Ask Mantik Intikam: A Brilliantly Told Love Story
In a prior article, I had analyzed some of the recent top romcom hits out of Turkey and compared various elements such as the togetherness of the couple, plot movement, creativity, on screen chemistry, ratings, male/ female protagonist’s character, to help select a romcom that seems a more complete product than its competitors.
This summer, as I watch Ask Mantik Intikam, which is going from strength to strength every week, I am intrigued by additional dimensions in the storytelling that pulls me in. Far from a fantasy tale, it is the healing love story of a couple shattered by their own choices, rooted in real-life practical issues while they were building a relationship and a marriage. It illustrates that sometimes youthful immaturity undermines the power of love, sometimes love is simply not enough, and it gives voice to women who choose to exercise their right to a divorce when they are emotionally and spiritually depleted in a marriage. It is not a right or wrong, black and white story, and both the characters are flawed, imperfect and yet willing to bear the consequences of their mistakes.
And, as such, the additional dimension that appeals to me is: a nuanced, well-paced plot development.
Part of why I am drawn to Ask Mantik Intikam lies in the resonance with my own life story. I am reminded of my upbringing as an entrepreneur’s daughter, in a household that moved with the rise and fall of my father's fortunes. My stay at home mother, at the helm of a sprawling joint family, often stretched budgets and pushed her own desires to the back burner, while my family also dealt with deep, unanticipated life losses.
Growing up within the uncertainties of a business family’s lifestyle, I selected a partner who had a great job and a well established life by the time we married. However, within two years of marriage, my brilliant inventor and engineer husband had also been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and for nearly two decades we are still riding a roller coaster ride while we attempt to build a castle out of our dreams.
For me, Ask Mantik Intikam is not only a repetition of this backstory but I also understand the layered character of Esra as she navigates the difficulties of life, love, hope, desires, and her sense of self, while she is armed with certain coping mechanisms developed during her uncertain childhood. Her life choices make me ponder on the courage a woman requires to leave a marriage, especially when from a middle-class neighborhood and family values. Whereas hardly anyone blinks an eye when a man chooses to up and leave, such as Ozan’s father, a woman initiating the decision on the pretext of a lack of love and/or unwillingness to continue building a life together, is not treated with the same level of acceptance. There is an innate expectation that she will internalize any injustice and focus on making the marriage work. As with much else in deeply patriarchal systems, women are judged harsher for the same decision in what is supposed to be an equitable relationship.
Beyond these initial broad strokes, here are a few other aspects of the storytelling that lays the foundation for a strong and appealing plot development, replete with inherently cohesive, nuanced details that build over time.
Esra Erten is one of the more atypical female protagonists of a romantic comedy coming out of Turkey. She is practical to a fault, never forgetting the realities of what is needed to sustain life, and yet she carries herself with a gregarious optimism that is charming. It sometimes makes her appear callous and unromantic but also highlights the fact that some women do not have the luxury to drown in romantic notions. They have to become their own saviors.
She is spunky, determined, hardworking, and a woman of high integrity. The louder she is with her superficial complaints, the quieter she is with her real ones.
During their marriage, Ozan and Esra are shown to be young – perhaps in their early to mid twenties – and neither had developed the language skills to express their inner feelings in a way the other would understand. Her shrill and exhausted exasperation with Ozan’s neglect was quickly chalked up to hysteria, while Ozan was convinced that his time investments were so that Esra could have a comfortable life down the road. Ozan, spoilt by his mother, perhaps expects a similar indulgent caring from Esra, without any comprehension of the sacrifices she was making to support him. He is so far removed from the day to day details of running the household, and Esra is so capable, he takes her presence for granted.
Unable to have herself heard, when Esra reaches her breaking point, she doesn’t find anything within their marriage that is worth fighting for. She is physically, emotionally and spiritually depleted, with nothing left within her to remain as the reassuring security blanket for Ozan.
Sometimes our strengths become our weaknesses. Esra’s strengths are in being immensely capable and adaptable to situations but the more she took on, the more those around her forgot how much she shouldered without complaining. Favors became a duty and, after a while, with the weight of the world upon her that Ozan was oblivious to, she finally shrugged and let it fall to pieces. By that time, she became unable to interpret her own feelings, and resentment overshadowed whatever affection she might have felt for Ozan. Like a wounded animal, she lashed out in a desperate bid for survival.
This realism in how Esra evolves from a child who desired stability above all else into one who protects her heart is well captured in her life choices and demeanor.
