Turkish actors Cengiz Coşkun and Nurettin Sönmez loom tall over me and the rustic luxury of the sitting room in the Sindh Governor House, where we meet. The room also seems diminutive in comparison. Bearded, broad-shouldered and extremely famous, I almost expect the two actors to suddenly whip out swords and dash off into the horizon on horseback.
They may not be dressed in traditional mediaeval Turk war-gear and there are certainly no horses about, but even in de rigueur button-down shirts and pants, they are unmistakably Turgut Alp and Bamsi Beyrek, respectively, the pivotal characters that they played for long stretches in the Dirilis: Ertugrul series.
Ertugrul stormed into the consciousness of the Pakistani diaspora about two odd years ago, around the same time as the coronavirus pandemic imposed a global lockdown. The series had been present on Netflix even earlier but it had been a mild success compared to the all-out sensation it became once Prime Minister Imran Khan advocated it as great viewing material.
It was subsequently dubbed in Urdu and aired on the national broadcaster, PTV. Sequestered in their homes due to the pandemic, a large audience was held hostage by the show and, suddenly, there was ‘Ertugrul fever’ all round. Restaurants were named after the series, birthdays themed around the show, cattle dubbed after favourite heroes come Eid-ul-Azha and plenty of Ertrugrul-centric clothing available in market places.
After winning hearts across Pakistan in the Dirilis: Ertugrul series, Turkish actors Cengiz Coşkun and Nurettin Sönmez landed smack in the middle of unbridled fandom that showcased the passion Pakistanis have for both of them
I had thought that the hype would have subsided to some extent by now but Cengiz and Nurettin’s recent visit to Pakistan proved it wrong. A collaboration with the J. brand, where two perfumes had been themed around the actors — in bottles shaped like swords and shields! — had led to the visit.
As the brand’s guests, they attended formal dinners, press meet-ups and braved visits to major malls, and it was very evident that the Ertugrul fandom remains alive, extending far and wide, from an elite niche to the masses on the roads.
Twitter is littered with images and videos where colossal crowds have screamed out their names in malls. An ‘official’ dinner at the Sindh Governor House proved to be no better, with a flood of frenzied fans mobbing the two actors, desperate for selfies and videos and some even boldly asking them for a quick cellphone video wishing their child a happy birthday!
Cengiz and Nurettin looked understandably overwhelmed. Fighting the enemies of the Kayi tribe may have seemed easier in comparison.
Luckily, I met the two actors shortly after they landed in Karachi, right before they began zig-zagging from malls to dinners to more malls. Cengiz and Nurettin were tired from their flight but they were fairly verbose, talking easily, yet to get tongue-tied by the sea of fans awaiting them. They were “happy to be here in Pakistan,” they told Icon.
Were you even aware of Pakistan before the Dirilis: Ertugrul series became such a hit here? I ask.
“We knew of the brotherhood between Pakistan and Turkey but, yes, once the show became popular in Pakistan, we got to know a lot more about the country,” says Cengiz.
Nurettin elaborates: “When Ertugrul became a hit across the world, we became aware of a lot of the countries where we had fan followings. We now know that there are so many similarities between Pakistanis and Turks — we have similar values, we are hot-blooded, emotional, speak eye-to-eye, touch while speaking and believe in hospitality.”
The beliefs that move the story
We move on to a widely ubiquitous query: had they ever thought that Ertugrul would become such a global phenomenon?
“We believed in the project, yes,” says Nurettin, “but of course we did not know that it would become such a success. Dirilis: Ertugrul was created with a lot of passion and heart. We truly believed in the story that we were telling, and we told it with imaan [belief] in our hearts.”
He continues, “I think that people believed in Ertugrul’s story because it focused on the rules that dictate a warrior’s life.” He motions to me, “If I’m the chief and you come to my oba — village — and the enemy wants you back, it’s my duty to protect you. Even if I’m weaker than the enemy, I will not relent because my faith is guiding me and I’m clear that I have to do what is right. Even the people who were not warriors in the story followed their Islamic values with great dedication.”
Are the strong Islamic beliefs dictating the story also one of the series’ biggest draws?
“It’s a story that takes people on a spiritual journey and, yes, Muslims particularly connect with it,” agrees Cengiz. “But I have also often met fans who are non-Muslim. In today’s times, when people have lost touch with their traditions, they gravitate towards a story like Ertugrul, where a code of ethics is important and traditions are upheld. It is the sort of story that touches the heart.”
Nurettin adds: “A lot of times we talk about Rumi and Shams on social media and people respond eagerly. It’s great that this series has increased people’s knowledge about the Islamic way of life and thinking.”
This may all be very well but hasn’t enacting valiant Islamic heroes also placed pressure on the actors to be a certain way in their real lives too? Don’t fans get angry when their pictures are seen, looking and behaving differently?
The actors nod. Apparently, this happens all the time.
“People do make comments,” says Nurettin. “They’ll ask why I have a tattoo or why I have cut my hair in a particular style. But there are two ways of following your faith. One is to be extremely strict about everything and the other is to be committed to the Islamic brotherhood and have love for everyone. I believe in the latter way. Still, I don’t get angry at people’s comments. It means that I have done my job well, which has made them believe in my character so much.”
“We are just actors doing our jobs,” Cengiz observes. “Also, we are Muslims, which is why I think we have done this job well. We have not just been part of this series physically, we have also poured in all our love, passion, imaan into telling the story well. This is why Dirilis: Ertugrul has become successful all around the world. But this does not mean that I will not play a non-Muslim character in the future. This is my job. I made my film debut in the movie Conquest 1453, in which I played the enemy and people loved that too.”
Nurettin adds: “Ten years ago, I acted as a Serbian soldier and I wore a necklace with the Christian cross on it. It was just my job to do so.”
