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Messing with an icon
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 10 - 2006

What is the Ramadan TV serial based on the life of legendary actress Soad Hosni really about, asks Mohamed El-Assyouti
A child runs with her family seeking shelter during an air raid. She falls on her back and needs an operation that will cost LE15. Her father, who has two wives and many children, cannot afford the operation. The child starts using painkillers.
Later, as a young woman whose older sister Nagat is already a professional singer, she is discovered by writer Abdel-Rahman El-Khamisi who casts her as Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. Barely literate, she has problems speaking the classical Arabic of the text. Fortunately, the production folds and she must wait for the film Hassan wa Na'ima before she is introduced to an audience. Produced by Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, scripted by El-Khamisi and directed by Henri Barakat, the project -- originally intended as a vehicle for Abdel-Halim Hafez and Faten Hamama -- is a success. A star is born.
So begins the story of Soad Hosni, "the Cinderella of Egyptian cinema", as told in the Ramadan TV serial Al - Cinderella, produced by Mamdouh El-Leithi, written by Atef Bishai and directed by Samir Seif. The cast includes Mona Zaki as Soad Hosni, Medhat Saleh as Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ghada Ragab as Nagat, Abdel-Aziz Makhioun as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Hassan El-Adl as Abdel-Rahman El-Khamisi and Sami Maghawri as Kamel El-Shennawi, the poet who opts to suffer in silence after falling in love with Nagat. Among the sub-plots there is, too, El-Khamisi's infatuation with his much younger protégé and Abdel-Halim Hafez's trajectory from screen idol to canny businessman.
It demands a certain amount of dedication to follow the events of the first six episodes. First, you must have a satellite receiver and then tune it to the Lebanese channel LBC, which has exclusive rights to air the serial during Ramadan. Then you must make sure you are free at 9pm Cairo time. Even more difficult, you should ensure neither your concentration when following the fragile dramatic threads, nor your alimentary canal, are distracted by the host of advertisements that interrupt scenes that are badly written, produced and acted.
The makers of the serial have clearly banked on the nostalgia of the audience for an epoch in which the original, authentic and true were all much simpler concepts than they appear today, a period to which viewers seek desperately to return. Unfortunately, if there is any greatness in this not-so-remote cinematic past it is a result of its simplicity, spontaneity and unpretentiousness, the very qualities that are lacking in this serial glorifying Hosni and her times.
There is a wealth of dramatic raw material in the story of most artists. On Channel 1 the Hussein Fahmi show Anna wal-Nass (Me and the People) dedicated an episode to suicide, Hosni's death in August 2001 among them. After her suicide Hosni was, perhaps inevitably, compared to Marylin Monroe. Both became the object of worship among their fans, only to end up alienated and chronically depressed. It is her death as much as her career that sets Hosni apart from other Egyptian celebrities, whether they came before or after her.
While Hosni's celebrity is used to attract viewers the series can hardly be said to be about her. After an hour spent in front of any one of the episodes it is difficult to avoid the impression that neither Hosni nor the times to which she belonged are being given appropriate attention in terms of production quality. On the other hand, the images of chocolate, margarine and other products that regularly interrupt the narrative are turned into the real objects of worship. Mixing these technically superb images with the impoverished production values of the former does the serial few favours. The audience is sidetracked by the much more sensible advertisement campaigns. If they are really paying attention to their screens it is all too easy to imagine them, once the commercials break is over and the next scene of the serial comes, asking what on earth this has to do with anything. The chances are they will have forgotten the previous scene and they cannot be blamed for having done so.
The serial's director Samir Seif knew Hosni first hand. He was assistant director to Hassan El-Imam who was responsible for a number of Hosni's early 1970s hits, including Khali Balak Min Zouzou (Watch Out for Zouzou). Later, Seif would direct Hosni in three films: Al-Mutawahisha (The Wild One), an adaptation of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, Al-Mashbouh (The Ex-Con) and Gharib fi Baiti (A Stranger in My House). Among the most capable of contemporary filmmakers, Seif clearly found his hands tied by a stingy production and a histrionic screenplay that comprises little more than a list of famous names and their last words.
Seif is responsible for a second TV serial, Nour Al-Sabah (Light of Day), produced last year but premiered this Ramadan on national TV and starring Leila Olwi. Despite its shortcomings it does at least allow for the director's talents to occasionally show.
History, let alone legend, is clearly not the forte of Egyptian TV drama. In this regard the Syrians are tops. This Ramadan they are offering 27 serials, many of them historical epics, impeccably produced and executed. A lot of attention is given to the details of performance, make up and visual and sound quality. By surfing satellite TV channels at various hours of the day during Ramadan you can compare the fruit of the efforts of the last months and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that while the Syrians were working Egyptians were merely showing off.
In the early 1980s Ahmed Zaki's star as an actor shone brightly when he played the so-called Dean of Arab Literature, Taha Hussein, in the Ramadan serial Al-Ayyam (The Days). In other serials, Mahmoud Morsi played Abbas Al-Aqqad and Ezzat El-Alaili played Abdallah Al-Nadim. Making serials about historical figures, it seemed, had become a Ramadan fad.
The tradition has been revived, with serials and not a few films based on the biographies of celebrities. Umm Kulthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez have both been recently resurrected on cinema and TV screens. The late Ahmed Zaki never forgot the origins of his success, and always sought to play "important" figures -- including former presidents Nasser and Sadat and the singer Abdel-Halim. Sadly, most of these efforts missed their mark. They neither made legends of their makers nor evoked the iconic status of the figures on which they were based.


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