In Ramadan TV pranks, petrifying ordeals overshadow positive messages

Sunday 18/06/2017
Off-limits. A video grab shows Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Abidine during his appearance in Ramez Galal’s latest show “Ramez Underground.” (MBC Masr)

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.