ISTANBUL - Friends and family gathered Friday to celebrate the most famous underdog in Turkish cinema, Kemal Sunal. Here’s a look at Sunal and his larger than life screen persona Şaban, the simple and awkward underdog in the face of changing middle class sensibilities
Family and fans of Kemal Sunal gathered near his resting place to remember Şaban the Nerd in the ninth year of his death. Long before the vulgar anti-hero with a unibrow, the infamous Recep İvedik, there was another screen persona that captured the imagination of generations in Turkey, Kemal Sunal’s loveable nerd Şaban.
Like Recep İvedik, Şaban played on the simplicity of his character and his awkwardness in the face of a changing social structure and middle class sensibilities. He may be not the greatest actor in Turkish cinema, but he was a social phenomenon transcending generations. Here’s a look at the wide-mouthed Turkish Jerry Lewis, Kemal Sunal.
Kemal Sunal movies have always been among the most popular Turkish films since his acting debut in the early 70s until his death in 2000, excluding some of his final work attempting to deviate from his alter ego. His screen persona resembled those of Jerry Lewis and Louis de Funes, a caricaturized modern jester. Sunal, or Şaban as he was called after his role in "Hababam Sınıfı" (The Outrageous Class), always displayed the same screen persona with his exaggeratedly stupid grin, limited vocabulary and a very simple look at life, and became a favorite actor for the average Turk.
The famous grin and ’eşşoğlueşşek’
Comedy films with large casts were popular at the beginning of the 70s, which coincided with the beginning of Sunal's movie career, with director Ertem Eğilmez's classic "Hababam Sınıfı" from 1975 becoming the turning point for Sunal. His role as İnek Şaban (Şaban the Nerd) in the movie became his trademark nickname until his death.
While in the beginning Sunal had only small roles, after 1973 he was highly acclaimed for his roles in large-cast movies. He won the Antalya Film Festival's Golden Orange Award in 1977, for his role in "Kapıcılar Kralı" (The King of the Superintendents). He played in 82 films before his death. During the 90s, he appeared in television programs, but Turkish audiences preferred watching his old films instead of the new series.
Kemal Sunal definitely did not play himself, but he always played the same character. His İnek Şaban can be compared to two other movie characters that became synonymous with the actors playing them, Feridun Karakaya's Cilalı İbo (Polished İbo) and Sadri Alışık's Turist Ömer (Tourist Ömer). Interestingly, Kemal Sunal's characterization of the simple and stupid migrant or villager was much more one-dimensional. Turkish audiences never tired of laughing at the simple sight of his wide-open mouth, showing his famous big grin or his famous swear word, "eşşoğlueşşek."
Any scene from any Kemal Sunal movie will most probably surprise anyone unaware of the incredible scope of his popularity. What could have raised this mediocrity on screen to such unrivalled popularity? Kemal Sunal, in essence, was a mirror of Turkish culture. With his İnek Şaban, Sunal was a clear marker for the dramatic changes that Turkey has gone through in the last three decades since the 70s.
King of underdogs
In a society where a clear-cut distinction between rural and urban has emerged, Şaban became the ideal popular figure for the average person and the majority of people in Turkey to associate with.
Two basic qualities of the Şaban character were that he was a total loser and that he was extraordinarily lucky. As an unintelligent (in fact, stupid) person from rural Turkey (he is either a villager or a migrant from a village to the big city), his luck helped him in many difficult situations and he was always oppressed by the establishment. In his unique style, he could even be called an anarchist, fighting against the system. He was the King of the Superintendents, the King of the Street Cleaners, and the King of the Guards. He wasn't exactly a popular role model for the underdog and the lower-middle class, but he was certainly making light of being lost in the big city.
After the 1980s, when President Turgut Özal opened the way for an open economy and encouraged Westernization policies, Şaban migrated from his village to Istanbul. Most of the migrants, moving to big cities with great hopes, experienced real disappointments, being unable to attain higher standards of living, while a new class of nouveau riche emerged with Özal's policies. After the 1980s, Kemal Sunal acted in films depicting this post-'80s Istanbul dream. The titles of these films clearly mirrored this social change: "Çarıklı Milyoner" (Millionaire with Moccasins), "Katma Değer Şaban" (Value-Added Şaban) and "Sosyete Şaban" (High Society Şaban).
Toward the end of the 80s, Kemal Sunal's films and TV series lost their old appeal, but Sunal's Şaban never lost his popularity. Until his death, it’s not unusual to find a Kemal Sunal movie every two days on the tv. His simplistic black humor touched millions in Turkey.