In Ramadan TV pranks, petrifying ordeals overshadow positive messages
Tunis - Hidden-camera shows have become an appealing feature of television programming during Ramadan. In Tunisia and other Arab countries, however, nothing seems off-limits with the shows seemingly intent on terrorising or humiliating their guests.
On the Tunisian private channel Hannibal TV a show titled the “Clinique” (“Private Hospital”) has sparked controversy since the release of its teaser. The idea of the show, as presented initially, was to get in touch with a celebrity, then tell him/her that one of his/her friends or relatives was in a critical condition because of a medical mistake. After that, the personality would be asked to donate blood but would instead be anaesthetised to wake up to another terrible revelation: The face is left seriously disfigured following a gone-wrong surgery.
The show was attacked by the National Council of the Medical Order in Tunisia for trivialising violence and humiliating all those involved in the health care sector.
Following an investigation, the Tunisian High Independent Authority of the Audiovisual Commission (HAICA) revealed that all scenes were scripted in agreement with participants. The HAICA’s monitoring unit confirmed in a report that there was an attempt “to confuse the viewers” into thinking the scenes were real.
Accordingly, the HAICA pushed the TV channel to broadcast the following content warning “All scenes were scripted in agreement with actors” five seconds before the beginning of the show.
With candid cameras increasingly turning into a laboratory of social psychology, TV channels across the Arab world have resorted to a reckless reliance on deception and simulation as means to reveal how people really react to dramatic, embarrassing or sometimes chilling situations.
Generally, the reactions of prank victims suggest that they were exposed to some sort of primal fear to the excitement of viewers who frequently criticise pranksters’ practices but still watch.
Since 2011, Egyptian actor and TV host Ramez Galal has boosted his career with prank shows that have attracted high viewing rates. Galal has turned into a major source of inspiration for producers and actors in the Middle East and North Africa.
Much to the shock and amazement of Arab viewers, Galal’s shows involve not only his celebrity friends but also lions, terrorists, machine guns, bats, insects, a mummy rising from the dead, a shark-shaped submarine, fake body parts and plane crashes. He has, among his professional credits, eight hidden-camera programmes that have been described as dangerous, risky and sometimes reckless by a large segment of the audience.
The latest show of Galal’s, “Ramez Underground,” is broadcast daily throughout Ramadan on MBC television. In it, celebrities are taken in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the desert. The vehicle becomes stuck in quicksand and starts to sink before Ramez appears, disguised in a Komodo dragon costume, to scare the guests.
Many celebrities, notably Lebanese singer Wael Kfoury, Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine, Egyptian actress Nadia El Gendy and Indian movie actor Shah Rukh Khan have appeared on the show.
For sharp-eyed viewers who believe that such shows are scripted, a satisfying revelation came when Khan’s business manager and assistant Pooja Dadlani said Khan was in on the prank.
Were all the other episodes scripted? That is something that will likely remain a secret because most of the involved celebrities would not confirm or reveal the details of their deal with Galal. Viewers are thus left to challenging guesswork.
In Algeria, a recent programme titled “Rana Hakamnek” (“We Got You”) earned fierce criticism for tricking novelist Rachid Boudjedra into believing he had been arrested for “atheism and espionage.”
During the episode, fake police officers forced the 75-year-old writer to repeat the shahada (Islamic proclamation of faith).
Following protests, petitions and a mounting wave of criticism from civil society, the programme was suspended. Boudjedra filed a criminal complaint against Algerian private channel Ennahar TV.
Though prank shows have risen in popularity, they are facing some indignation for taking things too far to attract viewers and advertising revenue.
However other shows, namely “The Mask” by Tunisian channel Attessia TV and “Al Sadma” (“The Shock”) by the MBC Group, have bucked the trend of scary pranks. In line with a traditional approach, the two programmes abandoned the idea of petrifying ordeals.
Staged in different Arab countries, “Al Sadma” was made to gauge the reaction of people to provocative scenarios and the message is clear: Do not forget your humanity. “The Mask” follows the same approach and exposes participants to uncomfortable situations to convey the following message: Be honest.
It is unknown whether shows like “The Mask” and “The Shock” mark the end of controversial televised pranks.