Egypt’s Ramadan fare: Fewer television series, less politics

The political atmosphere in Egypt makes it undesirable to plunge into themes about politics and social injustices so screenwriters resort to safe set pieces.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Poster of the Egyptian series “Hikayti” (“My Story”). (Twitter)
A changing equation. Poster of the Egyptian series “Hikayti” (“My Story”). (Twitter)

CAIRO - In past years, the names of top TV and cinema stars have been associated with the Ramadan television season. Production companies sought to sign big names because the mere mention of their names would attract a wide audience of advertisers and viewers, regardless of the type and quality of the programmes in which they appeared.

That equation is changing starting with the upcoming Ramadan’s fare of television dramas and series. This year, the top stars of the small screen will be absent.

Most of the usual faces, such as Adel Imam, Yahya al-Fakharany, Yousra, Elham Shahin, Laila Elwi, Ghada Abdel Razek and Mervat Amin, will not be seen on TV this Ramadan for financial and marketing reasons and, reportedly, because of the lack of quality roles in proposed scripts, almost all of which focus on youthful matters that make roles for older actors marginal.

Imam, who was to be part of the series “Valentino,” is not appearing this season after the series was postponed for conflicting reasons.

No less than 15 Egyptian soap operas are being marketed for Ramadan. That number may shrink because some directors announced they had begun filming late.

Some directors found themselves in a crisis because of restrictions set by Synergy Productions on costs for new productions. Budgets were capped at $4 million and celebrity actors’ fees were reduced to one-quarter of what they used to be. Synergy has been producing about 70% of Ramadan dramas with a focus on feminine leading roles.

“Synergy now owns the distribution and production block or the upstream and downstream,” critic Tarek El Shennawi said. “It has become the owner of all types of media. It owns most of the dramas it produces and has a virtual monopoly on most important screening outlets, which confirms its monopoly philosophy.”

Promotional clips for this year’s dramas suggest the same lack of diversity that characterised Ramadan productions for ten years, whether they were comedies, social dramas or suspense and action shows. The new dramas have returned to old recipes of telling stories of vengeance, of rich and handsome but corrupt businessmen with multiple marriages and of the poor young hero standing steadfast in the face of injustice.

Some critics said the political atmosphere in Egypt makes it undesirable to plunge into themes about politics and social injustices so screenwriters resort to safe set pieces that do not cause problems or run the risk of being misinterpreted.

For this season, they tapped into the world of sports, of exceptional heroes and in old-fashion love stories between the rich girl and the hard-working, poor young man. Most of the dramas use tried-and-true formulas found on big-screen productions.

In the series “Lams Aktaf,” Yasser Galal plays a boxer chased by gangs after he announced his desire to repent and renounce the world of crime. In “Hogan,” Mohammed Imam was cast as a young, muscular hero who can pull cars with his hands, bend metal coins with his fingers and eat glass.

With scenarios like these, screenwriters are trying to grab younger audiences, such as teenagers and young adults obsessed with body building. Directors had their leading actors train in the martial arts and lift weights to make their bodies fit the roles.

TV critic Magda Morris said this coming Ramadan TV season will be marked by the absence of many production companies known for the dramatic and artistic qualities of their productions and for their reliance on famous actors because of the dominance of Synergy Productions.

Morris said Synergy’s monopoly is disturbing and frustrating the Egyptian drama production. Many artists and actors are looking for Arab companies outside Egypt to boost their careers.

Some big names in TV dramas have lost some of their lustre after the success of new names. The recent series “Abu Arousa” (“Father of the Bride”), starring Sayed Ragab, not considered a top-rank actor, has become popular thanks essentially to the quality of its scenario.

The show struck a realistic chord with audiences because it revolves around family problems resulting from the generation gap between parents and children.

Critic Ahmed Saad said this year’s Ramadan productions are half the number of last year’s mainly because, for many programmes, production began in February, which leaves little time to be ready for the Ramadan viewing season.

He pointed out that the fewer number of series may turn out to be a blessing because viewers often cannot follow all the series being offered during Ramadan.

Also, because of the large number of series usually offered, some productions may be stuck on less favourable time slots and some very basic work, whose main ideas could be told in a relatively brief time, get stretched to last 23 hours to fill the 30 days viewing for purely commercial objectives.