It was difficult for her to move on but the pain of moving away from Ozan felt far less acute than the pain of being with his absent self and seeing him as the reason for her miseries. She had lost herself in her marriage and, unlike her mother, instead of griping about it for the rest of time, she decides to splinter away.
A seeming extrovert had the introverted need to nourish her own soul that she felt was misunderstood or misused by those closest to her. Her courageous move serves both Ozan and herself better as they are both forced to embrace life beyond dreaming about domesticated bliss based on shallow preconceptions. It pushes both to pursue their ambitions, one with more success than the other.
There is nothing easy nor routine about building a marriage and it requires an emotional investment from both. For all his love, Ozan didn’t know how to emotionally invest in the relationship. Being present and being available are distinctly different.
The stereotypical male engineer is so used to thinking in bits and bytes that the color that comes with understanding and expressing emotions seem foreign. Saying the words ‘I love you’ or verbally appreciating the partner for her grace and beauty are only humble beginnings. The man needs to truly see his woman in all her facets. He needs to understand that just as he expects his bread-winning capabilities to be seen as a sign of his love for her, her many gestures to care for him, her sacrifices to support his chosen dreams, are also signs of her love for him. Esra may never say the words “I love you” as effusively as Ozan does, but the depth of her feelings for him is just as profound, if not more.
The transformation of Ozan implies a methodical approach to taking control of his feelings and desires over the two years he has been away from Esra. Driven by her rejection of him, feeling that he was wronged, his workaholic mode served him well as he became a more suave version of his prior self. With more self-confidence, perhaps he has less of a need to prove himself and more emotional space to see the treasure trove hidden in Esra’s eyes. Her prickly attitude hides much tenderness that he deserves to feel more fully, and he can only draw it out by making it a safe journey for her to express herself.
As we observe the new Ozan, we see a discerning man whose analytical mind is always questioning Esra’s true intentions, trying to work through his hurt to see if she is still the same Esra he loved. To see him be willing to make these emotional investments is growth in a character that is understated but beautifully done. Ilhan Sen has outdone himself in capturing the full spectrum of a man who went through physical, emotional, spiritual growth while he never stops aspiring to a life with his Esra.
NON-CLICHED ARTISTIC RISKS
In addition to the overarching themes I have already mentioned in this article and my last, I applaud several artistic choices that make it a standout production for me because they flout common tropes employed by popular romcoms.
The Reality of a Woman
As described earlier, to show Esra as a woman in her raw form, where there are always hints of sadness and grief under her beautiful, angry eyes, where she falters without trying to maintain an image of perfection, is a female journey captured in a most nuanced and realistic depiction I have seen in a long time. Burcu is stunning as Esra.
I often marvel at the many roles we women are supposed to play with finesse, including maintaining our femininity while also expected to be a formidable professional in the workplace. The reality of a woman has evolved but the notion of a subservient, compromising, understanding, tolerant one hasn’t. To see this trope pushed to new boundaries is refreshing.
The Grey Areas of Love
Ozan’s assumption that he could de-prioritize Esra while he built his career, albeit for their future financial security, is the self-centered kind of love he accuses Esra of. He only saw their love and her needs through his lens, and a marriage will suffer if either partner engages in the relationship in a self-righteous manner, blinding them to their own flaws. This is common in real life and to show both characters as being right and wrong at the same time is very relatable.
It is interesting to see the roles reversed between the man and the woman, where he wears his heart on his sleeve while Esra remains an enigma. The audience discovers her as she discovers herself and that takes intricate storytelling skills in how her character unfolds over time. Information is meted out gradually through her various interactions and, throughout these touchpoints, Esra’s expressions capture the piece of herself that went missing when Ozan left her side. To her, the divorce came long after she lost him and her sadness translated into a ferocious personality curated to mask the pain. Esra is almost incapable of leaving herself vulnerable and at someone else’s mercy.
This is a welcome shift from creating the inscrutable male lead whose various traumas and issues are given far more importance than what the female lead experiences. This time, it is the man who understands the dynamics, forgives the past, and willingly embraces the love of his life, while he helps her accept her own feelings without reservations.
This final scene from the latest Episode 9 is cinematic perfection, as Ozan desperately tries for Esra to accept her feelings and not leave him again. No accusations, no blame game, simply a man who finally figures out the puzzle his woman is and holds out his hand to her once more.
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Passion & Sensuality
During their youthful marriage, they almost seem physically awkward with each other, with Ozan mostly dazzled by Esra’s perfection. They have now both matured, and Ozan is admirable as a beacon of success and physical confidence. There is more of a sensual connection as they keep crossing paths with each other, and it is this sexual awakening in Esra that confirms for her how much she loved him.
