|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 February 2002
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photo: Ayman Ibrahim
Laughter is a message in itself
Profile by Gihan Shahine
We, the audience, tend to stereotype actors. We just do not see the true person behind the thin veil of acting when we are under the spell of fiction. That is particularly true with comedians. We do not expect those who make us burst into laughter not to be humorous off camera. It would be ludicrous to discover that brilliant comics are too serious, perhaps even a little depressed, in their real lives. Going behind the scenes, however, provides a different perspective.
From top: as Fattouta; in The Dancer and the Undertaker; with George Sidhum, as part of the Thulathi Adwaa Al-Masrah; in Al-Mutazawwigun
"We are ordinary people: we have our worries, responsibilities and pains," snaps Samir Ghanem. "I'm calm and silent most of the time -- pondering. I'm too sensitive by nature and that makes me unfunny in my everyday life. Most famous comedians are the same."
Ghanem is not in a good mood when we meet him. His gloom, however, is justified: today, his friend and veteran director Yehia El-Alami has just passed away. "He was a great director and an old friend," Ghanem says sombrely. "My daughter has been crying all day; we feel so bad. It was El-Alami who predicted I would marry my wife Dalal."
How do comedians go on stage when they are grieved by the death of a friend or a relative? "It happened to me several times before: when my father, my mother and my brother passed away. It was always extremely difficult. Audiences may not notice it, but those who know me well would immediately sense I'm not myself."
Sadness aside, Ghanem was never interested in this meeting in the first place. I had to track him down at home and on his mobile in order to get an appointment at last. "I'm so bored with interviews; I've told the same story dozens of times before," he argued on the phone, in an attempt to escape. But doesn't he get just as bored repeating the same script on stage every night for years on end? "No, I don't, because I always change; I barely stick to scripts," he replies when we meet, dismissing the question and cutting to the chase. But once into the first question, Ghanem turns to the photographer, Ayman Ibrahim, and jokes: "You see, isn't that boring?" My colleague nods, laughing, but I go on with unabated enthusiasm.
It is a difficult job, though. Ghanem leaves many questions unanswered: he does not remember dates or tell the story behind any of his work; sometimes he answers questions very briefly. He has to hurry, because he is going on soon. He cannot receive us at home because his daughter Donia is studying for exams; and so we have agreed to meet in a hotel adjacent to his flat in Doqqi. The coffee shop is a convenient place for him to have dinner while talking. "Would you like to eat something?" he asks invitingly. "Please have something, at least you will write 'Ghanem was very generous, and treated us to a nice meal.'"
Finally, an inkling of that renowned sense of humor; but just beneath lurk restlessness and worry. Anxiety is a trait many great actors share, but it comes as a surprise in Ghanem, who rarely completes a sentence without inserting a joke during his television interviews. Experience has overlaid his features with a patina of tiredness that lurks behind the big black-framed glasses he is wearing. The occasional cynical smile aside, seriousness battles for space with his inner fund of boisterous humour, both finding their way into his expressions: he is very serious one moment, then comes out with a witty comment or a joke the next -- the latter being the Ghanem we know best.
Ghanem, Adel Imam and Mohamed Sobhi are the stars of the older generation of comedians whose plays are currently surviving fierce competition with younger actors. Each of the three has his own style. Ghanem lives up to Michael Billington's criterion of a good comedian. "The humor of the play," Billington wrote in Sheridan's Irish Wizardry: The Rivals and The School for Scandal, "depends a great deal on the pace of the actor's delivery and their timing: the bare bones of the wit need to be fleshed out by acting abilities."
Ghanem's unique brilliance stems from his quick wit and ability to improvise, which come across best in his stage performances. Once on stage, Ghanem is in "a state of exultation, an entire communion with audience." He stands on the border dividing the professional stand-up comedian from the stage actor: the audience, and sometimes his fellow actors, can rarely predict what he will say next. The punch lines flow easily and naturally from his lips. This talent for improvisation may be what has kept Ghanem's fame alive over the years.
His skills, however, remained hidden until he enrolled at the Police Academy in Cairo. His talent as an actor found no soil in the conservative society of Upper Egypt where he was brought up by his strict father, a police officer. "I was a very shy boy and would blush if my hand even brushed that of a girl," he remembers. "Acting never crossed my mind."
