Elegy for the peerless nerd: Şaban

Elegy for the peerless nerd: Şaban

Emrah Güler
Elegy for the peerless nerd: Şaban You might run into the big grin at an Istanbul bus stop, splashed across the face of one of Turkey’s most popular actors ever, Kemal Sunal, or his loveable screen persona, Şaban the Nerd. “The Fidelity Stop,” as it is known, is one of the many tributes to Sunal, who passed away 16 years ago this week.

Sunal’s high school has been handing out Kemal Sunal Culture and Arts awards for 11 years now. The awards are given by Sunal’s high school, Vefa Lisesi, in a variety of categories from actors and TV shows to fashion designer and writers. A major bank, Vakıfbank, renamed its culture center the Kemal Sunal Culture Center soon after his death.

Long before the awkward underdogs of Turkish cinema, Sunal captured the imagination of a generation with his persona of the loveable nerd, playing on the simplicity of his character and his awkwardness in the face of changing social structures and the middle class sensibilities. The wide-mouthed Turkish Jerry Lewis may not be the greatest actor in Turkish cinema, but he definitely is a social phenomenon that defies the generations.

Sunal movies have always been among the most popular Turkish films since his acting debut in the early 1970s until his death in 2000, save for his final work, which was an attempt to deviate from his alter ego. His screen persona resembled those of Lewis and Louis de Funes, a caricaturized modern jester. 

Sunal’s famous big grin

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 hence became the favorite actor of the average Turk. 

Comedy films with large casts were popular at the beginning of the 1970s, 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, he became highly acclaimed for his roles in large-cast movies after 1973. 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 until his death. During the 1990s, he appeared in television serials, but Turkish audiences preferred watching his old films instead of the new series. 

Sunal definitely did not play himself, but he always played the same one-dimensional character. Turkish audiences never tired of laughing at the simple sight of his wide-open mouth, him showing his famous big grin or his famous swear word, “eşşoğlueşşek.” Any scene from any Sunal movie will most probably surprise anyone unaware of the incredible scope of his popularity. 

Remembering the late actor

The two basic qualities of the Şaban character were that he was a total loser and that he was extraordinarily lucky. Coming to the big city from a small village, 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. 

After the 1980s, Sunal acted in films depicting this post-1980s Istanbul dream. The titles of these films clearly mirrored this social change: “Çarıklı Milyoner” (Millionaire with Mocassins), “Katma Değer Şaban” (Value-Added Şaban) and “Sosyete Şaban” (High Society Şaban). Toward the end of the 80s, his films and TV series lost their old appeal, but Sunal’s Şaban never lost his popularity. 

Sixteen years after his death, Sunal has been further immortalized with books published in his memory.

Vadullah Taş’s “Kemal Sunal Filmlerini Anlatıyor” (Talking About Kemal Sunal Films) is a chronological account of Sunal’s 82 films. Nuran Turan’s “Kemal Sunal Çocukken” (When Kemal Sunal was a Child) is a collection of memoirs of the late actor. “Kemal, Hadi Gel, Bi Kahve İçelim” (Kemal, Let’s Have a Cup of Coffee) is a favorite of the fans, as Sunal’s wife, Gül Sünal, shares her memories of the actor who touched millions in Turkey.