[Long, but worthy read!]
A young, rebellious rock-and-roll star, Yamac (Aras Bulut Iynemli), finds love, marries his bride and heads off to Paris for his honeymoon. Several days into this beautiful part of his life, the matriarch of his Mafia family, his mother Sultan (Perihan Savas), tracks him down there and brings him back to Istanbul. She orders him to head up the family he recently escaped from in Cukur, a neighborhood of this magical city.
That’s when the trouble starts for Yamac as he first glimpses the inescapable truth and destiny of his life, Cukur her yerde, ‘Cukur is everywhere’, and aile her seydir, ‘family is everything’. This leaves little room for anything else.
But the room expands and we get Cukur, family and everything else. We gain a multi-headed narrative, a serpentine story set and filmed in and near Balat, a real neighborhood in Istanbul. Balat is the old Jewish and Greek quarter in Istanbul and the name Cukur – The Pit – eponymously embodies the mystery and the meanness of this humble place and its fictional community.
As the residents know, what happens in the streets, in the cafes and on the rooftops of Cukur is local life as it should be lived. Cukur invites us into Balat’s street life: into a way of being in a peopled place, always central to Istanbul, but now illuminated and projected everywhere, windows are omnipresent, rooftops are scalable. This is a neighborhood uplifted only by its proud local identity where everyone belongs, courtesy of the tattoo.
As a series which started filming in 2017, Cukur has become a living legend, reflecting the very essence of the neighborhood. This paradox is at the heart of the show – Cukur is now but it is also the past. The story is old, but the happenings are today. Imagine then if you add to the metropolitan tableaux above, a family, the Kocovalis – proud, powerful, loving, but ever so complicated. What if you could journey with this family as it struggles and sacrifices all, to maintain its unity, its happiness and in fact, its actual survival, against the odds?
And survival is the business of the Kocovali family, where activities take place in amongst the buildings that overlook the streets, places where neighborhood vigilance, engagement, subterfuge, amusement and interaction only add to the intrigue of the storyline. This Mafioso Kocovali family is held together in this medina – their home – by grit, determination and loyalty to each other and to the community of Çukur. Amidst the questionable, the one credo they adhere to is keeping the neighborhood drug free.
Well, it’s not just the storyline, it’s not merely the balletic romping on the rooftops of Cukur, or the choreographed fights, or the colorful, inverted down-market realia of the cinematography; it’s not only the actions of the unhinged and comedic full-blooded and half-blooded brothers of the Kocovali family; it’s not just the love stories that are decades old and messy, and some that are new and exciting – and messy – that make the show addictive. It is not only that multiple stories are unfolding at once. And it’s not that it’s just about naked power, revenge and redemption. Nor about the hundreds of neighborhood cats that prevail as silent witnesses to this gangland urbanity.
It is that the real essence of the dizi is the blurring of fantasy and reality, a place where time and space have become flexible concepts, either or both can be tweaked. The story of Cukur – ostensibly based on a once real Mafia family – has moved into today as easily as giving all the characters modern mobile telephones. Modernity has arrived in a technical sense, but the family hierarchy has remained as traditionally structured as per the legend of this Istanbul family. The dance between what is real and what is imaginary has given the writers of the series a ruthless device to shift us between terrible violence, ravishing romance, familial treachery, brotherly love, neighborhood revenge and laugh out loud comedy, at least once each in every episode.
At one level, the mafia Kocovali family is easy to understand. There are clear lines of authority, and the story begins when the leadership role is dramatically thrust into the hands of Yamac as outlined above. Yamac is the youngest of the five sons of Idris Kocovali (Ercan Kesal), senior, The Father of Cukur, Cukur evimiz, Idris bamamiz, ‘Cukur is our home, Idris is our Father’. Despite his youth and inexperience and complete reluctance to head the family, Yamac must do so and he does. Yamac is the only one left standing for this job because the oldest brother Kahraman is incapacitated, somewhat aided and abetted by his other younger and seemingly traitorous brother Selim (Öner Erkan) working with Vartolu (Erkan Kolcak Köstendil). Another older brother Cumali (Necip Memili) is in prison and doesn’t qualify, or isn’t present, to take up the leadership role. But this sibling shambles is what runs through the storyline of Cukur – the bloodline of the erstwhile father, Idris an indelible, patriarchal link which binds them to each other eternally in an unfolding story of loyalty, loss, protection and pain.
