It's not every day that a TV series is compared with the fictional fantasy series 'Game of Thrones' which is exactly what 'Dirilis: Ertugrul,' the Turkish TV series set in the 13th century, has accomplished. Yet, George RR Martin's medieval epic falls short of the many achievements of the Turkish historical drama.
Dirilis: Ertugrul has penetrated political borders and shaped people's thinking in a way Game of Thrones couldn't dream of. And It's not only Dirilis: Ertugrul that has achieved this feat, a string of Turkish TV series has received enormous popularity around the world in recent times, especially in Muslim-majority nations.
And, Bangladesh is no exception. Hundreds of thousands of people have been glued to Television sets watching 'Muhteşem Yüzyıl' ('The Magnificent Century) or more accurately, the Bengali dubbed version - 'Sultan Suleiman', a series that narrates the events of Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the magnificent in the 16th century.
The struggles of the Sultan that he faces in his family and his countless military conquests have stirred Bangladeshi people's emotions beyond description. As the Sultan's army marches to conquer the Balkan and bring Eastern Europe under Ottoman sword, modern audiences thousands of miles away in the cities of Dhaka, Sylhet and Rajshahi watch eagerly and hope for his success. This, therefore, does indicate towards some interesting implications.
Despite being geographically far from the Middle East (the birthplace of Islam), Bangladesh has always been a largely Muslim society since her inception; it's a country that today has a Muslim majority of 86.6 percent, many of whom are socially conservative. Yet, the struggle for independence in 1971 and modern globalisation have led Bangladeshis to adopt a secular constitution. Therefore, this sudden affection for a Muslim golden age might just be a harkening call for a long gone past and a way of expressing disapproval of rapid social liberalisation.
Be that as it may, these series and their influences in our society has been far and wide. Lakhs of middle class families across the nation have tuned in Deepto TV to watch Sultan Suleiman making it one of the most watched shows in Bangladesh in 2015, something other networks have also taken notice of and eventually, Maasranga Television started airing dubbed version of Dirilis: Ertugrul.
These shows have also found swaths of young audiences online too. Bengali dubbed episodes of Dirilis: Ertugrul have an average of 700,000 views on YouTube while at the same time, many Turkish shows which haven't been dubbed yet, are shown with Bangla subtitles. Even shows that have been dubbed in Urdu (not yet in Bengali) have attracted millions of Bangladeshis as Urdu is of the same language family as Bengali and Hindi.
Entertainment sites, Facebook groups on Turkish shows have also seen a huge rise in Bangladeshi memberships as well. Yet, all this popularity of Turkish shows are not only indications of a conservative Muslim populace looking at a past with nostalgia and self-contentment, it also indicates towards a gradual right-ward shift of people's views in a modern world that's been bombarded with buzzwords as globalisation and modernity.
These shows also have created international headlines around the world too. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, in his efforts to strengthen his right-wing base, said in 2019 that all Pakistanis should watch Dirilis: Ertugrul. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fearing Turkish influence and massive popularity of Ottoman Conquerors, banned Turkish shows from airing on government-run national channels. A Mexican couple converting to Islam because of Dirilis:Ertugrul also made headlines around the world last year and received heartiest congratulations from Muslims around the world and all these indicate a subtle yet sharp conservative shift in the Muslim world, including Bangladesh.
Leaders of Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia have called these shows to be a possible counter to global Islamophobia, a way to showcase and glorify good values of Islam rather than the usual religious fundamentalists' views put forward by western media. That could be one of the reasons why Ertugrul alone has been viewed by over 1.5 billion people around the world in six languages! It could be the Muslim world's silent protest to the blatant Islamophobia or in some cases, it could just be, as a British Muslim tells The Guardian, the desire "to see brown people on TV who are portrayed in a good light and are proud of their culture".
But in Bangladesh's case, It might not be only social and political views that made Turkish series like Sultan Suleiman popular, it's also the lack of enjoyable and high-quality TV shows in our country.
Religious Chauvinism doesn't explain the popularity of 'Aşk-ı Memnu' (Forbidden Love), a Turkish series aired in Channel I and is essentially a love story. Shows that have little to nothing to do with medieval conquests and religious glory have also gained tremendous popularity among Bangladeshis for the simple reason that Bangladeshis can't find many domestic shows that are as well-made or as family-friendly as these dubbed Turkish shows are.
Lack of adult contents which are prevalent in western shows and are not quite as much appreciated by the vast majority of the conservative populace in Bangladesh and well-written plots which is rare in modern Bangladeshi TV shows nowadays have made the Turkish shows more welcome in this country than many others.
Therefore, the Turkish dramas and their popularity in Bangladesh are not only an indicator of shifting public views in our society, it also signals the dire need of domestically created quality contents in Television for the average family. Maybe It's time we took the discussion of a clash between a conservative society and rapid globalisation more seriously as well as listen closely to the masses when it comes to creating entertainment contents. A change in our thinking and how we interpret mass public sentiments might just be the need of the hour, as the hero of one of the most famous Turkish series Ertugrul Bey tells us,
"The seed which is not willing to let its shell rot, cannot bear fruits."