In the film industry, the term “breakout role” describes the performance of an actor, which contributed significantly to the development of his/her career and signaled the beginning of widespread recognition by his/her peers. For Çağatay Ulusoy, such role came in 2015, with his masterful interpretation of Barış Ayaz in Ali Bilgin’s movie “Delibal.” On the fifth anniversary of its release, we revisit this remarkable film, which not only registered mainstream success and the attention of critics in Turkey but also marked a turning point in Çağatay’s career.
(Please be advised that the rest of this article contains spoilers about the film. For spoiler-free information on “Delibal” please click here.)
On the surface, “Delibal” narrates a fairy-tale love story between two perfect people. Barış is a cool, handsome, and gifted architectural student and drummer/singer in a band who, one day, falls in love at first sight with Füsün (played by Leyla Lydia Tuğutlu), a beautiful, family-devoted and hard-working sociology student. She initially rebuffs his attentions, but eventually falls for his indomitable energy, positive attitude, and adventurous spirit. And for his inexhaustible ability to love. Their whirlwind romance, which unfolds as a series of flashbacks often characterized by comical interludes, comes almost as a surprise following the rather ominous beginning of the film. Unfortunately, as it is often the case in life, Barış and Füsün’s bliss is short-lived. Beneath his “joie de vivre”, Barış hides a dark secret. He is seriously affected by bipolar disorder, alternating between manic/energetic spells and periods of deep depression and violence. Although he is fully aware of his condition, Barış rejects treatment. And Füsün learns about it only when it is unfortunately too late.
The title of the film is replete with hidden meaning. Deli bal literally means “mad honey,” which English speakers could easily mistake for a variant of the common endearing term between lovers. In Turkish, however, “Deli bal” actually refers to a rare dark, reddish honey from the Black Sea region of Trabzon, where bees feed on poisonous rhododendrons that contain grayanotoxin — a natural neurotoxin that, even in small quantities, brings on light-headedness, nausea, numbing, and hallucinations. The honey should thus be consumed only in very small amounts, and preferably diluted in hot water or boiled milk. Turks take it before breakfast as a traditional treatment for hypertension, impotence, and a number of other conditions. Nevertheless, cases of “mad honey” poisoning continue to crop up every few years in Turkey, especially among unwitting travelers.
In the film, “Delibal” is the pet name that Füsün gives to Barış. The choice is both prophetic and ominous. Just like Barış’ love for Füsün, Delibal easily goes to one’s head because it is unprocessed, and hence essentially pure. When over-imbibed, however, “mad honey” can cause symptoms far worse than intoxication, such as low blood pressure, arrhythmia, blurred vision, fainting, delirium, seizures, and – in rare instances – even death. As his mental disorder spins increasingly out of control, Barış becomes afraid that his bipolar episodes might eventually hurt Füsün. However, he knows that as long as he lives, they could never separate, for theirs is true love. In his untreated condition, unfortunately, he comes to see the most radical of solutions as the only way to keep Füsün safe and give her another chance at happiness in a not-so-distant future.
Already widely popular before “Delibal” as a favorite heartthrob among young Turkish audiences, Çağatay Ulusoy had already starred in a successful movie (“Anadolu Kartallari”) and two high-profile TV series (“Adını Feriha Koydum” and “Medcezir.”) In these previous roles, however, he had always played a virtually flawless, boyish romantic hero. Now, for the first time, “Delibal” offered him an adult, multi-layered, and high-impact role. Barış was still gifted, artistic, fashionable, and incredibly dashing. However, he was also a far more ambiguous and tormented character than either Emir, Ahmet, or Yaman.
Undoubtedly, “Delibal” offered Çağatay Ulusoy the most challenging role of his career to date. To give life to Barış Ayaz, he had to lose a considerable amount of weight, learn how to play drums and ride a big motorcycle, perform the title song of the movie’s soundtrack, and patiently sit each day for hours so that the film’s make-up artists could apply Barış’ numerous tattoos to his hands, arms, chest, and back.
Even more remarkably, at only 24 years of age, he morphed fully into a bohemian character seriously affected by mental disease, whose experience was clearly far removed from his own. And yet, Çağatay did an outstanding job of introducing Barış’ condition through well-calibrated acts of exuberance and then developing it through increasing outbursts of extreme emotions. Towards the end, a handful of unusually intense scenes allowed Çağatay Ulusoy to communicate the full extent of his character’s predicament. Talented yet undisciplined, artistic yet irritable, irresistibly joyous yet profoundly depressed, Barış was a bundle of contradictory and out-of-control impulses. Nevertheless, Çağatay managed to render him also charming, charismatic, endearing, and… did we already mention gorgeous?
“Delibal” propelled Çağatay to super-stardom and cemented his reputation as a brilliant actor. His ability convincingly to represent the range of Barış’ extreme moods erased any possible lingering doubt about his talent among skeptics. It was an unforgettable performance for an unforgettable role. There are only a few film industry professionals, be it in Hollywood or elsewhere, who could even contemplate interpreting a mentally disturbed character, singing the title song, and playing two different instruments all in one film. And yet, the young Turkish actor managed to pull it off, while at the same time causing hordes of female fans hopelessly to fall in love with the unfortunate Barış Ayaz.
