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Saturday, 20 October 2018

Happiness-maker: Remembering actor, playwright and screenwriter Bahgat Qamar

Bahgat Qamar was born in 1937 and died in 1989

Nahed Nasr, Saturday 21 Jul 2018
Bahgat Qamar
Bahgat Qamar
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A few days ago on Facebook, the screen- and song-writer Ayman Bahgat Qamar wrote, “It is the 13 July, the birthday of the man who brought us laughter and pleasure: My Fair Lady, Raya and Sekina, 30 Days in Prison, and many other good works (movies, plays, and TV/radio series). Pray for and remember my father, the renowned late writer Bahgat Qamar.”

Qamar Jr, who followed in his father’s footsteps, need not remind anyone of these iconic works even if they are not too concerned about who their writer is. Bahgat Qamar (1937-1989) was as brilliant in cinema as he was in theatre and television. With over 100 works to his name, his mark was among the most distinguished whether in comedy or in tragedy.

It all started with the United Artists Theatre Company, founded in the mid-1960s by the renowned playwright and producer Samir Khafagi as the first private theatre company at a time when state theatre had been unchallenged.

Described by critic Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour in his memoir Kuntu Sabiyyan fil-Sabeinat (Young Man in the 70s, 2015) as the start of a new school in comedy that stood on the shoulders of but was distinct from that of Naguib Al-Rihani (1889-1949), it brought together such legendary comedians as Fouad Al-Mohandess, his then wife and lifelong co-star Showeikar and director-actor Abdel-Moneim Madbouli as well as a host of supporting actors including Nazim Shaarawi.

In his memoir Awraq min Hayati (Pages of my Life, 2017), Khafagi recounts how he approached Qamar, already a friend, about the project and the need to avoid the bureaucratic regulations of state theatre.

“At the beginning he had his doubts that something like this could happen during Nasser’s era, but later he co-wrote the first play...”

Ana wa Hiya wa Semowoh (Me, Her and His Majesty, 1966), co-written by the two of them and directed by Madbouli. It was followed by Ana min Fihom (Which One Am I, 1962) and the first two of the company’s many legendary comedies: Ana wa Howa wa Heyia (Me, Him and Her, 1963), and Ana Fein Wenti Fein (Poles apart, 1965).

With plays written or co-written by Qamar — Sayidati Al-Gamila (My Fair Lady, 1969), Qissat Al-Hay Al-Gharby (West Side Story, 1975), Raya wi Sakina (Raya and Sakina, 1983), Sharie Mohamed Ali (Mohamed Ali Street, 1991) — the United Artists was to make the names of the greatest comedians (and some of the greatest actors) of all time: Adel Imam, Ahmed Zaki, Said Saleh and Younis Shalabi.

Qamar’s Al-Eyal Kebrat (The Kids Have Grown, 1979), which remains phenomenally popular, was directed by Samir Al-Asfouri and featured, as well as Zaki, Saleh and Shalabi, older actors Hassan Mustafa and Karima Mokhtar. It was a great breakthrough beyond its commercial success, since it reflected a new generation and its language. With director Hussein Kamal, Qamar was also the first to reconstruct the thus far tragic true crime story of Raya and Sakina into a comic format, bringing singer-actress Shadia to the stage alongside Soheir Al-Babli, Madbouli and Ahmed Bedeir.

Also remarkable were the plays Innaha Haqqan Ailah Mohtarama (A Truly Respectable Family, 1979) and Alashan Khater Eyounik (For Your Sake, 1987). Mohamed Ali Street was being performed four years after Qamar’s death. In 2009, the Egyptian National Theatre Festival paid Qamar tribute with a book entitled Bahgat Qamar: Laughter Maker by Mustafa Selim and an honorary award collected by Ayman.

Contributing either story or dialogue to some 20 television and radio series as of the 1960s, Qamar remains celebrated for Eyoun (Eyes, 1980) — according to Abdel-Shakour, “among the best Egyptian drama” — directed by Ibrahim Al-Shaqanqiri and starring Al-Mohandess and Shalabi alongside Sanaa Gamil and Sherine.

In film Qamar’s contribution is even more substantial, including collaborations with the greatest directors of the day. One early movie, Nidaa Al-Ushaq (Lovers Call, 1960), starring Shokri Sarhan, Farid Shawki and Berlanti Abdel-Hamid, was directed by Youssef Chahine.

Better known are such comedy hits as Talatin Yom fil Sign (30 Days in Prison, 1966), Akhtar Ragol fil Alam (The Most Dangerous Man in the World, 1967) and Uncle Zizo habibi (Uncle Zizo, my Beloved, 1977). Directed by Ashraf Fahmi and starring Nabila Ebeid and Ahmed Zaki, Al-Raqissa wal Tabbal (The Dancer and the Drummer, 1984) is a landmark drama.

Qamar started his career after he moved from Alexandria to Cairo in 1954, following his elder brother Abdel-Ghani Qamar (1921-1981), who was an actor in the Ramsis Theater Company established by the great actor, director, producer and writer Youssef Wahbi (1889-1982). Bahgat worked as a stage prompt there before he started writing for the movies, completing 15 films before he joined Khafagi.

In a series of articles for Al-Akhbar newspaper, “The Dokki Flat”, Ayman Bahgat Qamar described Qamar Sr’s living space (in which he joined him between the ages of 10 and 15, when Qamar died) and how it later turned into his own office. He speaks of the old man’s brief marriage to a relative of the great comedian Ismail Yassine’s (Bahgat’s mother): “My father lived the life of a bohemian single man, devoting himself only to me, his friends and his art. He was only interested in the price of books and food. He loved to be surrounded by his friends who loved to stay and even sleep over at the Dokki flat.”

Another secret Qamar Jr reveals is his father’s work as a ghost writer on many projects. In a 2015 article, film critic Tarek Al-Shinnawi says that, “even after he became famous and until his death he was editing scripts and dialogues for his friends.”

He quotes Ayman as saying that he objected to his father doing anonymous work to the extent of going on hunger strike in protest. Otherwise, it is thought, Raya and Sakina might not have carried Qamar’s name.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the words bahgat and qamar mean “joy” and “moon”, respectively. 

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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