Their longest acting stints so far have, of course, been as two of the most outstanding soldiers in Ertugrul’s army. Turgut, played by Cengiz, fought on, all through the five seasons of Dirilis: Ertugrul, while Nurettin’s Bamsi persisted for seven years, first in Dirilis: Ertugrul and then, in the sequel to the series, Kuruluş: Osman.
“I quit last year,” says Nurettin, “because I had played Bamsi for long enough. For two years, I played an old Bamsi in Osman but I want to play other roles now. I had started to think like Bamsi! In one scene in Osman, I’m standing, waiting for Osman to come and, even though the camera was not on me, I was thinking, ‘First, we used to wait for Ertugrul and now, we wait for Osman!’” he laughs.
Ertugrul trivia for the fandom
Dirilis: Ertugrul’s many, many aficionados love Bamsi for his affable but very volatile nature. He was the devoted family man, the reliable friend and the warrior who preferred to fight with two swords instead of one! Is Nurettin like that in real life as well?
“I’m very rebellious, yes,” Nurettin says, with a twinkle in his eyes. “They say that a horse responds to the personality of its rider, and once we were shooting a scene where the tribe was riding out on 30 horses. All the horses were faced one way, towards the camera, but my horse refused, insisting on standing in the opposite direction!”
Bamsi, it turns out, has had many more adventures on horseback. I ask Cengiz to recall a few anecdotes and he laughs while telling me, “Once the army had to ride in on horses and, while we stopped at a point, Nurettin’s horse galloped on, barging right through the tents on set!”
Turgut also has had plenty of behind-the-scenes experiences. “The show went on for so long that we have many stories to tell,” muses Cengiz. “I was once using an axe and somehow, I broke my elbow. It was very painful.”
The professional hazards of playing fierce warriors was a definite part of playing a major role in Dirilis: Ertrugrul — so was having a series of love interests. Most of the characters fell in love throughout the storyline with the exception of Bamsi, who wasn’t paired with anyone at all for the first three seasons. Why so?
“I read on Google that the writers may have been afraid that Bamsi would be as ferocious while in love as he was on the battlefield,” quips Nurettin.
Turgut, on the other hand, had women falling in love with him quite consistently. His love affair with his first wife, Aykiz Hatun, had fans besotted. When she died, it was one of the season’s saddest episodes. Cengiz shrugs. “He had two wives, but they both died. It was tragic but it went with how people like to see warriors — nobly suffering for the sake of righteousness. Heroes, I suppose, are meant to suffer.”
I slip into Ertugrul fan mode: which wife did he like better? “Aykiz!” Cengiz grins. “The first one always has to be more special.”
Life Beyond Ertugrul
Why haven’t the actors been seen in other roles since Dirilis: Ertugrul wrapped up?
“I have been choosing projects very carefully,” admits Cengiz. “I don’t want to play a role just for money. It has to be something that I’m excited about.”
“I have acted in a movie that was supposed to release last year, Malazgirt 1071, in which I play Sultan Alparslan,” he continues. “The premiere was supposed to take place last year in March, right when the coronavirus pandemic broke out into the world. Now, it’s scheduled to release this December, and it may also release in Pakistani cinemas.”
Movies are obviously easier to film than series, I comment. “It isn’t about what’s easy and what isn’t,” Cengiz corrects me. “In a movie, you know the beginning and the end. There are no changes in the middle.”
“You also don’t start becoming more like the character that you’re playing because, after some time, you’re done with the project,” adds Nurettin.
“Nurettin and I are also working on a movie together. It’s still in its planning stages but the story is centered on the lives of Shah Ismail and Sultan Selim,” informs Cengiz. “We’re not going to be friends in this one.”
“Enemies!” adds Nurettin.
So who’s the good guy and who’s the baddie? “There’s no good or bad,” Cengiz shakes his head, “they both have opposing beliefs, but think that they are right. Maybe one day we will also work in a collaboration with Pakistan,” he smiles.
Both actors obviously have a favourable view of Pakistan. “We chose the scents of our perfumes ourselves,” says Cengiz, “and we have been treated with such open-heartedness and respect.”
Did their Instagram followings treble following the airing of Ertugrul’s airing in Pakistan? “Overnight!” says Nurettin.
I tell them that I had heard that they got quite a few online marriage proposals as well. “I’m still getting them!” laughs Cengiz. “I’m just grateful for the way people have showered love upon us.”
We move on to the question that has become an unfortunate part of the interviews now: Covid-19 brought cinemas around the world to a halt and many actors were left with nothing to do for months. Was it the same for them in Turkey?
“Well, my movie’s release did get delayed by almost two years,” says Cengiz, “but sometimes what initially seems to be bad for us, turns out to be fortunate.”
How? “I tried my best. Maybe it will do better now than it would have done last year.” Cengiz gives me the routine answer that has kept filmmakers and movie actors sane throughout the Covid-19-induced lockdown.
Did either of them get the coronavirus? Both of them had, they tell me. “I had it. My nose was blocked for three days and then I was fine,” says Cengiz.
“After three days I was doing burpies in my garden,” says Nurettin.
That’s something Bamsi would do, I joke back.
Turgut and Bamsi — Cengiz and Nurettin’s characters in Dirilis: Ertugrul are so well-loved and larger than life that it is often difficult to think of the actors as anyone else. They may not have been swishing swords, hollering war-cries or riding out on horses, but they were the much-loved faces that had often been in focus throughout the Dirilis: Ertugrul series.
Gracious, well-spoken and with easygoing humour, they shrugged off their jet lag for the Icon interview, before heroically marching off to Karachi’s malls. After all, as ferocious formidable members of the Kayi tribe, they had seen it all, done it all. Several hundreds of hollering fans intent on getting selfies would possibly be no problem at all.