Having started his career in theatre mentored by highly-respected actor, Müşfik Kenter, Kemal Sunal became the most renown comedic character in Turkish cinema from the 1970s to 2000, the year when he died of a heart attack
Turkey received modern theater and cinema from the West though the Turkish tradition had offered a national kind of drama through such plays as "Karagöz ve Hacivat" and "ortaoyunu." These are like vaudeville essentially relying on improvisation. Indeed, improvisation is a common tool in the Turkish arts.
When Turkish films became the first choice of the moviegoers in the 1960s, comedy and romance were playing the leading role. People loved laughing and crying as the "heroes" of the films they were watching laughed or cried.
This Aristotelian identification between the actors and watchers obliged the filmmakers to blend the domestic traditions with the universal standards of the cinema. In particular, comedy films became more localized than, for instance, action thrillers or romantic comedies.
Furthermore, the 1970s was a paradise of comedy in Turkish cinema. Many comedians emerged in the 1970s and "serious" actors and actresses also played comic roles in order to satisfy the taste of the moviegoers. Turkish cinema produced hundreds of comedians during that decade. A certain actor, however, has always been separated from others due to his connection to the whole Turkish nation. His name is Kemal Sunal, the perfect storm of laughter for Turkish people even many years after his early death in 2000.
Early life and career
Kemal Sunal was born on Nov. 11, 1944 in Vefa, an old district in Istanbul. His parents were humble people belonging to the lower-middle class. His father Mustafa was a worker and his mother, Suna, was a housewife. He had two brothers, Cengiz and Cemil.
Sunal graduated from Vefa High School before attending the School of Journalism at Istanbul University. He also worked at a factory during his education. While he was at Vefa High School, his teacher introduced him to Müşfik Kenter, who was a prominent actor at that time. This encounter affected him, making him think he stood a chance as an actor in theater and cinema.
Sunal could not complete his studies at university and had to quit due to his work in the Müşfik Kenter's theater. He took minor roles in some plays in the Kenterler Theater before he moved on to the Devekuşu Kabare Theater, which was a theater mostly famous for comedies.
Although he began his career on the theater stage and took various roles in many plays, Sunal's name was not heard before he acted in front of the camera. To get acquainted, Ertem Eğilmez, a prominent film director and producer of the 1960s and 1970s, convinced him to enter the filmmaking business.
His first film was "Tatlı Dillim" (Sweet Talker) 1972, in which he acted alongside the leading roles played by Tarık Akan and Filiz Akın, two stars of Turkish romantic comedies. Sunal played supporting roles in a few films including "Canım Kardeşim" (My Beloved Brother), which has become a cult film due to its deeply desperate but friendly mood.
"Canım Kardeşim" is a film about some very poor friends trying their best to amuse a small child with cancer. It is an interesting point that among all that tragedy, Sunal plays a small but quite funny role in the film. His character is a worker from the provinces who tries to go to Germany as an immigrant worker and is swindled by fellow frauds. The role is really very small, but can be remembered thanks to the flavor Sunal added to it. The worker coming from provinces is so naive and thus, swindled, but he too, tries to behave, as he is very subtle.
Naive, subtle and confident: Şaban is coming
The simple but convincing role of his in "Canım Kardeşim" brought new contracts to Sunal. In 1974, he played one of the leading roles in the famous comedy film "Köyden İndim Şehire" (From the Village to the City), which became a great triumph and a model of Eğilmez's cinema.
Eğilmez has a special style in comedy films as a director. First, he would make three or four actors and actresses share the leading roles instead of giving the whole weight to one leading actor and one leading actress. Second, he did not give much significance to the plot. Third, as a consequence, he emphasized ambiance and setting. And fourth, he utilized various techniques including improvisation. These four techniques combine together to make the audience believe in Eğilmez's films.
Sunal continued to play in Eğilmez's comedies throughout the 1970s. He was among the crowded casting of really funny films such as "Salak Milyoner" (The Millionaire Fool), "Salako" (Our Fellow Fool) and "Mavi Boncuk" (Blue Bead).
1975 was a milestone in Turkish comedy since the first film of the best-loved comedy series was launched in that year. "Hababam Sınıfı" (Class of the Reckless) changed the climate of Turkish comedy. The original film is based on a funny but sentimental novel by Rıfat Ilgaz. Indeed, the script of the film is a bunch of funny stories of a class of boarding students.
Eğilmez filmed the story in a very short time, again with respectively crowded casting. Sunal played one of the critical roles in the film, "İnek Şaban" (Şaban the Cow). Şaban is also a naive, subtle and confident character as the previous characters Sunal played in his earlier films.
Both "Hababam Sınıfı" and İnek Şaban became phenomena in the second half of the 1970s and have never lost the attention of Turkish movie and television watchers. The four films of the series have been shown on TV, too, with a countless number of repetitions. I suppose nearly all of the generations of the Turkish Republic have laughed while watching the "Hababam Sınıfı" films.
Making a nation smile
In 1975, Kemal Sunal began to play the leading male roles in his films. After two moderate films shot in 1975, Sunal made one of his great moves in 1976 by adding slight differences to his roles in films such as "Tosun Paşa" (Tosun Pasha), where he plays the half-clever, self-confident and very lucky servant in a great mansion in an imagined Ottoman Istanbul.
"Tosun Paşa" is a breaking point in Sunal's comic character. After that film, he generally played lower-class subtlety against the upper class snob. This explains to some extent why we as a nation love his films so much. His character is both funny and ironic as well. The irony of the poor fool against the rich fool is an archetype of comedy.
Sunal acted with many comedians including Münir Özkul, Adile Naşit, Erol Günaydın, Gazanfer Özcan, Metin Akpınar, Zeki Alasya, Halit Akçatepe and Şener Şen among others. His pairings are now considered as classics of Turkish comedy.
Sunal never made an openly political message, but many of his films carry an intrinsic political aspect. His roles are always against powerful people, which makes him a kind of working-class hero. In real life, Sunal never used this. He tried to live a healthy and ordinary family life. He married Gül Sunal and had two children, a son and a daughter. His son Ali Sunal is also a comedian.
He died unexpectedly on July 3, 2000 from a heart attack during the shooting of a new film called "Balalayka." After his death, his role was completed by another talented comedian Uğur Yücel.
In his private life, he was a cold, silent man, but everybody loved him. He is not forgotten and is missed by the masses even 15 years after his death.