Though many TV series were put on hold – many in the middle of shooting – following the Covid-19 pandemic, others miraculously made it to the Ramadan screen.
Starring Asser Yassin and Nelly Karim, Kamla Abu-Zekri’s heist-cum-comedy thriller Bi 100 Wesh (Many Faced) – no doubt inspired by such hits as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Gary Gray’s The Italian Job (2003) – is one happy example. It has layered characters and brilliant acting performances.
I decided to follow Bi 100 Wesh after happening upon Asser Yassin’s brilliant performance in Mohamed Shakir Khodier’s Fi Kol Esbou Youm Gomaa (Every Week has a Friday), in which he played an autistic man opposite Menna Shalaby, on the online Shahid platform. With a credits song that mixes a popular rhythm with Yassin and Karim rapping opposite each other, Bi 100 Wesh captures your attention immediately. It also announces that, unlike the sad, serious series on which Karim and Abu Zekri collaborated in past years – Segn Al-Nessa (Women’s Prison, 2014) and Zat (A Girl Named Zat, 2013), the latter based on Sonallah Ibrahim’s eponymous novel – this is a light-hearted show.
The first episode opens with an expensively dressed Karim as Sokkar trying on diamonds at a jeweller’s where Yassin as Omar happens to be having a necklace fixed. She pays a hefty amount for her purchases. Apparently scouting the premises for a later visit, Sokkar takes selfies. In one picture, Omar is captured by mistake.
The scene recalls Mohamed Abdel-Aziz’s Esabet Hamada wi Toto (Hamada and Toto’s Gang, 1982) – an adaptation of Ted Kotcheff’s Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) – in which, playing a disaffected couple, Adel Imam and Lebleba are seen robbing shops including a jeweller’s. Following her on a hunch Omar realises she is wearing a red wig and lives in a working-class neighbourhood, and so works out that she must be a thief. When she returns to the store and carries out the robbery as planned, therefore, Omar is there, pretending to be a policeman...
Their meeting is a marriage made in heaven. Omar’s upper middle-class family has fallen on hard times and, living with his mother Dorreya (Salwa Mohamed Ali) in Zamalek, he makes money by pretending to be a young woman, making older men fall for him, and then blackmailing them. That is how he managed to retrieve the family’s membership in the Gezira Club, for which Dorreya is very grateful.
La Casa de Papel
Providing for her mother and younger sister Nadia, Sokkar works as a hairdresser where her colleague Fathi (Mustafa Darwish) and two of her neighbours – Hamada (Islam Ibrahim), a pizza-delivery man who is a kind of IT and internet expert, and Fathi (Mustafa Darwish), a well-off gym owner who can lend her large sums – have made it possible for her to carry out her elaborate operations practically on her own.
After Omar tricks Sokkar into handing over the money, some of which she must give back to Fathi, she starts searching for him. Using the relevant selfie and Hamada’s help, she manages to locate him and, though it takes some persuation, he agrees to join forces with her. The nine-member gang gradually comes together as the central heist takes shape. With members from a broad range of backgrounds and characters, it is a kind of microcosm of Egyptian society, and it quickly gains the viewer’s sympathy.
Naglaa (Donia Maher, who gives what many believe is the best performance of her career so far, balancing subtle emotion with perfectly timed delivery) is the live-in nurse for a very wealthy man named Ghazal, to whom Hamada regularly delivers pizza. With the help of Samih (Mohamed Abdel-Azim), an employee at the Civil Registry, and Maggie (Ola Roshdy), Omar’s best friend who happens to be a talented make-up artist, Omar and Sokkar plan on stealing LE20 million.
Radwa, Sokar’s colleague, introduces them to her uncle Sebai. Played by Sherif Dessouki, who gives a brilliant performance following his remarkable role in Ahmed Abdallah’s film Nigh/Exterior, which won him a Best Actor Award at the Cairo International Film Festival), Sebai is a film extra who fancies himself as an actor.
The series recalls the technique of the Spanish series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist), which depicts a tightly constructed robbery in a light-hearted way.
Written jointly by Ahmed Wael and Amr Al-Dali, the script has a strong plot, and uses the strangely powerful device of having each character introduce themself through a narration. Abu Zekri puts it all together expertly, with a perfect mix of setting, music and casting. A bland of La Casa de Papel and Esabet Hamada wi Toto, this is the perfect Egyptian money heist.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly