Child Star Grows Into the Clown of Kazakhstan
The jostlers, chanting "Murat, Murat, Murat!," were 12- and 13-year-old Italian girls crazy over their Kazakhstan-born idol.
It was 1997. Muturganov had become an entertainment phenomenon in Italy not as an actor, singer and soccer player, but as a clown. And he was only 13 years old.
"There were big billboards with my face," recalled Muturganov, who at 27 has branched into television-show hosting in his homeland – without a clown persona – and into singing.
He plans to enroll soon in one of America's top film schools, the University of Southern California or UCLA, each of which has produced an array of Hollywood actors, directors and producers. His goal is to learn directing, script-writing and other movie-making skills in one of the respected Los Angeles institutions, then return to Kazakhstan to create films.
Becoming an entertainer came naturally to Muturganov because his father Karim was – and still is -- a famous clown. In fact, father and son share the stage together these days, along with Murtaganov's sister Karima, 22.
Papa Karim, who was born in Astrakhan, Russia, trained as an opera singer before going to the Moscow State Circus School to become a clown. He was a success, but wanted a partner in his show. Years of searching, however, failed to turn up a suitable partner.
When Murat displayed an interest in clowning while still a toddler, Karim thought: "Why not have my son be my partner?"
Murat remembers practicing clowning with Karim at 4. His father never pushed him to be a clown, he said. The son loved it from the start.
Murat began performing with his father before he turned 5. "We were partners – two clowns on stage," he said.
The audience's enthusiastic reaction to Murat prompted Karim to let Murat go solo. So at 5, "I was the only one on stage – just me," Murat said.
At 6, the International Children's Festival of Circus Art in Verona, Italy, labeled him "the youngest clown in the world."
In 1996, when Murat was 12, Karim decided to take the family act around the world. The exhilarating vagabond life lasted 11 years, with the Muturganovs returning to Kazakhstan in 2007.
The movie "Borat," which British actor Sasha Baron Cohen parlayed into international fame, came out while the Muturganovs were touring Europe. At the time, few Europeans knew much about Kazakhstan, which the film portrayed in a way that hurt many Kazakhs. [The satire was never meant to be on Kazakhstan, but on prejudices in the United States and the West in general, but still the movie left many Kazakhs fuming.]
Murat remembers a man in Finland asking him whether "Borat" was a true representation of Kazakhstan.
He replied by asking the man to come to his show that night. When it was over, the man was so impressed with the performance that he said: "I'm sorry. Kazakhstan is not Borat. It's Murat."
The Muturganovs' act these days is the kind of zany fare you'd expect from world-famous clowns: side-splitting slapstick mixed with magic and acrobatics.
Karim dresses as Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, with Murat and Karima wearing bright, multi-hued clothes that appeal to younger spectators.
The family appeared several times a day during a two-week run at the Astana Circus recently. In one routine, Murat jumped onto a trampoline, then somersaulted over two big men selected from the audience.
When Karim lined up behind the men to become a third obstacle for Murat to clear, Murat surprised the crowd by racing toward the trampoline, sidestepping it, then diving through the legs of the three men rather than leaping over them. The crowd roared with delight.
Murat said his father is the genius behind their routines. "Everything that my family has is because of my father," he said. "He's the generator of all the ideas – everything."
Murat has eclipsed his dad as the big draw with younger fans, though. On a recent day at the Astana Circus, several fans in their teens and 20s scurried up to him in the halls of the circus performers' hotel complex to ask if they could take a photo with him. One fan was bold enough to knock on his dressing-room door. The easy-going Murat complied with all the requests.
While Karim Muturganov is the guiding light behind the family's performances, his wife Diana is the glue that holds everything together.
The former Almaty television personality ensures that costumes and makeup materials are ready to go. And during the many years the family was on the road, she home-schooled Murat and Karima.
Many honors have come Murat's way during his 23 years of performing, starting with a silver medal for his family's act at the International Circus Performers Festival in Italy in 1990.
His top international honor is probably his induction into the Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1996.
His highest domestic recognition was the Honored Artist of Kazakhstan designation that President Nursultan Nazarbayev handed him personally in 2006. Murat was 22 at the time. Most honorees are in their 40s and 50s.
After he became an honored artist, Murat said, "I decided I had to come back to Kazakhstan and do something really good" for the country.Since his return five years ago, he's been working on a bachelor's degree in movie directing at the Academy of Arts in Almaty. But he's got his heart set on graduating from a Hollywood-area film program soon, he said."My plan is to study there, come back here and make great movies," he said.
Asked if he can make the leap from clown to film maker, he noted that Charlie Chaplin was not only a clown, but an actor, director, scriptwriter and composer.
"I think there's nothing that's impossible," Murat said.
Chaplin has always been his major inspiration, he said.
He opened a notebook to show a friend a black-and-white photo of Chaplin dressed as the Little Tramp. "I carry it everywhere," Murat said.
Even if he becomes a renowned director, he said, he'll never abandon the circus. "It gave me life, gave me a career."
It's amazing the adrenalin rush you get when you "go into the ring and see 1,000 people smiling at you and laughing," Murat said. "It's really exciting to be an artist."