I’ve been watching Turkish series since mid 2017. I accidentally ran across a recommended series on Netflix called Kurt Seyit ve Sura. I ignored it the first couple times it popped up on my recommended list because I was too into Spanish telenovelas, but finally, after being prodded by some of my social media friends I decided to take the leap into Turkish. I haven’t really watched anything else (with the exception of Homeland, True Detectives, and a few other well known American series) since then. Of course, I had to binge watch Kurt Seyit, and then found everything else I could with the lead actor, Kivanc Tatlitug. That kept me busy for a while, and then I decided to venture to other Turkish actors and Turkish series. There are so many (the Turks are very prolific) and I inhaled them one after another.
Then I ran across Cukur. It was just starting and I thought, great! I’ll be with this one from the beginning. And so it began. Most every Turkish series I had watched thus far had a good looking lead. I guess that’s meant to keep people interested as the series wind along for 40-100 two hour episodes. But Cukur was different. It didn’t have a really hot lead. It didn’t really have a lead at all. But I was hooked by the story right at the very beginning.
Cukur (Pit) is a little neighborhood in Istanbul. It’s a little rundown, but the neighborhood seems to be tight knit, with the requisite bustling farmer’s market, the crowded coffee shop and the corner barbershop. The neighbors help each other out and everyone seems to be aware of the other’s needs. All of a sudden there’s a small commotion and a herd of young boys run madly from corner to corner, jumping over rooftops and signaling to each other. The cops are coming. The neighborhood is on high alert. And the music reflects the excitement.
As the episode progresses we learn that this apparently sleepy little neighborhood is the domain of Idris Kocavali or Idris Baba as he’s known to the Cukurites. The young men of the neighborhood are all tattooed with the Cukur insignia which has its own backstory. (On a side note, when I was in Turkey last April, I saw the Cukur insignia graffitied on some of the walls of the buildings in Istanbul. It seems as though the show has its basis in reality.)
Idris, the Don Corleone of Cukur, is a rugged looking elderly man with sorrowful eyes and a soothing voice. Idris has four sons: Kahraman, Cumali, Selim and Yamac. Though only Kahraman and Selim seem to be in the family business which happens to be gunrunning. When confronting his sons, Idris’s gentle voice turns steely and his mournful eyes shoot daggers. There’s no question who rules the roost. It turns out that Cumali is in prison for a crime (most probably having to do with the family business) and Yamac, the youngest, estranged son, lives in another part of Istanbul, a scientist by day, and a musician by night.
Then one day, a stranger comes to town and everything changes. Vartolu Sadettin (brilliantly played by Erkan Kolcak Kostendil) wants to open up a meth business in Cukur, and he wants the Kocavalis to protect his operation…. for a commission of course. He makes an offer to Idris, which is, of course, rejected. Sound familiar? Yup. Just like The Godfather. But, oh so much more. There’s more to Vartolu than meets the eye. He’s a happy go lucky, ruthless gangster who’s made his way up by clawing and killing his bosses. He and his sidekick Medet want a piece of Cukur, not only for their business, but for revenge.
Vartolu, it turns out, is the illegitimate son of Idris Kocavali. Unbeknownst to Idris, he was cast out of Cukur after his mother was killed by the man who raised him. After years of abuse, he runs away to make his way in the world, where he hooks up with a group of tawdry hooligans. One thing leads to another and Vartolu (whose real name is Salih) becomes a powerful racketeer. His one aim is to take down Idris Kocavali and take over Cukur. When Idris turns down Vartolu’s offer, Vartolu retaliates by killing Idris’s oldest son Kahraman (a copy of Sonny Corleone, philanderer and all). This sets off a series of events which has so far lasted 49 episodes, all of which are a whopping 2 and 1/2 hours long (we are still in the middle of season 2). The Kocavalis and the Vartolu gang hit the mattresses and Idris Baba ends up in the hospital.
