The following is written by Ilker Hepkaner, a PhD candidate in NYU’s Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department. His dissertation research focuses on the identification of Jews from Turkey in Israel through the lens of politics of space, heritage, and visual culture. You can reach him on twitter, @hepkaner
A Star Is Born is a story retold. After the 1937 original, which told the tumultuous love story between an established actor and his wife and the repercussions of her new stardom for their marriage, Hollywood returned to the story in 1954 with Judy Garland, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand. The story is so irresistible for producers and audiences alike, that a new version hit theaters across the globe early October, with Lady Gaga taking the lead this time. The fourth A Star Is Born has caught the world’s attention due to rave reviews of the film and its soundtrack, but another remake, produced far from Hollywood, remains unknown to audiences worldwide.
Two years following the success of the 1976 A Star Is Born, this love story was adapted in Turkey by prominent director Atıf Yılmaz. Minik Serçe (Little Sparrow) borrowed its name from its lead actress, the now-celebrated singer Sezen Aksu, whose moniker was also “Little Sparrow” due to her smaller physique similar to Edith Piaf—the female voice of French chansons. Known for writing her own songs, Aksu was just an early career singer when Little Sparrow was filmed in 1978. After this film, however, she ascended to nationwide stardom in the 1980s with songs sounding like Western pop but with lovelorn lyrics, which were a staple of the Arabesque music style. This style inspired by Egyptian singers, swept Turkey in the 1980s and 90s after previously being banned by the staunchly European-oriented Kemalist Turkish state for not being “Western” and “modern” enough in the 1970s.
Sezen Aksu became the Queen of Turkish Pop in the 1990s after her disciples, including major singers like Tarkan and Sertab Erener, reached nationwide and worldwide fame. So, while the Turkish A Star Is Born captured the first years of this important cultural figure’s career, it was also a commentary on the Turkish cultural scene of the late 1970s. Its prominent director Atıf Yılmaz questioned social norms dictating women’s roles in the family and challenged Turkish state censorship over art. The adaptation revealed more about the adaptor than the adapted, and Little Sparrow was more than a film credit in Sezen Aksu’s hugely successful career. It foreshadowed her life since Aksu also paid a personal price for her fame while maintaining her successful career.
When Atıf Yılmaz adapted the 1976 version in Turkey, he did it within a long and established culture of adaptation in Turkish visual culture. In the classical Yeşilçam period between 1950 and mid-1970s, the movie industry was controlled by a small number of filmmakers located in the environs of the Yeşilçam street in Istanbul. This industry ruled the popular culture of the time with prolific production record and the audiences regularly filled the theaters. In this era, to meet the high demand, multiple Hollywood-origin films were adapted thanks to a lax intellectual property rights regime in Turkey. Filmmakers freely took stories from Hollywood films and remade them without paying royalties to their original producers in Hollywood. Successful titles were freely remade, and some of these adaptations are classical examples of the Yeşilçam period. The Sound of Music was adapted as Sen Bir Meleksin (You are an Angel) in 1969 and Star Trek was adapted within the Tourist Ömer franchise of Turkish comedienne Sadri Alışık in 1973.
As TV started gaining prominence in the mid-1970s however, demand for Yeşilçam films decreased, and producers veered towards adapting historical epics and pornographic titles to keep audiences coming to the theaters. Especially in the latter, entire scenes from foreign films were taken and spliced into their Turkish adaptations; however this did not stop the audiences desertion of the movie theaters. The 1980 military coup, which increased the state’s control of the cultural industry, formally killed an already-failing Yeşilçam-based cinema industry, but the tradition of adaptation continued with titles such as Aşk Hikayemiz (Our Love Story) which became Turkey’s own Love Story.
Newly founded private TV channels in the early 1990s paved the way to the golden age of television in Turkey in the late 1990s, and by the early 2000s, adaptations were back. Serials such as The Nanny, Revenge, and Dawson’s Creek were adapted to Turkish TV. Their Turkish versions, just like in the old Yeşilçam days, had some sterilization of issues and characters: queer characters were left out, extramarital affairs were played down. When the Turkish adaptation of Shameless started airing, Emmy Rossum, who plays the lead in the US adaptation, joined those who noticed (and protested) the difference.