This portrayal is another reversal of the typical trope of burning passion at the beginning of a relationship that mellows over time, sometimes leaving questions about the endurance of said love. The cinematic details in Ask Mantik Intikam are so quiet and subtle, and yet it leaves no doubt about their growing awareness of each other, and their repressed desire. They speak with their eyes but there are no exaggerated staring into each other’s eyes, no touching that is out of place. Their most rich expression of their love is holding hands, something they have done repeatedly since they were eight years old. It is a symbol of reaching for the other when they are at their lowest and never letting go.
Financial & Cultural Parity
Unlike the most cliched trope of rich boy meets poor girl, Ozan and Esra loved each other as they grew up in the same small neighborhood, both families struggling with life. They shared similar values and struggled together in the early years of the marriage. Esra was an active participant in supporting Ozan’s early endeavors in building his business. Their lives diverged due to miscommunication, but they inherently remained the same people. Now that Ozan has money and Esra still doesn’t, the financial disparity doesn’t define their spiritual connection.
Ozan’s overbearing mother, with her nouveau riche predilections, is still a mahalle woman at heart, and as the comedy ensues between the mothers, it is the manifestation of a decades long feud as opposed to the typical trope of the snobbish parents barely tolerating the poorer ones while the contrasts of their lifestyles are showcased through loud comedy. As such, for the first time, I have actually enjoyed the mahalle comedy as all the characters are well sketched out and have some great comic dialogue and delivery.
Abandonment Issues & Insecurities
Too many romcoms in recent history portrays the male lead as suffering from abandonment issues which leads to debilitating insecurities that limit character growth. Ozan is also abandoned as a child, but he is not shown to be defined by that experience. He is a self-made man who relied on his brilliance and hard work to get to where he is, without ever forgetting his love for Esra. His issues are rooted less in childhood trauma than in a lack of situational awareness that is common in adolescents or immature adults. Young and limited in life experience, he had not understood the breadth of emotions and actions required to sustain a relationship.
Truth & Lies
Esra continues to hide something from Ozan, but it is not such a lie that will shatter their relationship and create irreversible and dramatic conflict. It does not involve a million other people and their choices; it is private to them and something that they will need to work through together once confronted. We get some hint of it in episode 6 when Esra has a monologue sitting next to Ozan’s hospital bed. She says I absorbed the pain for both us, in that she chose to spare him the truth that affected them as a couple.
The rest of their relationship is not a cat and mouse game nestled within a house of lies. They have some hidden truths but it is nice to experience their predicaments as they discover them – e.g. Cinar, who had been masquerading as a lowly intern, being a shareholder’s son was known to Ozan but not Esra. None of the lies/ hidden truths, including the undisclosed real reasons behind their divorce, appear as an existential threat to the love story.
The backbone of the story has a decent foundation in the original K-drama Cunning Single Lady. That doesn’t always ensure a stellar adaptation. After watching a few snippets of the original, I claim Ask Mantik Intikam is far more polished in its presentation, with a more nuanced, sensual and layered relationship growth between Ozan and Esra. The side characters are all likeable, with relevant arcs of their own.
Of note are Cagla and Cinar, siblings who have been shown to be well-adjusted, rich kids brought up by a father who doesn't want to simply hand over his fortune; they have to work for it. Arif Yilmaz's investment in Ozan's company has helped to bring it to where it is, but Ozan did not disclose to either about Esra's real identity. While Cagla is in love with Ozan, Cinar has fallen for Esra.
As we are about to embark on the second phase of the story where Ozan and Esra will face conflict from Cagla/ Cinar and their family, I hope writers will focus on their character integrity. Evil for the sake of evil sometimes becomes overly dramatic, taking away from the otherwise relatable depiction of the main love story. Cagla/Cinar feel rightfully betrayed, and it is natural for them to use their financial power to manipulate Ozan and Esra, but seeds have already been sown for how Ozan might overcome them.
The truth is money opens doors, it can get a seat at the table, but it does not ensure continuity. The brains behind the company and its growth is Ozan and this has been illustrated during several company meetings where he laid down basic business principles that contradicts the more impatient strategies offered by Cagla and/or Cinar. We have also seen the talents of Esra as an enterprising professional. The pair isn’t afraid of hard work and are no strangers to living within simple means. It will be empowering to see them team up against what comes their way and fight for their life and love together. The brilliant plot development thus far supports such a possibility, and I cannot wait to see it reveal itself in the coming weeks.
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