Wearing Walter White’s distinctive glasses and nose bandaid, Ahmed Al-Sakka, the Egyptian action star, negatively galvanised social media with the posters of the MBC MASR Ramadan series Weld Al-Ghalaba (Son of the Poor).
Placed side by side with Bryan Cranston, the star of the phenomenally popular AMC TV show Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan in 2008, which concluded its fifth and final season in 2013 – over the last five years, all five seasons of Breaking Bad have been widely watched in Egypt, notably through Neflix – Weld Al-Ghalaba, directed by Mohamed Sami and written by Ayman Salama and starring Injy Al-Mokadem, Mai Omar, Mohamed Mamdouh and Karim Afifi with a cameo by singer Tamer Hosni, looked like a blatant and wholly unacknowledged act of plagiarism.
As of the second week of the holy month, in fact, social media buffs managed to show how it was copied from the American show almost shot for shot, with some lines of dialogue artlessly translated into Arabic.
A history schoolteacher in Upper Egypt, Eissa (Al-Sakka) ends up producing a chemical drug known as brimo (as in “primo”) as a last-ditch attempt to avoid destitution – a weak variation on the theme of the terminally ill chemistry teacher who turns to methamphetamine production to secure his family’s future. Indeed the process of “Egyptianisation” never goes beyond altering the setting and the names, with nothing more than the characters’ clearly fake Upper Egyptian accent standing between the series makers and the charge of intellectual property theft.
Even the lawyer Saul has his equivalent, Gamal Leba, played by Ahmed Zaher. Indeed, in one humorous Facebook post ironically commenting on the director’s self defense, one commentator nominated himself as the director of a spinoff about Leba stating he was qualified for the job since he had watched all four seasons of Better Call Saul.
Having gone viral, the scandal went global, with the London Independent quoting an Egyptian tweet stating that “Even the injury in the same spot” and Hollywood Reporter bemoaned Al-Sakka, “a major name in Egyptian cinema, especially in action roles”, being implicated.
Ludicrously, Salama initially claimed he had never watched Breaking Bad, later accusing it of similarities with the 1985 Egyptian film Al-Kef (The Pleasure) it clearly doesn’t have.
Hosted by talk show host Amr Adib along with Al-Sakka, Omar, Al-Mokadem and Afifi, Sami’s response to a question about plagiarism was not only equally unconvincing but indeed shocking as he claimed that since Breaking Bad did not feature a character like Safiya (Al-Mokadem), the connection between the two works is merely a matter of artistic affinity. He seems to believe that changing the names of the characters was enough to absolve the series of any wrongdoing. Al-Sakka, for his part, complained of being attacked in the international press but seemed happy that his picture had been published abroad.
Another MBC production, Qabeel (Cain), directed by Karim Al-Shenawi, stars Mohamed Mamdouh as Tarek, a police officer investigating the case of a serial killer named Qabeel, who posts pictures of his victims whom he abducts before killing.
The ghosts of two of Qabeel’s victims, a couple named Sama and Adam, together with that of his own late wife, appear to Tarek. Also starring Mohamed Farrag and Amina Khalil, in its first two episodes the series seemed promising as a powerful thriller, but sadly became progressively slower and less gripping over the next ten episodes.
A slightly less blatant act of plagiarism though this might be, Qabeel too is an unacknowledged remake of the series River, created by Abi Morgan and available on Netflix. Whether due to issues in the American show or — more often —sloppy and badly thought out execution here, Qabeel fails to make use of potentially very rich character complications, its dramatic logic falters and it ends abruptly and disappointingly.
These two particular shows were produced outside the Egyptian Media Group (which launched the Watch It application forcing, people to pay to watch Ramadan TV online for the first time in history), but they remain typical enough of Egyptian television to pose the question of why someone would pay for such shows when they can share a Netflix account for less.
Another fiasco widely attacked on social media was Zai Al-Shams (Crystal Clear), written by Mariam Naoum, directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz and starring Dina Al-Sherbini — previously reviewed here. Though promising at first, it too turned into a laughing matter when memes emerged of the ghost of Farida (Reham Abdel-Ghafour), which was appearing to far too many characters in the show.
Though done overboard, basing this show on the 2017 Italian series Sorelle (Sisters) meant that people could find out about the ending in advance, prompting the screenwriter to actually change the ending in her version and, in an unprecedented and even more comic act, have the production company Eagle Films issue a statement explaining the last episode on social media.
Screened on MBC MASR, Zai Al-Shams is a production of the Egyptian Media Group headed by Tamer Morsi, the founder of Synergy productions, and as such offers a foretaste of the moral control that might result from one large company practically controlling the entertainment, with numerous details omitted on the premise that they do not reflect “Egyptian culture” and thus adversely affecting the drama even further.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Better call Zaher
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