Yamac (played by Aras Bulut Iynemli), the youngest son, is called back to pull things together, which doesn’t sit well with older brother Selim. You can guess where this is going, right? Selim wants his rightful place in Cukur, but no one seems to think he’s up to it… especially Idris Baba. Nevertheless, the eccentric Yamac reluctantly takes his place as the head of the family after Idris steps down to convalesce. And he vows to destroy Vartolu.
This battle continues on throughout season 1, with each side winning and losing at different times, and of course, Selim playing both sides. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Yamac finds out that Vartolu is his brother. This is when things get interesting, and the story becomes far richer than The Godfather ever was. Everything changes suddenly as we learn the very sad backstory of how the innocent child Salih, became the vengeful man, Vartolu. Yamac learns this too. And he can’t avoid his feelings of sympathy.. his feelings of empathy. The brother he did not know he had, killed the brother he had. The dilemma is just too delicious. Vartolu’s feelings change too, as he confronts his father and battles against his fearless and resourceful brother. Little by little it becomes difficult for each to not admire the other. Both are worthy opponents, and under different circumstances would be fighting shoulder to shoulder against the enemy.
The audience understands how such a thing could be possible as the brilliant Gokhan Horzum, who wrote the series, puts the brothers in situations where they are forced to decide matters of life and death. Each time, the decisions they make are in favor of the other. Without knowing it, Yamac and Vartolu accept their shared bloodline. Of course, there are betrayals, but those are primarily committed by the imperceptible Selim, who also has a fascinating back story to be revealed much later; and there are moments of disappointment, where jealousy wins the day. There are also subtle and sweet moments of romance amidst the turmoil, and… there is even one episode that is reminiscent of the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones! Throughout the series we watch Idris Baba interact with each of his sons in a manner appropriate to that son. The dialogue between the father and his sons, and the brothers with each other is so meaningful, so deep, that in each instance we are lifted out of the perceived misery. We are inspired. We are refreshed.
When he realizes that Vartolu, his illegitimate son, is soon to be a father, Idris says, “Seeds are a beautiful thing. You ask why? Everything burns… the earth is scorched. You think that nothing can happen on that soil, that nothing will grow in it. But then it rains. And it washes the whole place. The whole place. And under that burnt and ruined earth, a small seed begins to grow. That is hope. You cannot live without hope.”
Cukur succeeds in creating a family whose foundation is solid, albeit in a non-traditional way. The Kocavalis battle rival gangs, not computer viruses in their work day, and when they go home, they may find that their home is occupied by the victorious gang, not smiling children around a dinner table. The Kocavali brothers may fight each other with loaded weapons and knives, not on a football field… and they may be forced to make meth as ransom for their wives and children. But nevertheless, they still connect as brothers, joust as competitors, clash as enemies, and join as friends, just like the rest of us. In short, we see the Kocavalis as a family, just like any other, with all the trials and tribulations that a family has.
The merits of the story is one thing, but the filmography is another thing altogether. The shading and camera work are superbly novel as scenes shift from faces to dilapidated buildings, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes twice or three times the speed. Graffitied walls foreshadow upcoming events in sync with the music (by the very talented Toygar Isikli) that skillfully scores the series. All of these underpin the exceptional characters that populate the screen. Smattered throughout the story, not insignificantly, are the other members of the Kocavali crew and their enemies, all with their own story, and many of whom we come know as we know our own neighbors. From the autistic, scrap-horder Alico (played exquisitely by Riza Kocaoglu of Kuzey Guney and Icerde fame), to the sadistic Ceto (another superb character created by Erkan Avci from Karadayi and Cesur ve Guzel), to the overwhelmed bridegroom Celasun, and the long suffering yet constant Sena, Horzum has created a host of richly complex, multi-dimensional characters that will stay with you long after you’ve moved onto the next part of your day.
*Note: As I was writing this blog, I found this interview with the actor who plays Idris Kocavali (Ercan Kesal) and the writer for the series, Gokhan Horzum. It is a very insightful interview about the motivation for the series.