EGYPTIAN DIRECTOR Youssef Chahine’s 1953 film Struggle in the Valley starts with a scene in which the daughter of a rich landlord, returning to her village after completing her studies in Cairo, stops her car near a sugarcane field on the banks of the river Nile to meet her childhood friend. Played by a young Omar Sharif, the man is attracted to the girl, the daughter of his father’s employer. Part of a tribute to Sharif (who passed away in July this year) at the just concluded 37th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), the film evokes memories of the rich-girl-poor-boy dramas of the early days of the neorealism era in Hindi cinema.
With the camera lingering in the mammoth indoors of the landlord’s mansion in tandem with the mud-built homes of his workers, the debut film of Lawrence of Arabia star Sharif is strikingly similar to the Indian classics of the 1940s and 1950s like Hamrahi by Bimal Roy. And it’s not just the class divide, Egyptian films have also been known for their melodrama, songs and dances just like Hindi cinema. But now, a new generation of filmmakers, willing to experiment, is transforming the way cinema in Egypt is watched—just the way Bollywood is trying to transform itself with original scripts and crisp technologies.
Waves of influence
“Starting from the 1930s, Indian films were going everywhere,” says Russian cultural scholar Anatoly Shakov. “It also came to Egypt,” adds Shakov, who has just published a book on Oriental films, titled Cinema of the Arab East: Past and Contemporary Times, in Russian. Playing many romantic roles in a career beginning in the 1970s, handsome actor Hussein Fahmy was the Rajesh Khanna of Egyptian cinema. Fahmy, who received the top honourary award of the Cairo festival named after the iconic Egyptian actor Faten Hamama this year, eventually had to object to playing only ‘Don Juan-type’ roles in all his movies.
Portraying roles like that of a determined mother, Hamama herself was the equivalent of Nargis, with whom she shared the same era of cinema. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hindi films were regularly beamed into Egyptian homes from state-run television networks, a period still remembered by ordinary people in Cairo, who grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan movies like Amar Akbar Anthony. “That ended in the 1990s when the import of Indian films was restricted to protect the domestic industry,” recalls CIFF artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah. The restrictions were in effect until 2013, when they were lifted, allowing Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express to become the first Indian film to be screened in Cairo’s cinemas in nearly three decades. Only 10 of the total 400 screens in Egypt are still open to foreign films, including Hollywood, to support domestic filmmakers.
And taking full advantage of that, young Egyptian filmmakers are today rewriting the story of Egyptian cinema with a mix of popular and arthouse productions, while borrowing heavily from the deep crusts of the country’s abundant cultural heritage and its modern history. Egyptian filmmaker Marwan Hamed, who, along with Indian actor Radhika Apte, was part of the international jury of the Cairo festival this year, set his second film in Cairo’s slums to talk about gang violence three years before Anurag Kashyap made Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). “It was a very violent film. I wanted to shock the audience,” says Hamed, who burst on to the global scene in 2006 with Yacoubian Building, a film based on Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling novel on modern Egyptian society.
Times are changing
At the Cairo festival’s Prospects of Arab Cinema parallel section this year, another young Egyptian director, Hesham Issawi, showed his new film, The Price, which is about a cab driver hired to kill a famous Left-wing writer. The film deals with freedom of artistes in the country—Egypt has, in the past, seen an assassination attempt on Nobel Prize-winning author and Cairo resident Nagib Mahfouz. “I think that’s the core of the film: does someone deserve to die because of his or her way of thinking or ideas?” says Issawi. “We are going through a tremendously chaotic time in the Middle-East and the world in general. We have to face the war of ideas and struggle to affirm our way of life in the middle of a society refusing to be open and rejecting anything new or different,” he adds. In The Grand Night, another film from Egypt, which was part of the international competition section at CIFF, religious traditions are altered without questioning the faith. “Pick up a rug and pray any time,” says a character, who chooses his time of prayer in the film by Sameh Abdel Aziz.
“Our history of cinema is as old as India’s,” says Cairo festival president Magda Wassef. Three months after screening the first motion pictures in Bombay in July 1896, the Lumiere brothers had arrived in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria and later Cairo with their discovery. Egypt went on to become the Arab world’s only film industry and CIFF, which started in 1976, the region’s first film festival.
At its 2015 edition, the festival chose an Egyptian actor and Indian producer-director, Nelly Karim and Farah Khan, respectively, to share its top prize, the Faten Hamama CIFF Excellence Award. There were two Egyptian films (The Grand Night and Born to a Man) and an Indian film (Umrika by Paris-based filmmaker Prashant Nair) in the competition section vying for the Golden Pyramid as well. The melodrama of the early Hindi films may have waned on Cairo screens, but the influence of Indian cinema on Egypt is still obvious.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer