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Thursday, 17 June 2021

Film Review: Karma offers a familiar story of social contrasts with a captivating twist

The entangled story-lines of Khaled Youssef's film Karma offers a fresh take on the old trope of the prince and the pauper

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Sunday 24 Jun 2018

The censorship authority in the Ministry of Culture caused controversy before Eid last week when it withdrew its the screening permit of the film Karma in Eid Al-Fitr, which was due to open that week.

The reason given was the violation of the terms and conditions under which the licence was given, without providing specifics. However, the decision was revoked the very next day after protests from the artistic community on social media, and from the filmmaker.

The movie was released on 15 June in more than 30 cinemas across Egypt, to compete with the other releases in the busy Eid season.

Karma is directed by Khaled Youssef, whose last release was in 2011. He is also the producer, and wrote the script with prominent novelist Mohamed Rafie.

In the film, Amr Saad plays two roles: he is tycoon Adham El-Masry and poor Christian house-painter Watani Mina.

Startlet Ghada Abdel Razek in the role of a controlling secretary, Khaled El-Sawy in the memorable role of a psychologist and in her first appearance Sarah El-Tounsi as the lover of Adham. These actors were a huge advantage to the movie, which is filled with many other big names like Zina, Wafaa Amer and Maged El-Masry, to mention just a few.

The story is a comparison of rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, via the two different worlds of the two lookalike central characters.

The concept of the same actor – Amr Saad in this case – playing two roles is not new in Egyptian dramas, and has featured before in films or plays.

In fact, the prince and the pauper trope, coming from Western folk stories and universal fantasies, then immortalised by Mark Twain, has been reworked by artists all around the world. The story normally features two identical people who live completely opposite lives, until some mechanism causes them to swap places.

Such is the case with Khaled Youssef's film. As we follow the two characters, we are presented with ironies and contradictions which add colour and essence to the movie.

As the action progresses, many human values are discussed, such as social justice, and the effect of hierarchy on the lives of those at different ends of the spectrum. One would assume that this is a typical solution for a story of poor versus rich.

However, what makes Karma distinctive and innovative is that, in previous examples the shift included two contrasting characters and the switch has its own logic. In Karma, this idea is portrayed through a technique whereby one actor shifts between the two worlds, and it is only in the end that we realise the reason for the shift.

The film also features psychological and to a degree metaphysical elements to its story, but to elaborate further on this point would spoil the plot.

The film engages the viewers from the first scene, showing all the trappings of power and wealth belonging to a businessman living in a marvellous mansion, traveling in a helicopter, seeing Cairo from above, enjoying the kind of life that we only see at the cinema.

He makes deals in millions, maybe billions, with the government and competes with other tycoons for money and power.

Yet, this powerful character can see and live the life of a poor Christian young man, living with his wife and little girl, who is named Karma. The poor man’s dream is to find buried treasure under the walls of a deserted mosque.

The latter can also see and live the world of the businessman. In brief, the pair are living parallel lives and can see each other’s life for no clear reason. The characters seemingly have nothing else in common.

The switches between the two characters and their worlds was challenging to the viewers. This strange phenomenon is treated like a mental disorder, which required the introduction of megastar El-Sawy in the role of a psychologist. He carries out the role of the scientist who also practices Sufism with great persuasive ability and remarkable presence.

The movie has many components that could lead it to be a commercial success: the story guarantees audience– as proved through the many similar plots in other movies – in addition to its good execution, particularly in a key action scene.

The assassination attempt on the businessman falls into the category of well-made action scenes in the western style, drawing on the latest techniques and special effects. The fast pace, convincing battle scenes, the well-matched score, and the introduction of the beautiful new star Sarah El-Tounsi were a highlight for viewers.

Another remarkable scene is the romantic dance between the businessman and El-Tounsi. Both move with grace that seems natural, requiring little or no effort.

The movie is filled with stars that were well cast, while Wafaa Amer as Fatma, the Muslim neighbour of the Christian family, shone in spite of her relatively small role.

The saying “there is no big or small role but there is a big or small actor” is true in her case. Amer is able to convince viewers in her role as the poor wife of a junkie, using all the tricks she can to get money, then giving the money to her husband, who uses it to buy drugs and beats her when he sobers up.

On a different level, she shows sympathy and love towards her neighbours and knows deeply that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians, a subtle message conveyed through actions not words. Between her facial expressions and vocal tones, Amer was capable of communicating the general feeling that we know her; she is a neighbour, a maid, a colleague, someone we see in the streets.

This cannot be said about the other characters in the movie. The rich businessman, the alternative dreamer character, the psychologist, the group of tycoons and even the butler in the mansion are hard to find in real life. They are not accessible to the average viewer.

The social justice message is inserted swiftly when the huge empire is suddenly run by a poor man. He takese into consideration the lives of the poor while conducting business. This is another appealing aspect for the viewer, especially when the argument made explains that people can still make money without crushing the weak and the poor.

The fact that the main two characters have different religions brings the notion of citizenship; it is one society of Christians and Muslims, rich and poor. The isolation of classes is not possible, no matter how much a class or sect tries. This type of argument is a signature in Khaled Youssef films, which is uplifting for the audience. Defending a set of principles and expressing thoughts (whether political, social or philosophical) is rather infrequent in today’s commercialized cinema.

The entangled storylines are mentally stimulating, while the viewer is invited to try to predict the ending, but won’t succeed, which is refreshing. The final twist unravels the mysteries and is a motivator to watch Karma again at least once, to enjoy the details with a more informed frame of mind.

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