At the academy, however, Ghanem's imitations of colleagues and professors had his friends in stitches. After a year at the academy, he transferred to Alexandria University's Faculty of Agronomy, where his talents blossomed. The faculty was fertile soil for several of today's big stars: Adel Imam, Nour El-Sherif, Mahmoud Abdel- Aziz, Nour El-Demerdash, Wahid Seif, and director Mohamed Fadel are cases in point.
Ghanem's first contact with the stage was in amateur student theatre productions. At an inter-mural talent show, Ghanem met George Sidhum, and later Ahmed El-Deif, enrolled at Ain Shams and Cairo Universities. The three formed a troupe called Thulathi Adwaa Al-Masrah in the '60s. Their first ever performance, Doktor Elhaqni (Save Me, Doctor), a smash hit, introduced them to the world of fame. Director Mohamed Salem picked them to present the first ever Ramadan Riddles, and the three worked on many films and theatrical performances, which audiences still remember with intense nostalgia.
The troupe, however, was doomed after El-Deif's untimely death. Ghanem and Sidhum co-starred in a number of plays, eventually parting ways in the '80s. Musiqa fil- Hayy Al-Sharqi (Music in the Eastern Sector), based on The Sound of Music, was another step up in Ghanem's meteoric career. The show was a blockbuster and played for four years in the '70s.
It was Al-Mutazawwigun (Married), however, that secured his place in the comic firmament. The play, also starring Sidhum, would make audiences laugh just as hysterically today as when it began showing: it is full of unforgettably clever lines, and merely alluding to one is enough to induce uncontrollable mirth in one's companions.
Ghanem performed brilliantly. The theme was not new, but the wit of the dialogue and his improvisational and comedic skills made the piece a classic. He played the role of Massoud, an educated but down-at-heel young opportunist who sought to marry money in the form of a rich girl called Lina. Unfortunately, the golden goose found great comfort and happiness in her husband's shabby home and, to his profound disappointment, insisted on struggling to make ends meet. The contrast between the two worlds and the couple's widely divergent perspectives on life formed the comic pivot of the play. Ghanem's reactions to his wife's first attempts at cooking are priceless -- a spectrum of emotions ranging from incredulity to disgust plays across his mobile features as Lina washes mulukhiya in powerful detergent and soaks chicken in cement, mistaking it for flour.
Ahlan Ya Doktor (Hello Doctor) was Ghanem's first appearance without Sidhum on- stage. He leapt from one success to the next, performing in plays that drew capacity audiences for several years on end. In Goha Yahkum Al-Madina (Goha Rules the City), he starred alone; then came Faris wa Bani Khayban (The Knight and Disaster Clan), Akhuya Hayes wana Layes (Happy Is My Brother, Lost Am I), Ana wal-Nizam wa Hawak (Me, the Government and Your Love), Bahloul fi Istanbul (Bahloul in Istanbul). Last but not least was the successful Ana wa Mirati wa Monica (Me, My Wife and Monica).
Currently, he is co-starring with popular singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim in a musical comedy built on the French story Le Chanceux. "The play, which showcases the disappointments of a popular singer, is the wittiest farce ever," Ghanem notes.
While he is quite willing to describe himself as the "king of comedy," unlike Sobhi and Imam, Ghanem will not discuss politics, preach morality or satirise customs in his comedies. His themes are always simple and often traditional: humour is the main thing.
"My role is to make people laugh, which is an art in itself," he maintains. "I usually convey a little message through my comedy, but that is never the main point. Once people laugh, I feel I have been successful: that is my message as a comedian."
In contrast, his contribution to film, while not inconsiderable, is more a matter of quantity than quality. He has starred in a plethora of commercial films, most of which have no theme and no plot, and are poorly directed to boot. They simply depend on his popularity and wit to generate laughter.
That, however, is precisely why he regrets none of them: "Because they ultimately made people laugh, which is the most important thing." The cinema, he explains, was already in the doldrums when he began taking on such projects in the late '70s and throughout the '80s. "Film directors had no resources other than the abilities of box- office stars," he points out.
He concedes, however, that while ambition led him into the theatre, it was the need for money that took him into film. His late brother Said was receiving medical treatment for kidney failure in the US, and Ghanem took care of the expenses.
