Even if you don’t know the name of the actor with the elastic face who played the bumbling character of Şaban (Turkish for bumpkin or clot), the simple villager from a poor background, in numerous films in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, the face is instantly recognisable. It belongs to Kemal Sunal. Born in Istanbul on the 11th of November in 1944, Sunal started getting minor roles in the theatre soon after he graduated from Vefa Lisesi (Vefa High School). He worked at a number of council and state run theatres before his talent was noticed and he starred in his first film, directed by Ertem Eğilmez.
Over the years he appeared on screen in many notable parts in movies such as Çöpçüler Kralı, where he played a garbage collector who falls in love with a municipality officer’s fiancee, and in Doktor Civanım, in which he was a former hospital janitor who pretends to be a doctor when he returns to his home village. However the most famous of all his roles would have to be that of Şaban in Hababam Sınıfı (The Outrageous Class). Although his name is simply Şaban, most of his class mates call him inek (cow) Şaban. In the film İnek Şaban was constantly bullied and humiliated by his friends, but this never kept him from thinking the unthinkable, like digging a tunnel to escape from the school grounds, which ultimately led to the vice-principal’s office) or smoking in the school attic.
Most of his films were billed as comedies and they were and continue to be, enormously popular. However it is not just the hilarity they induce, but the fact they addressed many of the problems faced by the urban poor in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s. In almost all of his films, Kemal Sunal plays a poor man, trying to make something of himself. Even today his character in films and the sayings he uses reflect the problems Turkish people and the country face.
People who knew Kemal Sunal commented on how serious he was in real life, in contrast to the comic roles he played in his films. When he was at the peak of his career, he decided to finish university, a dream that had been disrupted in 1980 by the military coup. Despite his fame, he attended the university like a regular student and stated “that was the way he liked it to be”. He was awarded a Bachelor Degree in Radio Television and Cinema Studies from Marmara University in 1995 and then decided to pursue a Masters degree at the same university. When he completed a thesis on himself as an actor in 1998, the media covered his graduation with headlines like “İnek Şaban Master Yaptı” (Şaban the Bumpkin Awarded a Masters Degree). They also included comments from his Hababam Sinifi classmates such as Profesorluk Bekliyoruz (We expect full professorship). At the ceremony, Sunal made a speech where he joked that his path of working first and attending university later in life was better as it allowed people to gain real life experience earlier.
Kemal Sunal’s last film, Propaganda, was a drama directed by Sinan Çetin. In it Sunal plays a customs officer on the Syrian border, who falls into despair as he tries to tread a fine line between his duties as an officer of the law and his duties as a friend. According to public opinion this film wasn’t one of his best and isn’t fitting as the last work of a great master. That is likely because it wasn’t meant to be his final film. Kemal Sunal died on July the 3rd in 2000, as a result of a sudden heart attack aboard a flight to Trabzon. He was reported to be afraid of flying and he died suddenly just before take- off. News of his death was greeted by shock and mourning that swept the entire nation and dominated news coverage for many days. He was interred at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery in Istanbul.
For more on the history of Turkish cinema I highly recommend “Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging”, available here.