Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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Clash of the titans

By Tarek Atia

Let's provide some basics for those of you who have either been dead for the past few years or else try to stay as far away from local pop culture as you can.

The two men pictured above have managed, in a very short time, to become Egyptian cinema's biggest stars. Alaa Walieddin is the big fat guy and Mohamed Heneidi is the tiny, baby-faced one. Together, for years, they played a wildly successful Egyptian version of Laurel and Hardy. Audiences could pretty much guarantee that anything this duo did -- whether on the big screen, small screen or theatre -- would be a riotous laugh.

But nothing lasts forever, and Heneidi and Alaa soon parted ways. The irony of that parting, however, is that the two guys are now right back together again -- this time as industry adversaries. Their films are currently up against each other in competition to become the biggest summer blockbuster for the second year running.

No one could have possibly predicted this monumental battle just a few years back -- except, of course, the movie moguls who orchestrated it. They took the two least likely-looking people, and backed them with more hype than the industry had ever seen. The result is a true phenomenon.

The cash the Alaa and Heneidi films are currently raking in at the box-office has virtually changed the cinema world overnight. Multiplexes have suddenly sprung up to meet demand. Makeshift cinemas have opened on hotel rooftops and in public parks.

In fact, the magnitude of this craze raises some questions. Is it all driven by clever marketing or are these two guys truly that talented? Do the big laughs make up for the light plots? How much staying power do Heneidi and Alaa have? Will one eclipse the other or will they both simply fade away?

Friends and competitors: Heneidi (left) and Walieddin (centre) smile for the cameras
photo: Abdel-Hamid Eid


A quick look at how this came to be may reveal some clues.

Ever since the two split up as a comic duo, journalists have been speculating that some serious professional jealousy had divided them. Heneidi's star rose first -- higher and faster than any other actor before him.

Poor Alaa was left behind. He began to settle into a pigeon-hole as a permanent member of the supporting cast, while his former partner became everyone's darling.

Perhaps the brief time Alaa spent in Heneidi's shadow really got to him. He seems possessed with a determination to show the world that he too can pack the house.

Last year he finally got his chance. Competing directly against Heneidi's Hammam fi Amsterdam, Alaa's Abboud 'Alal-Hodoud, did better both at the box office and among the critics.

This year looks like a sequel. Once again, the popularity of Alaa's film, Al-Nazer, has inched ahead of Heneidi's widely-anticipated Belia wa Demagho Al-'Alia. Perhaps audiences have grown weary of Heneidi playing the same character time in and time out. By contrast, even Alaa's limited attempt merely to lean on the envelope seems fresh. In the new film, Alaa plays a total of eight different characters.

That's not to say that Belia has been a flop. In its first 11 days, it reaped a record-breaking LE7 million. However, as Heneidi himself freely admits, much of the attraction has been his star power, not the movie itself. The true test will be time. Staying power is the real prize.

And yet that prize will be truly difficult to capture. Critics have always panned their films as trivial nonsense. Instead of taking the cinema industry out of its so-called crisis, critics gripe that they are actually sealing its moronic doom.

But critics have always been an ornery bunch. It's the general audience that matters most in this game of ticket sales. However, even among the ticket-buying masses there is diminishing enthusiasm. One of the most common complaints about the films is that they're all the same -- bumbling hero goes for the girl, falls into an adventure that teaches him a lesson about life. A yawn is beginning to form and yawns are irresistibly contagious.


Related stories:
More than tulips in Amsterdam- 19 - 25 August 1999
A successful formula?- 21 - 28 January 1999
An amiable bubble unburst- 13 - 19 August 1998
Tried and tested- 12 - 18 August 1999

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