By granting him widespread recognition from audiences, directors, and producers, Delibal liberated Çağatay from being typecast as a one-dimensional actor and put him in a position, where he could pretty much pick and choose his next projects. A series of increasingly differentiated roles followed: an undercover cop in “Içerde”, an Ottoman superhero in “The Protector,” a homeless garbage collector in “Mücadele Çikmazi,” and soon a 1970s film producer in “Yeşilçam.” These characters continue significantly to broaden Çağatay Ulusoy’s acting repertoire and have made him currently the most-wanted Turkish actor both at home and abroad.
What many viewers might still ignore is that “Delibal” was an unofficial remake of the Indian/Tamil film “3” (as in the three stages of the protagonists’ life.) Written and directed by Aishwarya R. Dhanush and starring her talented husband Dhanush (who also performs several songs of the movie’s remarkable soundtrack,) “3” follows Ram and Janani over the course of several years, from their teenage infatuation into their love-filled marriage and tragic epilogue.
The two movies’ storylines are virtually identical. Both juxtapose a first half characterized by joy, romance, and cheer, and a second half filled with anguish and tragedy. And as in “Delibal,” also in “3” not everything is what it seems. When Ram suddenly commits suicide, Janani too discovers that her husband has been hiding his illness from her for a very long time. The male leads are excellent in both films. So is the supporting cast, the cinematography, the costumes, and the soundtrack.
The movies, however, also exhibit important differences. In “Delibal,” Barış and Füsün meet during their last year of University, while Ram and Janani find each other while they are still in high school. Perhaps for this reason, “Delibal’s” script feels relatively more tight, fast-paced, and essential than “3’s.” Furthermore, Füsün’s ignorance regarding Barış’ condition is far more believable than Janani’s, who incredibly fails to detect anything wrong with Ram for almost a decade.
“3” is also far creepier than “Delibal.” Indeed, towards the end, Ram becomes very violent and unhinged, to the point that viewers come seriously to fear for Janani’s safety. Conversely, Barış remains through the whole film a sensitive, artistic soul and remarkably gifted intellect. In turn, his condition never turns violent towards Füsün. Finally, while both films are filled with captivating music, the haunting Turkish tunes in “Delibal” feel more appropriate to the story’s dark theme than “3’s” Bollywood-style soundtrack.
The indisputable merit of these movies is to have risen their countries’ awareness of bipolar disease, which according to the National Institute of Mental Health “is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. […] These moods range from periods of extremely ‘up,’ elated, and energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very sad, ‘down,’ or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes.)”
Western cinema has often dealt with bipolar disorder. Indeed, roles characterized by this disease have attracted some of the best Hollywood actors. In 1993, Richard Gere starred in “Mr. Jones” as a man who alternates between spectacular bouts of intense emotional pleasure and elation, and periods of suicidal depression. However, the film’s narrative, unfortunately, became dominated by the inappropriate romance between the protagonist and the doctor, who attempts to treat his condition. In 1995, “Mad Love” with Drew Barrymore offered a teen/female perspective on bipolar disorder which some criticized as overly simplistic. A much better movie was the 2007 “Michael Clayton,” where Tom Wilkinson (a secondary character) plays the role of a lawyer, whose erratic behavior threatens to derail one of his firm’s top cases after he goes off his medications for bipolar disorder. When Wilkinson is assassinated, however, the focus of the film shifts entirely towards corporate wrongdoing. In 2009, the satirical film “The Informant!” featured Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, who blows the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics. The film effectively portrays Whitacre’s struggle with bipolar disorder, as the stress of serving as an FBI informant while at the same time trying to embezzle money from the company progressively pushes his symptoms out of control.
A spate of recent movies have dealt more subtly, but no less effectively, with bipolar disorder. Starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, the acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook” was a 2012 romantic dramedy featuring a sympathetic protagonist with bipolar disorder, who meaningfully interacts with different people grappling with mental imbalances of their own (such as OCD and sex addiction.) In 2014, “Infinitely Polar Bear” featured Mark Ruffalo as an adorable father who, while still recovering from a bipolar-disorder-induced mental breakdown, finds himself suddenly in sole charge of his two daughters. The film is ultimately about who, in this exceptional situation, is really parenting whom. And in 2016, the mystery/thriller “The Ghost and the Whale” realistically narrated the tale of Joseph Hawthorne, a bipolar man who went off to sea with his wife, only to return alone. As the mystery of what really happened divides his town and draws the attention of a journalist, Joseph’s untreated mental disorder leads to mania, melancholia, and discussions on the beach with a gray whale.
“Delibal” admirably holds its ground even in comparison to these star-studded movies. Along with “3”, it offers a valuable perspective on bipolar disorder from places where mental illness is less widely understood and continues to carry a considerable social stigma. By placing the disease and its adverse effects on both patients and their loved ones, front and center, the films definitely contributed to raising awareness in both India and Turkey. What is more, they called much-needed attention to the dangers of ignoring, neglecting, or hiding the condition. Finally, the films powerfully illustrated that suicide can never be the answer. While bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured, it can be often effectively managed through appropriate treatment so that patients can still live fulfilling lives.
“Delibal” leaves viewers with infinite sadness for Barış, but also with considerable frustration and impotence because his fate was in no way inevitable. In the end, the movie’s message is clear: if you know someone whom you suspect might be struggling with a mental illness, please be kind. You may never know what demons he/she might be fighting with!
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