On another level, the mafia family is obscure and difficult to grasp. What are the secrets of Idris’ past, who are his enemies that return to torment his children and their loved ones? Who is the real father and or mother of Vartolu and why is he rejected by Idris’ wife Sultan? Who is Mihriban (Gamze Dar)? Who is Meliha (Senay Gürler)? Why is Selim’s marriage not fully functional and how does this impact on his children Karaca (Ece Yasar) and Akin (Burak Dakak)? What is the back story of Akin’s imprisonment? Where do the real loyalties lie in the neighborhood, and who and where are the enemies, because they are definitely there?
What is Cukur about?
It is not possible nor desirable to lay out the plot of the dizi. This is because the complicated threads of the narrative are mirrored in the maze of the Cukur neighborhood. There are twists and turns, dead ends, one way streets and potholes. Suffice to say that all the brothers and their loved ones experience love and happiness, conditionally and temporarily. Rival gangs join the fray, Idris’ old enemies emerge with new gangster threats and disruptions. Yamac experiences losses and is made to enact terrible punishments which severely test his sanity. The hardships he endures render his position at the head of the family as cruel and as life changing as they could possibly be.
And this is where the talent of each of the actors, singly and collectively, emerges. The brothers are powerful on their own, but in their collectivity, they are breathtaking. Their characters, all unique with different strengths and weaknesses, develop substantially in the story. It is difficult to say who develops the most. Yamac goes from the immature, amateur rock star to the hardened leader of the family and the neighborhood. On the way he passes through phases of silliness, foolishness, craziness, madness, deep love and heartbreaking caring. He also experiences periods of ruthlessness and desperation.
Selim grows from being early on, an envious, destructive sibling to a supportive, responsible older brother to Yamac. Cumali goes from being crazy and imprisoned to being crazy and on the loose. Vartolu Sedettin undergoes possibly as radical a transformation as Yamac. Vartolu changes his name, changes his spots, and shifts from the outside of the family to the inner most sanctum of Yamac’s soul as he takes care of Yamac’s salvation and forgiveness. These two actors journey together in a sublime partnership of dramatic and personal growth. And this is possibly the crux of the success and the attraction Cukur: the quality of the acting in the series, and its ability to showcase, the nuanced, complex, brotherly and family relationships in a way which is unparalleled in diziland.
As we journey through the evolution and revolution of the maybe tragic figure of Yamac and his co-stars, we are treated to a show of boundless Turkish theatrical talent and drama. The high standard of acting performances of Aras Bulut Iynemli, never in doubt after his role in Icerde with Cagatay Ulusoy, or his casting as Memo in Miracle in Cell No 7, is confirmed. Young for the requirements of the role, he plays Yamac first at 28 and despite only turning 30 later this year, is able to convey the gravitas, the strength and the maturity of the evolving and layered persona of the leader of the neighborhood, Cukur.
Aras Bulut Iynemli’s role as Yamac is paired powerfully with Erkan Kolcak Köstendil, as Vartolu Saadettin (now Salih) who is a veteran actor of the stage in Turkey. Erkan brings to the episodes of Cukur a humorous, lighthearted but also serious tone. From his dark past in the dizi, Vartolu begins to emerge as the epitome of forgiveness and tolerance in a masterpiece of theatrical comic-tragedy acting with his obsessive and subservient playfellow Medet (Mustafa Kirantepe). We first see this human chink in Vartolu’s armour in his relationship with Medet as he tolerates Medet’s crushing adoration of him. Medet, who imagines himself in a brotherly romance with his patron, is blind to the world outside Vartolu. Medet is only attuned to others when they encroach too close to Vartolu and come within the orbit of his jealous possessiveness.
Older brother Selim carries off a sometimes haunting but disciplined and imaginative performance. Selim is so convincing, and so low key, you hardly notice him shifting from an obsequious reject in Season 2 after his betrayal, emerging as a strong, devoted brother in Season 3. Similarly the eldest brother Cumali is unique, and lovable, adding humor and a whole heap of talent to the family and neighborhood stories. Cumali is a character within a character. Alico, played by the chameleon-like Riza Kocaoglu, who excels in yet another cameo performance as the neighborhood recycling scavenger is stellar, brilliant, unique, amazing, convincing, compelling – hard to describe succinctly. Riza plays the autistic, idiot savant and is a loyal and resourceful friend to the Kocovali family, acting in a way that only Riza can do.
Two recent additions to Cukur are Nejat Isler and Baris Arduç as Cagatay Erdenet and his brother Arik Böke Erdenet respectively. They are enemies of Cukur and they do ‘menacing’ so well, confirming the series’ ability to attract high quality actors. With Cagatay’s entrance to the story, the dizi captures the social stratification of Istanbul society exquisitely using the artworks of Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, which Cagatay collects, to demean the social standing of Yamac. Yamac is up to the challenge however and recognizes the artworks (although he gets their provenance wrong), but he has a more powerful ace up his sleeve in relation to Cagatay – and that is Efsun. She is clearly losing her equilibrium as queen of the underworld falling for Yamac in a slow, burning, overpowering love over which she has little control.
