Flirting with history

May 10, 2020

Are Turkish dramas historically accurate or just fiction?


istorical figures have always been the favourite subjects of film, television and literature. Shakespeare wrote about them as well as Walter Scott.

Now, Turkish historical plays are becoming popular in the Muslim world.

Mera Sultan was viewed avidly. These days, Dirilis Ertugral is being viewed by the people in Pakistan. Created by Mehmet Bozdag and directed by Metin Gunay, it is a usual adventure-cum-romance trope.

Of late, the Turks have been very particular about portraying their history through such television serials. It is said that President Erdogan is fascinated by the grandeur of the Ottomans and views himself as their successor.

He is thus glorifying the past in order to be seen in the same reflected glory by the people he rules over, or indeed the entire Muslim world.

In our culture, too, Naseem Hijazi had written novels on the historical figures in Muslim history thus edifying the past.

It is the example that is supposed to be followed these days – or serves as the prototype to be modeled on or emulated, and thus serves a certain purpose. The authenticity of the material and the events is supposed to be of secondary importance.

Most of the viewers are convinced that it is history with all its authenticity that is being depicted onscreen. Instead of reading and ploughing through history books, it appears far more convenient, less taxing and more entertaining, to view a historical figure in action on screen.

Judging from the popularity, it surely serves a purpose as the list of such dramas is becoming longer and longer.

The main reason for their popularity is people’s willingness to view such series as authentic history.

And herein lies the catch. It is simplified and rearranged order of events laced with plenty of glamour. The usual human concerns like love and emotional entanglements, too, form part of the staple recipe.

In India, too, such stuff was churned out. Initially, there was some fascination with Mughal emperors. After independence, there was an overlay of mythological Ramayan and Mahabharata that set the screen ablaze.

It was realized that more people could glue themselves to the small screen than cinema where they had to spend a bit of money.

The viewership was unprecedented. People viewed such events as historical facts not as mythology. The supernatural was seen to be a potent historical force that determined the course of history.

History is a serious subject which is a narration of events in a certain order backed by references and evidence.

It is an academic discipline. Historians don’t claim absolute truth or monopoly over facts. And this is what differentiates it from television docudrama.

Poetic truth usually prevails over historical truth and this is how it should be in art. If it is history, then it should be otherwise.

These historical dramas are encroaching upon more and more territory by eroding the definite boundaries between fact and fiction.

Many historians and critics have objected to these serials and films. In the course of history, the historical accounts have been written or documented by those who could afford it –the courts, the religious establishments, hence the bias.

But when history is read as history, it is to look into the areas where the historian has not really been able to establish his argument and build his case. It is the number of citations, the lack of them, or the selective absence of a few that can put the entire argument into doubt.

Then one would say that this is the approach of a specialist and that the ordinary person is not supposed to be making all this effort.

It is true that history is a serious subject and should be taken that way, and it should be followed in its spirit of having met the core requirement of a research enterprise.

These films, or television serials easily these core hurdles and present a dramatized version. The viewers are carried along, according to Coleridge, through a willing suspension of disbelief.

This does not raise questions, but is accepted in a more wholesome manner than a mere rational nod.

Therefore, these works should be judged from the point of view of art rather than strict history. The raw material, of course, is the life of a person who existed in history or an event of momentous nature that happened at a certain time.

However, such dramatized versions should only be taken as a form of art, meant to entertain, and not credible and objective facts.

The two are different and should stay so. These serials actually blur the boundaries and take advantage of the “suspension of disbelief” by passing art for history.

They hunt on both sides of the divide: social science as well as art, and sometimes do not come up to standards of either.

Dirilis Ertugral: Flirting with history