Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Psychodrama

Much Ramadan TV this year focuses on mental disorder or uses it as a backdrop for other themes, Rania Khallaf notes

Al-Khanka
Al-Khanka
Al-Ahram Weekly

Whether due to some telepathic synchronicity or reflecting a new trend in television drama, three series of varying power this Ramadan — Suqout Horr (Free Fall), Al Khanka (The Asylum) and Fouq Mustawa Al-Shubuhat (Above Suspicion) — feature stories of women suffering mental disorders. In Suqout Horr, one of the year’s most controversial offerings, the viewer is propelled into a complicated mixture of self-pity, sadness and compassion.

Directed by Shawqi El-Magry and written by Mariam Naoum in collaboration with Wael Hamdy and others — the result of a screenwriting workshop — this is Naoum’s fourth collaboration with Nelly Karim, after A Girl Called Zat in 2013, Women’s Prison in 2014 and Under Control in 2015. Each year the dose of tragedy increases. It is the story of Malak (Karim), an upper-class, mentally ill young woman convicted of killing her sister — having caught her in an act of infidelity. The court sends Malak to the state asylum in Abbasiya, but the game that ensues revolves around finding out whether or not she really is the killer — though the whodunnit framework is but the tip of the iceberg.

Slowly the idea that the sister was killed by someone else has been building up, with suspicions surrounding Malak’s brother-in-law (Ahmed Wafik), a businessman with his own deep mental problems. Karim delivers her challenging role brilliantly. Scenes of Malak’s illness, of her continually wondering whether she did kill her sister — when she is declared cured she is hesitant to leave the asylum and face the world — and of her confrontations with her mother (Safaa Al-Kholi), the source of suppression in her life, are all superb.

Al-Kholi’s own performance as a psychopathic widow torn between grief over one daughter and sympathy for the other — how her facial features seem to change as her mood alters — is brilliantly executed, prompting an intense response in the viewer who will be divided between compassion and condemnation.

Here as in Al-Khanka, the hospital emerges as a haven of sanity in a world of madness. The idea comes through that normal people are really quite mad, but at the same time the asylum becomes a showcase of seriously disturbed characters, each with its own story. Many of these archetypes are women in a male-dominated society and, considering the social pressures to which they have been subject, it is no wonder that they should behave in a less than obliging way.

“Women should have careers because if they do not work, they will either go mad or die young,” says one inmate played by Sawsan Othman in Suqout Horr. A lower-class woman who murdered her son, this inmate is now cured but refuses to leave the hospital for fear that “people outside will still treat me as a madwoman, even if they recognise that I am completely cured”.

But, much as the hospital throws society into relief, with a new case introduced almost every episode, Suqout Horr begins to look like a manual of instruction rather than an engaging work of art. Symptoms of various conditions and the best way to deal with them are cited, often in the dialogue, with too much directness for a work of art. When the mother begins setting out her psychological dilemma in the ninth episode, having become a patient at the same clinic as her daughter, psychology edges into sociology as well.

It becomes clear how, widowed at an early age, she was prevented by social pressure from seeking another partner, having to perform the role of selfless, devoted mother, bottling up fear and insecurity and using her “sacrifice” as a pretext for bringing up her daughters with cruel conservatism. The series also deals with the stigma and mistreatment of the mentally ill, with the metaphor of a free fall into insanity sometimes translated into paranormal scenes reflecting Malak’s imagination: she floats near the ceiling of the room, slips through a hole in the wall and turns into a garden bird in flight.

Al-Khanka stars Ghada Abdel-Razek — well-known for playing disreputable roles in a vulgar register — as Amira, a physical education teacher who is sexually harassed at a governmental facility. As she attempts to sue her attackers she is caught in a web of misogyny, eventually accused of having a relationship with one of her students and sent to the asylum. When she is offered the chance Amira refuses to leave the hospital because, she says, she is a self-possessed woman who refuses to flirt or submit to physical aggression, resisting male preconceptions about a single woman living alone.

Fouq Mustawa Al-Shubuhat is the story of Rahma (Youssra), an elegant, well-off society lady in the process of becoming an MP who turns out to be a psychopath when she murders her sister’s psychiatrist because he supposedly has evidence of her — Rahma’s — insanity. To conceal her crime she advances all kinds of evil plans, using her femininity and influence by turns. It eventually becomes clear that Rahma was abandoned by her parents as a child, brought up at a boarding school where she proved unpopular. Youssra gives a captivating and convincing performance in a series that, to a greater extent the aforementioned two, revolves around a central character.

The question is rather how much such drama might help people with psychological problems, improving their understanding of their condition or encouraging them to seek help. Is Ramadan, what is more, a suitable time for such depressing topics? Each of the three series, what is more, is in truth a 10-episode work stretched and drawn out over three times as many episodes — the most fatal fault of all.

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