentary project in the works that might involve her traveling to some of Pakistan’s scenic locales. “The essence of the documentary will be to communicate with people in villages that are hard to reach, and to photograph their lives. If they allow me, I would also like to stay with them in order to inform the whole world about their living conditions. Unless something goes against my plans, I hope to first begin working on this project within Turkey. But in the near future, you will also find me with my camera in Hunza Valley or at Lake Siaful Muluk.”
When she does manage to come to Pakistan — one hopes that this is sooner rather than later — Esra Bilgic is going to make waves. More brands are likely to want to collaborate. TV channels and major publications are likely to call her in for interviews. It is likely that she could be the guest of honour at major ceremonies. A special performance, even, could take place. I might be able to connect with her for a better interview!
And this won’t be the first time either that Pakistani brands, events and media have dabbled with international artists, or even Turkish actors.
Some may remember an ad for Lux Soap dating back to the ’80s, featuring the Turkish actress Nazan Saatchi who, at the time, had worked in a slew of Pakistani movies. And of course, before Indo-Pak relations soured, textile brands frequently enlisted Bollywood actresses as brand ambassadors for their annual lawn collections. Back in 2004, the Lux Style Awards had taken place in Dubai and had also featured performances by Indian stars Priyanka Chopra and Sonu Nigam.
Now, Ertugrul’s cast could very well become part of Pakistani markets — be part of our homegrown events and collaborate with our brands. In the short run, this could be a downer for our local actors. But with strategic planning, it could open up new avenues in the long run, and be the impetus needed for local TV to improve.
If a dubbed drama, with its roots in history, can be so widely accepted, it means that Pakistani producers need to think about moving away from their long-hackneyed storylines. Pakistani TV used to have historical fiction dramas in the olden days but current production houses shy away from them, perhaps because of costs. But Ertugrul’s popularity does indicate that audiences want something more than borderline incestuous romances, domestic squabbles and mindless comedies. Producers cite high ratings as the reason why they continue to opt for such scripts, but the ratings — and fan following — of Ertugrul is much higher. Point proven.
The incorporation of Esra and other stars from Dirilis: Ertugrul in Pakistani media could also, ideally, lead to a cross-pollination of cultures. Some of Pakistani television’s more exceptional productions could also perhaps be dubbed and aired in Turkey. Perhaps, in the long run, our stars could acquire similar extensive fan followings in Turkey and, maybe, even brand sponsorships.
The world is now a global village — moreover, a quarantined one that is spending more time than usual watching television. The success of Dirilis: Ertugrul — a drama with high production standards, dubbed into Urdu, ascribing to common religious values that Pakistan shares with Turkey, endorsed by the Prime Minister and aired on the state channel that is available all across the far reaches of the country — was only inevitable.
And we were bound to fall in love with Halime, the warrior princess, valiant and true to the point of perfection. Esra Bilgic is Pakistan’s favourite sweetheart right now and, when she does come to Pakistan, the excitement is going to skyrocket. You will read more extensive interviews, see more pictures and, lo and behold, plenty of selfies with the actress are going to filter out on Instagram. Like I said, we’re smitten.
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 28th, 2020