When less was more
Scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha speaks with Mohamed El-Assyouti about soaps, sequels and current pet projects
Osama Anwar Okasha
In the 1960s, when Egyptian TV drama was virgin territory, soap operas like Al-Qahira wal-Nass (Cairo and the People) began to appear, along with screenwriters like Assem Tawfiq and directors like Nour El-Demerdash. Back then everything was on a much smaller scale: channels -- only one at the beginning; transmission hours; the number of episodes and the number of advertisements. There was less of everything. Then, beginning in the late 1970s, the number of soaps produced increased and the names of directors such as Mohamed Fadel and Inaam Mohamed Ali, and the scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha, became household names.
These names suddenly had pulling power, attracting viewers to their TV sets and advertisers to pay huge fees, initially to place ads before and after episodes of the serials with which they were associated and then in the commercial breaks that began increasingly to interrupt the episodes.
Ironically, though, the work of Fadel, Ali and Okasha -- men who can be credited with kick-starting an entire genre -- is no longer welcome on primetime TV -- and no time is more prime in Egyptian television than during Ramadan. They no longer, it seems, attract sufficient advertising. So what happened?
Television serials first became hostage to advertisers, believes Okasha, six years ago. "Today, though," he says, "the situation has become critical" as quality has been completely overtaken by quantity. Television series are now completely in thrall to the big advertising companies to the extent that "what is now required is not a gripping or serious drama but the exploitation of an actor's power to attract an audience for as many commercials as can be transmitted during the show in which he or she is starring".
So who are the real decision-makers in the world of TV drama? The big ad agencies decide the market value of actors by associating one actor's image with ghee and oil, another with tea and dairy products, a third with electrical appliances, a fourth with detergents and shampoo. The ad agencies also decide whether or not a series will be aired during Ramadan and, if so, at what time.
Okasha cites a senior TV executive who recently asked how he could reject a series when its star attracted so many commercials. The criteria in selecting TV series, laments the scriptwriter, has clearly become their ability to attract the advertisers, leaving people like Okasha grateful for the few exceptions that continue to be made.
This year Anas El-Fiqi, minister of information, made an attempt to balance such skewed programming, lobbying on behalf of Okasha's latest series in an attempt to inject some quality into Ramadan programming even though it did not include any of the "big five" names deemed to attract the ads. In the last two years Okasha's work -- Canarya wa Shurakah (Canary and his Partners) and 'Afarit Al-Sayala (The Demons of Al-Sayala) -- has been screened outside Ramadan precisely because it did not include advertisement generating names.
But does this mean Okasha, whose has, after all, worked with many of Egypt's most celebrated actors, now writes without any particular actor in mind?
It is only during the process of writing, of establishing a character, he says, that he begins to think of who might play that character. "And one can always change one's mind later. The serious thinking starts only after the writing process has ended," though he concedes that there have been exceptions to this method. Okasha began Rihlat Abul-Ela El-Bishri (The Journey of Abul-Ela El-Bishri) and Damir Abla Hikmat (Headmistress Hikmat's Conscience) with the express purpose of writing parts for Mahmoud Morsi and Faten Hamama respectively. And in writing sequels the audience, naturally, expects the same actors to continue.
Okasha is no stranger to the sequel. Indeed, he was the first to conceive of a series that would extend over several years, following the lives of the same characters: currently he is at work on the third instalment of Ziziniya, set in the Alexandrian neighbourhood of that name, which is scheduled to be shot this spring. The production of this third series of episodes was only possible thanks to the intervention of Mohi El-Ghamri, head of the production sector, who decided that Egyptian TV would undertake the production since no independent executive producer would be willing to foot the bill.
Okasha is also at work on a pet-project, Al-Masrawiya, an ambitious attempt to portray a century of social development through the experience of a single town, Madinat Al-Markaz -- literally, town of the centre -- and the handful of villages that surround it. "The small town has characteristics that have not been fully explored dramatically," he says. Not that it is entirely new territory. In the 1980s serials Al-Shahd wal-Dimou (Sweet and Sour) and Layali Al-Hilmiya (Nights of Al-Hilmiya) Okasha sought to trace the upheavals of recent Egyptian history through, respectively, the experiences of a single family and a single Cairene neighbourhood. Not that such an enterprise is without its hazards: Okasha has attracted criticism from Wafdists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserists and supporters of Sadat -- a broad coalition if ever one existed. None of which fazes Okasha, a writer who believes that "the truth hurts", and who believes, as well, that it is impossible to divorce his writing from politics since to do so would drain it "of any depth and real value". He anticipates Al-Masrawiya to attract a similarly critical front.
The five part Layali Al-Hilmiya also incurred the wrath of the censors when it was first shown in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the then minister of information, Safwat El-Sherif, often involved in hammering out problems. The censors, complains Okasha, tend to cut out what they do not understand. "They have a putative mandate to protect traditions and value but what they are really concerned with is protecting the political establishment," says Okasha, who believes that "since 1989, with the first satellite channels, the restraints imposed by the censors began to wane and are now on the way to becoming extinct."
That is the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture, though not sufficiently bright to dissipate Okasha's pessimism. "The consumerist mentality now dominates, and art has become one more commodity. We have lost what we used to be proud of, what we thought of as our pioneering status in the Arab world. Arab production centres, like Syria and Tunis, now outshine us. Even war-torn Iraq boasts 11 drama- producing TV channels."
Shrinking theatre audiences are, he says, another symptom of a general cultural malaise. "Theatre has been marginalised in our society", with the result that the biggest acting names now avoid the stage. "My recent work in the theatre tries to benefit from this situation since the absence of stars also means a widening of the creative space."
How wide that space is audiences will be able to judge for themselves when Okasha's play Welad Al-Lazina (Rogues) is produced by the Modern Theatre this winter. It will be directed by Mohamed Omar, with whom Okasha has collaborated on Al-Nas Eli fil-Thalit (People on the Third Floor), Ezz Al-Dohr (At High Noon), and Laylat Arbaatashar (Full Moon).