The female roles in Cukur are no less important than the brothers and the head of the family, Idris. Yamac’s partners, Sena (Dilan Cicek Deniz), Efsun (Damla Sönmez) and Nehir (Hazal Subasi) – as the story progresses – are beautiful, and talented actors, entering Yamac’s complicated life at different times of his evolution. Each of them journeys with Yamac in unique ways, loving and understanding him as he struggles with his destiny.
Sultan, as the matriarch of the family is majestic, firm and discreet as the situations demand her constant adaptation to life events. Saadet (Boncuk Yilmaz) in an integral role in the family, is solid, and is ever hard working and long suffering in her domestic roles. Damla, (Hare Sürel) Cumali’s wife, is unusual, complementing the craziness of her partner, Cumali. Karaca (Ece Yasar) Selim’s daughter and Ayse (Irem Altug), Selim’s erstwhile wife, are also credible and creative in their respective renditions. The characterizations of the women shift between them playing very traditional roles to the more modern renditions of female portrayals.
Away from the fantasy, Cukur has adopted a particularly community-minded role as a series. Several scenarios have raised awareness of autism, organ donations, and even more recently, disability and the COVID-19 virus. Some episodes have also addressed violence against women and those suffering earthquake damage. This community-minded connection with real causes brings the dizi down to earth again, straddling that invisible line between reality and fantasy. Many of these social initiatives are communicated through ‘writings on the wall’ in Cukur. Through witty and succinct graffiti, messages about health and other social issues may be even more powerfully transmitted through the dizi than through conventional media.
I would go as far as to say, that you will either get Cukur or you won’t. It will not be every viewer’s cup of Turkish Tea. In keeping with Mafia-type dramas, the violence is endemic, but it is mostly stylized violence. You don’t see those who are shot, or eliminated. They just have their heads blown off out of camera view. Fighting is choreographed by Ugur Yildiran who played Kemal, but he has since left to further his career abroad. Stylized violence aside, a couple of deathly scenarios with some of the characters remain indelibly with me and with other viewers. But to protect myself, I tell myself these scenes are part of the fantasy of the dizi – it’s not real what happened to these characters.
Let’s talk about the music of Cukur. What else can be said about Toygar Isikli that hasn’t been said before? His genius, his adaptability, his sensitivity to tone, to nuance, to character, is legendary. The music of Cukur is compelling, and the actors have joined together in a collective, creating a song together at the end of Season 2. Here is the music with several members of the Cukur cast which you can listen to on YouTube here. I have no idea how this super talented musician and composer manages to capture the essence of each of the characters and even interpret their relationships through different leitmotifs. I often wonder if he gets stressed, or just enjoys the next challenge of what the series directors throw at him. Whatever his modus operandi he is a genius at his compositional craft. To complement Toygar’s music, Cukur has also imported many artists’ songs into the episodes and these can be found listed on IMDB©.
The scenarios of the series are written largely by Gökhan Horzum, Damla Serim, Ozan Aksungur. And Cukur is brilliantly directed by Sinan Ozturk, who remains a background, not frequently mentioned figure of the Cukur creative team on social media. Another director, Özgür Sevimli, also features in earlier episodes.
There is a Cukur YouTube channel with over 4.5 million subscribers. With the temporary shutdown of filming, fans have been able to watch actors from the series interacting with each other from their homes on the channel. These YouTube clips have been watched by over millions of viewers each week – and although there is not much dramatic substance to the clips, they project a group of creative actors who are clearly enjoying their craft, their art and their collegiality. When filming starts again, I can’t wait to see them all again in new episodes. They give us meaning, humor, creativity, love and happiness, all in one.
And when the new episodes are filmed, the cast will bring back the neighborhood of Balat, in its messy halfway state between its days of grandeur and its present existence. The story of Cukur is not yet finished: more importantly, we are now part of the Family and Cukur is our home too, ‘Cukur Evimiz’.
There will be a Season 3 Finale episode of Çukur on Monday 20 April 2020 @20.00 on Show TV. The episode has been filmed from the actors’ homes, proving that the passion continues. To watch the episode live, search for Show TV on YouTube at the time stated above or watch on YouTube Show TV or YouTube Cukur site later.
Lastly, check out the videos below for Cukur trailers subtitled in English, available on Ay Yapim’s YouTube channel.
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