Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Breaking cultural barriers

Gamal Nkrumah is enamoured of an Egyptian film shot exclusively in India

Breaking cultural barriers
Breaking cultural barriers
Al-Ahram Weekly

One evening, or shall I say the wee hours well after midnight, at 1 am to be precise, I decided to take my 16-year-old son Youssef to watch the recent Egyptian blockbuster Hell-bent in India, directed by Moataz Al-Touni, a film that comes close to the Bollywood ideal, Egyptian-style. We were both exhausted and had just returned from a trip to a Red Sea resort, but for some weird reason we were in the mood to breaking the barriers of language.

“The true treasure lies within. It is the underlying theme of the songs we sing, the shows we watch and the books we read. It is woven into the Psalms of the Bible, the ballads of the Beatles and practically every Bollywood film ever made. What is that treasure? Love. Love is the nature of the Divine,” muses Radhanath Swami about his beloved Bollywood.

Translation counts and cross cultural matters matter. The music was blasting an energising, Bollywood sort of swing. And, love is the nature of the Divine. When a man falls hopelessly in love with a most passionate and affectionate gorilla that does not exist in the wild in India – no, not a person professionally involved in sports, but a beast so amiable and attentive – one comes to terms with humanity. “Dad, this is bestiality,” my son bellowed.

“But it is not beastliness, nor is it depravity,” I countered. A man can fall in love with a gorilla, a scene quite frankly odd in an Egyptian film. The setting was Calicut, the enchanting southern Indian state of Kerala. “I get on very well with dogs, but apes? I am not quite sure,” Youssef replied.

There is always a tension between being true with originality and being watchable. Hell-Bent in India is based on a solid foundation of romance, dance and the typical Bollywood repertoire. Stress is good, and the stressors can be fun.

Was it not Nietzsche who claimed that “what does not kill me makes me stronger”? The Egyptian ambassador to India is kidnapped by a gangster. How on earth the Egyptian ambassador along with a host of other ambassadors to India end up in Kerala is not explained. What is certain is that Egyptian security agents of dubious repute have been trained to be more than Nietzsche, and to respond more robustly to both trivial and grave diplomatic stress.

Hell-Bent in India would have been some make-belief Bollywood facsimile life in the original scheme of things. Nevertheless, over the years the derisive Egyptian colloquial term film Hindi – summarising perceptions and concepts of India as far as the Egyptian collective psyche is concerned – has been reconfigured. Next, it was dog-figured to the sublime, albeit disfigured.

Tasteless melodramatic scenes of elephants wandering incautious and heedless of potential problems abound. The Masala arrived and so did the onion rings. Huge piles of golden-brown delicacies arrived. Much to the consternation of the Egyptian agents, the Indian choice of dishes was prepared by an eccentric Egyptian expatriate in Kerala. What on earth was she doing there?

The dancers were Egyptians pretending to be Indians, I was tickled by their headgear. Egyptian men in purple, plum and shocking pink, fuchsia and a most peculiar apricot orange, a colour between gold and scarlet in the spectrum, yet another of Egypt’s mistaken perceptions of India.

“What is most exciting about this is that it is the first Egyptian movie to be shot entirely in India. They have worked with Indian producers and production team so this, for me, is a very nice beginning of cooperation between India and Egypt in the area of films,” India’s Ambassador to Egypt Sanjay Bhattacharyya deduces.

Egyptian stereotypes of India abound. This after all, is a film Hindi, all about flippancy, cockiness and flightiness. But there is also a measure of sarcasm and a harsh or bitter derision, or perhaps it is just a question of irony. 

Both Egypt and India are at the the start of a tough new era. And, yet the film is a turn-around tale with a humane touch. It is crucial to keep in mind that the blockbuster is a comedy.

“The second thing is that this film has been a huge commercial success in Egypt and I think we can then also start looking at possibilities of co-productions,” Ambassador Bhattacharyya extrapolates.

What worries me about the movie is that misogynist remarks pepper the film. “I don’t want you to smoke. A women is not supposed to be smoking, next you’ll be drinking and getting drunk and come home at dawn”.

On the home front, as one would expect from this big-hearted and novel film, there is a happy ending. Meanwhile, the Indians were making the right kind of headlines. Indian films and, after all, Indian television serials, too, are all the rage in contemporary Egypt.

“Hell-bent in India” tells the story of an Egyptian police officer (played by Mohamed Emam) who was charged with rescuing the Egyptian Ambassador to India after being kidnapped by gangsters. The comedy starts when the officer discovers that the force accompanying him from Egypt, which will be helping him on the mission, is not a ‘special’ force but rather an official musical band,” Ambassador Bhattacharyya expounds.

Hell-Bent in India is an entertaining comedy. And, by the end the turnaround is firmly in place, purely Bollywood, but not quite at its best. The scariest moments are the most comical and arresting. If the film lacks anything it is surely the remorseless “splinter of ice” which, Graham Green mused, every writer – in this case scriptwriter – should have in his heart. But then, the film was set in sweltering south India, and how so many diplomats happened to be having a holiday in Kerala beats me. And the misdiagnosis of the movie matters precisely because it stimulates malicious gossip and toxic prescriptions about what India, one of the world’s greatest nations, is.

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