Since October 2017, when Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), began streaming on Netflix, the Turkish historical drama has become immensely popular in India – especially among young Muslims. The drama first aired in Turkey in December 2014 and ran for 448 episodes over five seasons.
In Kashmir, several babies have been named after the protagonist Ertugrul. During the winters, Ertugrul-style caps with claret-coloured fur have become popular in the Valley. In May, Riyaad Minty, a senior official at TRT, the Turkish broadcaster that produces the show, took to Twitter to express his excitement at the dramatic increase in the number of Indians searching for the show on YouTube. Facebook.
Filled with captivating plots, religious overtones, heroic fights, mysteries and myths, Dirilis is a fictional drama that traces the prehistory of the formation of the Ottoman Empire. It tells the story of the 13th-century Oghuz Turks led by the legendary hero Ertugrul, father of Osman who is considered to be the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
However, the show has been banned in Saudi Arab, United Arab Emirate and Egypt because of a controversy around the political message and cultural meaning of the drama. In February, the highest fatwa council of Egypt issued a statement accusing Turkey of trying to create an “area of influence” for itself in the Middle East using its soft power.
Critics in Turkey claim that Dirilis reinforces a message of Muslim nationalism that has helped President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan legitimise his power. The fact that the writer and producer of the series, Mehmet Bozdag, is linked to the President’s Justice and Development Party and the President Erdogan has publicly lauded the series and its cast seems to strengthen this claim.
The show is also extremely popular in Pakistan. The TRT Ertugrul PTV YouTube channel, which is airing the Urdu dubbed episodes of Dirilis, has 8.8 million subscribers. In June, there were reports that two statues of Ertugrul had been erected in Lahore. Perhaps the appeal for Pakistani Muslims lies in the fact that they are trying to construct a sense of the past that is attempting not to dentify itself with the history of the subcontinent but instead takes pride in being part of the wider Muslim ummah.
In India, Dirilis has a large following too. Some viewers appreciate it for its production values, the brilliant performances, master story-telling and gripping action. For others, there is the unbiased portrayal of Muslim characters, a refreshing departure from the stereotypical depictions of Muslim historical figures in Indian cinema as barbarians and ruthless murderers.
But is the popularity of the series in India driven by the same factors that underlie its success in Turkey or Pakistan? Are Indian Muslims motivated by the identity crisis or moved by the pan- Islamic political movements shaping the imagination of Muslims in other countries?
In May, the Hindutva website OpIndia argued that the series is popular among Indian Muslims for the same reason that Pakistani Muslims are devouring it. OpIndia accused Indian Muslims of “denying their Hindu heritage” and of looking to the Turks and the Arabs “to satisfy their identity crisis”.
This is a faulty assessment. Unlike Pakistani Muslims, Indian Muslims have chosen a secular democratic Indian Republic over Islamic state of Pakistan. Historically speaking, they are not only rooted in a distinctly subcontinental identity that is different from the Arab cradle of Islam, Indian Muslims have played a vital role in creating the culture shared by all Indians.
As if to bear this out, the 1988 Indian TV series Mahabharata, which became the second-most watched programme in India during the Covid-19 lockdown after the Ramayan, was scripted by an Indian Muslim – the noted Urdu novelist and poet Rahi Masoom Raza.
The reasons for Dirilis’s popularity among Indian Muslims are actually very local: they have emerged from India’s contemporary socio-political crisis. It is no secret that Muslims have been rendered voiceless in national political discourse, and their very existence as citizens is seemingly under threat after the introduction of Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.
The Supreme Court judgment in November regarding Babri Masjid-Ram temple dispute left many Muslims disappointed. The Delhi riots in February that targeted Muslims exposed the helplessness of the community and hollowness of political parties that claim to be their protectors. The arbitrary arrests of several young Muslim students, activists and scholars under charges as serious as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and sedition during the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has added to their frustration.
Against this background, Indian Muslims seem to have found the series a refuge from their dire political reality. It appears that they draw inspiration from the characters in the series exemplifying courage, chivalry, loyalty and sacrifice in order to fight for their own rights and dignified existence.
There should not be any misgiving that the series is creating some sense of separatism among Indian Muslims. Instead, it offers them a visual space to re-imagine themselves, and re-activate their struggle for justice and rights. It provides momentary solace for them. Indian Muslims, ethnically different and culturally diverse groups, do not identify with the characters of the series because they are Turks or “original” Muslims, but because they represent political change, hope and narrate a story of success.
Ikramul Haque teaches history at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. His Twitter handle is @ikram_haque.
Saheed Meo teaches sociology at the same institution. His Twitter handle is @saheedmeo.