Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ezel, Wildly popular Turkish TV drama stormed Arab World

She chokes back the tears. "I don't deserve to be with you."
"But I do," he says.
The scene unfolds on a rooftop of a rundown building in a picturesque Turkish village. It is from the first series of the wildly popular Turkish television drama Ezel, which may prove to be one of the most viewed serials running during Ramadan.



Ezel has kept Arabic audiences hooked this summer as Abu Dhabi Al Oula screened double episodes of the first series every Thursday. However, the programme is about to be put on overdrive, with the entire 30-part second series due to be shown nightly from the first night of Ramadan - with the exact timing yet to be announced.

To say that Turkish dramas are currently popular in the Middle East is an understatement. The programmes, dubbed into Arabic and replayed months after they captivated audiences at home, are increasingly riveting TV viewers in the region with their mix of crime, passion, history, intrigue and controversy. And the Turkish programmes are fast-replacing Egyptian and Syrian dramas in popularity.
Arabic network channels have responded to the demand and are preparing to release a slew of new Turkish dramas as well as returns of old favourites in time for the month of Ramadan, traditionally a bumper viewing season for Middle Eastern television networks. One of the most anticipated shows is the second and final series of Ezel. Loosely based on Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, the tale follows the title character who, after being set up for a robbery, escapes jail and - courtesy of facial plastic surgery - plots his revenge on the unsuspecting culprits.
Ezel's popularity in the UAE was so huge that the show's cast took a break from the busy production schedule in March for local press events and attended a gala event in Dubai alongside diehard fans.
Kerem Deren, who wrote the series with Pinar Bulat, says Turkish dramas provide Arabic audiences with culturally familiar entertainment, while at the same time thrilling them with racy plots and controversial characters.

While it is a formula adopted by script writers globally, Deren says it holds more relevance in Turkey due to its unique geographical location.
"We are a country both very close to Arabic countries, and very far way," he says. "And because of that, I think there is a fantasy to it.
"When I spoke to fans in Abu Dhabi, a lot of them said the same thing: that they loved it straight away, but at the same time the show is a little bit strange for them."
According to industry insiders, there are several other factors contributing to the prominence of Turkish dramas over those from Egypt and Syria this year. Kholoud Abu-Humus is senior vice-president of programming for the OSN network, which is screening seven new Turkish serials across its various channels.
She sees the popularity of Turkish dramas as in part owing to viewers who seek an alternative to Egyptian television dramas, which have traditionally dominated Middle Eastern TV watchers' time.
"Traditionally, Egyptian dramas have been in control, and you would not see any other dramas from other countries," she says.
"But eventually people got sick of seeing the same old thing and started looking for something different. Hence the rise of Turkish dramas with Noor and the rest. But also in the past five years, Syrian productions rose to the surface with their very good production quality and historical storylines. They have this epic feel to them, which triggered viewers' curiosity."
Escalating tensions in Syria have crippled its local television industry this year, however. Although 29 multi-part series were filmed for Ramadan, just five have been sold.
It should be noted, too, that when Deren mentions the appealing "strangeness" of Turkish dramas, part of that is due to their more liberal take when it comes to portraying relationships.
This aspect helped explain the runaway success back in 2008 of the family melodrama Noor, which was widely regarded as the first Turkish hit show in the Middle East. In a delicious twist befitting the genre, Noor was a flop in Turkey before becoming one of the most popular dramas to hit the Middle East. The show's final episode reportedly commanded a staggering 80 million viewers from the Gulf to Morocco, attracting a certain amount of condemnation from religious conservatives along the way.
It was the relationship between the main protagonists Muhannad and Noor, which was both traditional and modern, that caused the controversy - the marriage they were in was arranged, but the series had Muhannad treating his strong, business-savvy wife as an equal.
There were reports the programme was even blamed for sparking marital strife in deeply patriarchal Saudi Arabia, after husbands found their wives' mobile phones bearing pictures of the blond, blue-eyed Muhannad.
Television channels immediately jumped on the bandwagon, releasing similar follow-ups, such as What Is Left Is Love (with its love triangle involving two brothers) and Innocent Dreams (with characters including an unmarried single mother).
Another popular aspect of Turkish dramas is that its male leads are often played as emotionally sensitive.
Characters such as Muhannad and What Is Left Is Love's Karram were not traditional male dramatic characters for these parts: they let their guard down and even shed a tear or two. In most Syrian and Gulf dramas, male waterworks are traditionally reserved for the most dire tragedies.
Deren says the controversial themes in Ezel were not calculated to ruffle feathers in the Arab world. In fact, when he and Bulat began penning the scripts, they never imagined the show would cross the border to be screened in more than 30 countries across Europe and the Middle East.
However, they did want Ezel to challenge the stereotypical image of men in Turkey.
"A show like Ezel is liberal by even Turkish standards, so it's like a guilty pleasure for some viewers," he says.
"To see a grown man cry, to see an emotionally fragile male character would have been unthinkable five years ago. But now a man crying is good drama."