There wasn’t a single dry eye when Aykiz Hatun breathed her last. Ertugrul fans loved the warrior Kayi tribeswoman with the steely blue eyes, married to one of their favourite heroes, Turgut Alp. All through the top-rated first season of Dirilis: Ertugrul, Aykiz stood up for what was right, fought bravely and endured abuse. In the beginning of the second season, she died a befittingly heroic — but excruciating — death, burnt by the Mongols. It was one of the saddest scenes from the show.

Dirilis: Ertugrul went on for four more seasons with other characters playing pivotal roles, but Aykiz remained memorable. Hande Subasi, the Turkish actress who played Aykiz, enjoyed the acclaim back when the show aired in her country and now, some years later, with Dirilis: Ertugrul becoming a major hit in Pakistan, she has recently acquired an all new, colossal fan-base.

Talking exclusively to Icon, she says, “Thanks to my Pakistani fans, after several years I have remembered once again how much I loved working on the show, and playing Aykiz. It was through Instagram that I realised that I now have so many fans in Pakistan. I feel honoured.”

More than five years since Aykiz’s curtain call, Hande’s career has moved on from the never-ending grasslands inhabited by the Kayi tribe. She is now starring in a musical play, Sevmekten Oldu Desinler, which translates into ‘They Died Because of Love’, and chalks the story of a poor woman who pursues her dream to become a singer.

There is a lot more to Hande Subasi than the fiery tribeswoman, in traditional headgear, fighting the Mongols in Drilis: Ertugrul. At the end of the day, she says she’s still Hande, not Aykiz Hatun

“It’s the sort of role that I always wanted to enact,” shares Hande, who acts as well as sings in the play. She has also just worked on a music single which will be releasing soon. It’s all a far cry from Aykiz — but while die-hard Ertugrul fans may find this difficult to fathom, there is a lot more to Hande Subasi than the fiery tribeswoman, in traditional headgear, fighting the Mongols. She won the Miss Turkey pageant back in 2005 and, ever since then, started building her acting career. “I feel very lucky that my dreams have come true.”

Right now, though, in Pakistan, Hande embodies Aykiz and my interview with her starts off by spiraling back in time to her days on the massive Ertugrul set. “Turkey and the Ottoman empire have a rich history with heroes whose stories are worth telling,” she observes. “People are curious to know more about these heroes and Dirilis: Ertugrul tells the story of the events that laid the groundwork of the Ottoman Empire’s foundation. This is one of the main reasons why the series became so popular. And while I hadn’t expected the show to gain international recognition, it didn’t surprise me when it did. Especially in the case of Pakistan, we may have different cultures but we are connected through the same religion. I can understand that, just like the Turkish audience, Pakistani viewers must also have been able to empathise with the characters.”

Aykiz’s death was heartbreaking for Ertugrul’s many fans. Was saying goodbye to the character also sad for Hande? “Of course. I was upset to say goodbye to Aykiz. I loved her just like everyone else. I think people enjoyed watching her relationship with her father, and especially her love for Turgut. It made it even sadder to say goodbye to her,” she reminisces. “Even personally, what I loved most about Aykiz was her love for Turgut, and how she was willing to do anything she could to protect it. She was brave, determined and spoke the truth. I think that I am similar to her in these ways.”

How did she prepare for her role as the fierce warrior woman? “The role definitely required some preparation as Aykiz was very skilled. I took horseback riding, archery and swordfighting lessons. I personally enjoy active sports, so I enjoyed learning these new skills. Even my favourite scenes from the show are the ones that include action, fighting and horseback riding.”

Hande muses, “However, if I had to pick out a specific scene as my favourite, I would say that it was the one where Ertugrul forgave Turgut because it was very significant for Aykiz and Turgut’s future together.”

We move on to discussing her interactions with other members of the cast. Evidently, Hande and the other four women playing pivotal roles in the series all shared a trailer. “I was especially close to them. Esra Bilgic, Didem Balcin, Hulya Darcan, Burcu Kiratli and I would share food and hang out together in between scenes. Hulya Darcan, or Hayme Ana from Ertugrul, was like a mother to us, just like in the show.

“The set itself was extremely big. The team had created places and conditions dating back to a different time period, as well as costumes and décor. It was all very impressive.”

We drift back to present day and a slightly more sensitive issue. Ertugrul’s cast may have enjoyed their sudden extreme popularity in Pakistan but they have also had to endure some good old-fashioned Pakistani social media trolling. Fans have frequently gotten offended when their favourite characters have posted a personal picture that they find too risqué, or completely in contrast to their Ertugrul avatars. They have proceeded to make snide comments at worst (‘Are you Muslim?’) or offer kindly advice, expressing their disappointment. Does Hande feel offended by this?

“This is actually a very sensitive issue and it could be discussed for hours,” she says. “To sum it up, however, I know that, everywhere in the world, people tend to associate the characters they love with the actors or actresses who play that role. My job, though, was only to do my professional best, and to give life to Aykiz. This does not make me Aykiz. I’m Hande. I really appreciate the admiration of my fans but I’m not happy about being criticised and getting negative comments about things that I do in my personal life.”

Notwithstanding the trolling, would Hande like to visit Pakistan in the near future? “Of course I would,” she says. “I have never been to Pakistan but I’m very curious about your culture. I now feel even closer to your country because of all the positive feedback that I have received. It’s made me very happy, that I’m known in a country because of my work. It would be a pleasure to visit Pakistan!”

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 8th, 2020

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