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Turkish delights

The week-long festival of Turkish films, held recently in Chennai, had a splendid variety of stories. RANDOR GUY traces briefly the history of a different kind of cinema.

"Meelekler Evi" ... for Turkish cinema, Hollywood was a persuasive influence.

URFA, A small picturesque town in Turkey, had no cinema in 1996-97 to entertain its residents. For the first time, after nearly a century of cinema in that country, a movie house came up fast. Why? There was a valid reason. To enable its residents to watch a movie which had made waves all over Turkey and turned out to be the biggest box-office grosser of that time!

The story was located in that lovely old town and hence the ignited interest to see the history-making movie. That was "The Bandit" directed by Omer Kavur, one of the leading filmmakers of Turkey.

"The Bandit", a sheer Turkish delight, was actually inspired by the successful Hollywood film, "Murder My Sweet" (1944). The Hollywood film was based on the best-selling novel, `Farewell, My Lovely ' by that master of hard-boiled crime fiction, Raymond Chandler.

This film topped the list of the 10 box-office hits of Turkey in 1997 scoring over international successes like "Mission Impossible", "Independence Day" and "Twister". It created a `Bandit — syndrome' in Turkey and many imitations came out until the trend ran out due to sheer exhaustion!

In mid-August, for the first time in Chennai, a Turkish Film Festival was held by the Madras Film Society in association with the Turkish Embassy, Delhi and Honorary Consul for Turkey in Chennai.

The outstanding feature of this week-long Festival was the splendid variety of stories. It is a matter of regret that those involved in the local film world do not bother, with a few exceptions, to attend these festivals of a different kind of cinema.

Indeed, movies came to Turkey soon after the first public movie exhibition began in Paris during December,1895. The first film screening in Turkey was held in the Yildiz Palace in 1896. Public shows followed in 1897.

The first Turkish movie, a documentary produced in 1914, depicted the destruction of a Russian monument by the public. The early fiction Turkish films, silent, of course, were "The Marriage of Himmet Aga" (1916), "The Paw" (1917) and "The Spy" (1917). Mostly only documentaries were made. In 1922 a major documentary film, "Independence, the Izmir Victory," was made about the First War of Independence. The same year, the first private studio, Kemal Film, (named in honour of Kemal Pasha) commenced operations.

During the long period of 16 years, 1923 — 1939, Muhsin Ertugrul was the only active film director in the country. He directed 29 films, adapting plays, operettas, fiction, and foreign films. The theatre influenced his work immensely.

A scene from the film "Sellale".

Thanks to the many social reforms and modernisation of the traditional Islamic society brought about by Kemal Pasha, many Islamic women boldly came forward to act in movies. Film historians considered this step forward as a milestone of Turkish Cinema.

The years between 1939 and 1950 were a period of transition for Turkish Cinema, during which it was greatly influenced by the theatre as well as by World War II. While there were only two film companies in 1939, the number increased to four between 1946 and 1950.

After 1949, Turkish Cinema was able to develop as a distinctive art form with a more professional approach in both creative form and content. Hollywood , which still has a major presence in Turkey, was also a persuasive influence.

Between 1950s and 1960s, more than 50 directors made movies in Turkey.

Omer Lutfi Akad was a top and influential filmmaker of the period, while Osman Seden, Atif Yilmaz and Memduh Un made most of the films.

Forced to compete with Hollywood and also French and Egyptian movies, Turkish filmmakers had no option but do their best and invest their films with inputs like value, rich variety of stories, locales, cinematography, acting and other features. The spirit of competition and talent enabled Turkish Cinema to make its presence felt in the international film festival circuit, much more than most Asian nations.

When the first ever international film festival was held in India in 1952, a Turkish film, "The Golden Princess", raised the roof with its explicitly erotic content! Indeed it was only then many Indian movie-goers came to know for the first time that movies were being made in Turkey! The film released at a Chennai cinema hall drew uncontrollably large crowds mainly because of its uncensored contents, the likes of which the locals had never seen on screen! The number of movie-goers and films made a constant increase, especially after late 1950s. In 1960s, cinema courses were included in several major universities like Ankara and Istanbul. During 1970s, Turkish Cinema began to ride on a fast-forward mode with the number of cinema houses and movies reaching new heights. As the decades rolled over the horizon nearly 300 movies were being made for some years and expectedly such quantity led to a decline in quality. Many imitations of Hollywood movies and also soft-core porn movies were being made in large numbers. As it often happens this kind of sex-drenched films have their own audiences and soon it was only a short step from soft-core to hard-core!

Justifiably rigid censorship rules came down on such films, which led to even the quality films suffering to some extent at the hands of the censors. At a Turkish film festival, filmmakers in protest boycotted the festival withdrawing their films, and the festival screened only documentaries!

After this boom period bubble burst, Turkish Cinema began to lose its audiences, due to the onslaught of nationwide television, the surging video boom and cable television. Increase in cost of production, problems in the import of raw film stock and other materials also added to the decline in production.

However a new generation of young filmmakers rose on the horizon making quality-oriented films despite difficulties. .

In January 1986, a new cinema law came to support those working in cinema and music. The Ministry of Culture established the "Professional Union of Owners of Turkish Works of Cinema" the same year.

In 1989 The Copyrights and General Directorate of Cinema was founded and also a `Support Fund for the Cinema and Musical Arts'. Thus the Turkish government rallied round cinema in an encouraging manner keeping the creative fires in the filmmakers burning bright. Even tax concessions were given for promoting motion picture production.

The quality was reflected in the Turkish movies being screened constantly at many prestigious film festivals like Venice, Milan, Cannes, San Sebastian, Tangiers, Toronto and others.

As early as 1934, "The Million Hunters" was screened at the Venice Festival making Turkish movie history.

The galaxy of noted directors includes Metin Erksan, Atif Yilmaz, Memduh Un, Halit Refig, Duygu Sagiroglu, Nevat Pesen, Omer Kavur, Tunc Basaran, Lutfi Arkad, Osman Seden and Asif Ilmaz among others.

Some of the memorable milestone movies include "A Nation Awakening" (1932), "The Trollop" (1942, a rehash of George Bernard Shaw's `Pygmalion'. a raving success, the story was re-made in Turkey many times!), "Tale of a Mountain" (1947), "In the Name of the Law" (1952 considered as one of the finest Turkish films), "The Hope" (1970), "The Bandit" (1996) and "Arrarat" (2002).

Interestingly there are quite a few female filmmakers, like Yavuz Ozkan and Bilhet Ilhan, who have contributed in good measure and make mostly films with social content or protest films dealing with women's issues in their society.

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