"Anyway, those films were no worse than the sort we have now," he says bluntly. "The only difference is that directors now are young and ambitious; they are qualified and have access to better resources than we had in our time."
Does that mean, conversely, that new comedians are not as talented as their predecessors? "They are fine, but none of them is as exceptional or unique as we were," Ghanem maintains. "The new generation of actors, in general, shot to fame in minutes: they act once and take a lead role in the next film. They become conceited as a result, which is the shortest way downhill. I pity them."
Young actors, however, should elicit more envy than pity if salaries are the object of comparison. They have taken the cinema by storm, stealing the limelight from the elder generation, as movie directors and producers fall all over themselves to cater to youth culture.
"We never abandoned the cinema: it is the cinema that has abandoned us," Ghanem says. "Young people make up the majority of cinema audiences and, of course, young actors are better placed to represent their generation. You know, in the States it is very different: the older actors are much more appreciated and their fees are the highest."
Is that an undertone of bitterness in Ghanem's voice? It would be justified, in a sense. Not only has cinema "abandoned" his generation, it has also lured away a large part of the theatre audience with the promise of entertainment for less. Young comedians have also found their way to the stage, and are accumulating fans. Combined with the effect straitened economic circumstances are having on the number of theatre-goers, these factors have made the competition even fiercer. The public may need a new hit, but who the wit will be (Ghanem or Heneidi?) remains an open question.
Ghanem, however, appears confident in face of challenge. "A few of these young actors will survive," he muses. "There is more to a comedian than his sense of humour: he needs talent and acting abilities. These young comics are not creative; they just repeat our jokes." He singles out young comedian Mohamed Heneidi as the only one who has Ghanem's natural and witty style.
But is he ready to co-star with one of the young ones, as Said Saleh did with Heneidi? "I have no problem with that," he replies, "but I think young comedians will fear the competition. They know what happens when Ghanem appears on the screen or the stage."
He is not giving up, anyway. He is preparing a "new smash hit comedy" for the summer, which, he says, "will bring the house down." This summer, he will also release a new comic film with young actress Nermine El-Fiqi: he predicts it will induce "hysterical laughter."
What about television? When still on the threshold of fame, he made a strong debut with series titled Mizo and Captain Gouda. In the early '80s, when he had already scaled the peak of the profession, director Fahmi Abdel-Hamid had him play an adorable dwarf named Fattouta, pumping new blood into the Ramadan Riddles that Nelly had dominated. "Fattouta was my best TV work," he boasts. Although renowned cartoonist Salah Jahine praised the dwarf as "the best children's character ever," the press was harsh. People associated the Fawazir with a glamorous actress, and Fattouta had to quit after spending two years in production. "Abdel-Hamid's heirs then claimed the rights to the concept, and television did not fight for it, so I continued to play Fattouta on satellite for a few years," he recounts. "Now other satellite channels are seeking to revive him. It's Egyptian TV's loss."
Today, then, he is more than a little disillusioned. "TV officials have taken an oath never to let people laugh," he says tiredly. After almost a decade of low-key activity, he has returned to the small screen nonetheless, with a comic soap opera, Qutt wa Far Five Stars (Five Star Cat and Mouse), which was released on satellite channels. The series pokes fun at untalented actors who shoot to fame after finding LE1 million. "The series should have been released during Ramadan: look at how tragic the programmes were. Every single character died!" Ghanem exclaims. "I guess even the director passed away and didn't notice," he adds, then dissolves into laughter at his joke.
Despite his disenchantment, he is pleased with the success his wife, actress Dalal Abdel-Aziz, and their daughter, Donia, had this Ramadan. The holy month marked Donia's debut: she starred with her mother in a series titled Lil-Adala Wugouh Kathira (Justice Has Many Faces). Ghanem is proud of his daughter's performance. "She was gorgeous and is very natural, like me; you don't feel she is acting at all," he boasts. "She also has a very nice voice and I'm sure she will make a good actress."
Donia and her sister Amal live up to their names: Donia is Ghanem's "world," while her sister is his "hope." And the theatre? "It's my life," he smiles as he rushes off. Ghanem, it is clear, will not miss his cue.
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