Soft power rivalries: Imran Khan backs Turkish-Pakistani co-production to diminish 'Hollywood-Bollywood influence'

The Turkish actors are immensely popular in Pakistan, even as the women actors, glamorous and without any veils, even sporting swimwear in real lives, have drawn criticism from the Pakistani conservatives, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Oct 23, 2021
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Turkish-Pakistani co-production

After last year’s roaring success of the Turkish television series Resurrection: Ertuğrul, Pakistan is set to celebrate another hero of the Muslim world who fought the Crusaders: Salah ad-Din or Saladin, the 12th-century sultan who wrested control of Palestine, including the city of Jerusalem. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had blessed the earlier project along with his Turkish friend and counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has given his nod to the new venture that will, unlike the first, be a Turkish-Pakistani co-production.

Imran Khan met the team of filmmakers of the two countries on October 21. It is slated to go into production shortly for release next April.

Saladin’s exploits

The premier noted that Saladin is a historical character who had announced a general amnesty after the conquest of Jerusalem. The West also acknowledges his role. The celebration of his life and work, Imran Khan said, will make the youth “aware of this historical role”, according to The News International.

Saladin had conquered large parts of the Arab world. At the height of his power, his sultanate spanned Egypt, Syria, the Jazira (Upper Mesopotamia), the Hejaz (western Arabia), Yemen, parts of western North Africa, and Nubia (the seat of one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa, the Kerma culture).

Famous for his celebrated sword as the conqueror, Saladin is also widely regarded as a humanist. However, media reports have pointed to a likely controversy in that the sultan, a Sunni Kurd, had ended the first Shia Fatimid state, which ruled from Cairo large parts of the Middle East for nearly two centuries. The Shia population in Pakistan is now estimated at between 10 and 15 percent.

The present-day West Asian nations have different perceptions about the past sultans and their role in furthering Muslim rule. For instance, the series on Ertugrul, on the father of Osman I - the founder of the Ottoman Empire - had prompted Saudi Arabia to make Mamalik al-nar (Kingdoms of Fire) in 2019 as a critique of the role of the Ottoman Empire in the Arab and Muslim world.

Soft power rivalries

In contrast to the simplified historical narratives put forth by Ertugrul, the Saudi Arab/UAE serial is symptomatic of the “soft power” rivalries in the Middle East, marked by the deterioration of Turkish-Arab relations, especially under Erdogan.

Ertjugrul was well received in Pakistan and Azerbaijan and aired through one of the OTTs in India. Several countries in the Arab world have banned the show and 'fatwas' have been issued against it. It has also been criticized for furthering a perceived political agenda for the government of Turkey.

But there was no denying its popularity in Pakistan where PTV ran it last year with Urdu sub-titles to a large audience home-bound because of the Covid-19 restrictions.  Roads have been named and even a couple of statues erected of the Ottoman Empire hero of large portions of the Islamic world. The Turkish actors are immensely popular in Pakistan, even as the women actors, glamorous and without any veils, even sporting swimwear in real lives, have drawn criticism from Pakistani conservatives.    

However, Pakistan and Turkey are keen on the new production that, like Ertugrul, will be shot largely in Turkey. Adnan Siddiqui, the popular actor who heads the Pakistani company with Humayun Saeed, has announced that 75 percent of the actors, including the one playing the title role, will be Turkish.

Imran Khan’s entertainment  policy

Along with friendly relations with Erdogan and Turkey, the revival of Saladin matches Imran Khan’s oft-repeated views of taking Pakistani entertainment out of the “Hollywood-Bollywood” influence.

After meeting the Turkish-Pakistani delegation of filmmakers, he chaired a meeting on blocking pornographic websites in the country which he said was corroding the morality of Pakistani youth. He also directed the authorities concerned “to ensure effective gatekeeping of the online content to shield innocent brains against the ruthless onslaught of immoral and pornographic online content.”

(The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)