Within this context, Little Sparrow’s adaptation is both commonplace and exceptional. The narrative of Minik Serçe is more or less the same since the 1937 original: a successful movie or music star falls in love with an aspiring actress or singer, and their love story crumbles when the new artiste’s meteoric rise to fame eclipses her husband’s career and ego. Despite the heartbreak, A Star is Born ends with our new star carrying on the legacy of her late husband. So, A Star Is Born is mainly about the price a woman pays for success. The more she succeeds, the more her unruly husband troubles her career. The brighter she shines, the more tumultuous their marriage becomes. In a way, it is a story lived across the globe every day in different forms. However, the Turkish version stands out for its cultural commentary on the late 1970s Turkey since it delves into gender roles and particularities of the cultural industry in Turkey, which set a different background for Little Sparrow’s protagonists Hülya and Orhan than the American music scene in the 1976 A Star Is Born.
The narrative arcs of the two films are very similar. In fact, some scenes in Little Sparrow are exact replicas down to minute details: Just like John Norman in A Star Is Born (1976) Orhan is playing the guitar when he is interrupted by a phone call from someone who takes him for his wife’s secretary. Or for example after Orhan’s car crash, Hülya cries over Orhan’s dead body, cleans his face with her hand and asks for a blanket, just as Esther does when she is shown John Norman’s body at the accident site. The similarities were so obvious between the two films that director Atıf Yılmaz even winked at the careful spectator with an Easter egg: When Hülya first becomes the center of the media’s attention, a journalist says to her manager, “Congratulations, a new star is born.” When Little Sparrow was released, Turkish film critics did not miss the connection, either.
However, the differences are where Atıf Yılmaz’s cultural commentary is embodied. The relationship between the two protagonists are established in a way which reflects upon the difference between gender dynamics and women’s roles in family life in the US and Turkey. In the American version, Esther knows John Norman as the star he is, with no prior personal connection. So when John Norman gets himself invited to Esther’s house, it is his star power that convinces Esther. In the Turkish one, the indoors meetup of a single man and a single woman is built upon an entirely different dynamic. Hülya invites Orhan to her apartment where she lives alone because she knows him from school as her teacher. The film’s narrative suggests that Hülya doesn’t invite men to her house right after she meets them – unlike in the US version, where this is considered normal – instead, it all happens in a student-mentor context.
The difference between the Turkish and American versions is also visible in terms of expectations from a married woman. In the 1976 version, Esther’s role as a wife is never mentioned. In her tumultuous marriage, Esther’s struggle is for love, and for John Norman’s well-being. In the Turkish version, Hülya’s responsibilities as a married woman come up multiple times. Even at the peak of her ascent, she bakes cakes and brews tea for the music producers and managers. When their marriage is threatened, people talk to her and Orhan separately about how she should reconsider her career and work for her marriage instead of following her dreams. She does not give into them, and continues her career despite such expectations from them.
The most striking difference, however, is in how these two rising stars conduct their art. Esther’s music career is built solely upon her own creativity. In Hülya’s case, she too writes her own songs but she can’t get airtime on the radio and television without restrictions. The difference—although this is mentioned only in passing—is that she has to meet the state’s conditions with her art. When she is preparing a record, her producers develop a strategy which would increase her chances for success: they submit Hülya’s songs to the censorship board ahead of their recording so that she can take the state’s approval before completing the album. In this case, if some of her songs are censored by the state, she can complete the album with other approved songs.
This reflects a common issue that singers in 1970s Turkey faced. They had to get the state TV and Radio censorship board’s permission to get air time. Artists had to comply with the state’s Kemalist cultural policies which tried to curb criticism to the state and political leaders while bringing Turkish cultural production closer to “Western” cultural norms. Such rules meant artists could not openly promote socialist ideals, because it would hurt the Turkish government’s pro-Western stance in the Cold War. Or their music could not be influenced by Arab or Persian musical traditions, since under the Kemalist ideology, these were deemed backwards and non-modern. For example, Sezen Aksu failed a couple times in the 1970s at having some of her songs approved by the state TV and radio because her music was deemed too influenced by the Middle Eastern musical traditions.
Besides the stylistic policing of the state, Hülya has to resist the industry’s demands, unlike Esther. When music producers are listening to Hülya sing for the first time, Hülya comes to the stage dressed as Ajda Pekkan, Füsun Önal, and Neşe Karaböcek—other famous popular music singers of the era who were known for their own distinct sounds and styles in Turkey. As Hülya sings Pekkan, Önal, and Karaböcek’s songs and mimics their singing styles, she is wearing wigs and prompts to look like them. The producers laugh when Hülya tries to replicate other singers’ success by looking and sounding like them. Unhappy with not having her own sound and looks, Hülya removes her wig and pleads: “Please, I want to be myself.”
Just like Hülya’s rise to stardom represented in the film, lead actress Aksu’s quest to become herself was not smooth. Sezen Aksu went through a soul-searching period before she became an established music star in the 1980s, and in multiple interviews, she stated that she sang like Ajda Pekkan in the beginning of her career. In the 1970s, Ajda Pekkan mostly sang Turkish lyrics over French, American, and Italian melodies. Pekkan had a sui generis articulation and calculated singing style, from which Sezen Aksu departed early in her career. When Aksu found her own voice in the early 1980s, her singing style, way less calculated than Pekkan’s, reflected raw pain of love in contrast to Pekkan’s confident sound.
In addition to this, Aksu’s romantic relationship with Armenian musician Onno Tunç translated into her work as a distinct musical sound, which delivered lovelorn lyrics over symphonic arrangements of Western-style popular music melodies . Her close relation with poet and artist Aysel Gürel sharpened her lyric writing. She adapted poetry into songs, and some of her biggest hits were actually penned by poets such as Metin Altıok (Kavaklar), Melih Cevdet Anday (Şinanay), and Kemal Burkay (Gülümse).
By mid-1990s, Sezen Aksu rose from stardom to queendom in Turkish pop. She made albums bringing musical traditions of the Balkans, and the Anatolia together, and carried them to the mainstream. She produced countless radio hits for other singers as well in the mid-1990s. When the chart success of her songs were combined with the rising careers of her disciples, Aksu claimed the title of “The Queen of Turkish Pop.” This elevation was not easy either and Aksu’s life resembled Hülya’s fate maybe more than ever: Aksu lost two close musical contributors to accidents. After Uzay Heparı died in a motorbike accident in 1994, and Onno Tunç in a plane crash in 1996, Aksu continued her career, just like Hülya and Esther do with their careers on the silver screen.
These overlaps between Esther, Hülya, and Sezen Aksu centered around the film Little Sparrow become more poignant with the fact that the first little sparrow was Edith Piaf—the female voice of French chansons. Edith Piaf also had tragic relationships during and after her rise to fame, as she struggled with the dynamics of Paris’ entertainment industry as well as German occupation of France during the World War II. Piaf herself suffered gravely from car crashes, and lost a husband to a plane crash. Journalist Yavuz Gökmen gave Aksu the moniker because Aksu’s petite figure was similar to Piaf’s. What Gokmen couldn’t know then was that Aksu would, in film and in life, face and survive the travails that marked the lives of many great female artistes. Little Sparrow retold a well-known story in the Turkish context, but it was also the harbinger of tough times laid in front of its lead actress. After Little Sparrow, Sezen Aksu’s star was born, and like Piaf’s and Streisand’s, never stopped shining.
To learn more about Sezen Aksu and the film, Little Sparrow, listen to the author-curated Spotify playlist below. The playlist also includes songs from the other singers mentioned in the article, as well as some songs from the 1976 and 2018 Hollywood versions of A Star is Born.