During Ramadan of 1985, Howa we Heya (He and She) showed for the first time on national TV. A social comedy scripted by Salah Jahin, each of its 30 episodes focuses on a topic related to society and relationships. Souad Hosni and Ahmed Zaki captured the experience of intimacy in a light, witty and appealing manner. Their onscreen chemistry was tremendous.
Four years earlier, an inconspicuous story was given weight by the stellar performance of the same duo in Mohamed Khan’s Maweid Ala al-Ashaa (A Dinner Date, 1981). One of Khan’s earliest feature films, it’s a fast-paced feminist tragedy that has striking similarities to his latest, Fataat al-Masnaa (Factory Girl, 2013). In A Dinner Date Hosni is the star and the focus, with Zaki emerging from the film’s margins only half way through.
“It took me a year of meeting frequently with her to convince her about the film,” Khan told Al-Ahram the year she died. “We were always meeting and eating; she loves food. In the end all she really wanted to know was the motivation of the character she was playing, down to the smallest detail.”
The film starts six years after a wedding photo is taken. Nawal (Hosni) is unhappily married to Ezzat Aboul Rous (a creepy Hussein Fahmy), a domineering businessman and cheating husband who cut off her childhood to install her in his upscale home in Alexandria and claims to like foreigners because they’re less emotional. Following the divorce, Nawal works as a secretary and falls for hairstylist Shoukry (a young Ahmed Zaki), but the odds are set against her and escaping is not as easy as it seems.
Hosni and Zaki hit it off in 1978, in Aly Badrakhan’s Shafiqa we Metwally (Shafiqa and Metwally) but in that film their chemistry fails to launch as they only meet in two or three scenes.
For A Dinner Date, Khan conjured up the story from a small article in a newspaper’s crime section, hence the dedication at the beginning of the film to Nawal. Khan brilliantly turned this domestic crime into one of the most romantic movies of all time and the casting could not be better.
By 1981, Hosni had freed herself from the typecast of cute and witty girl that stuck to her throughout the 1960s and had matured into a gigantic talent, glamorous but incredibly human, who could speak volumes with a gaze.
Zaki was no stranger to minimalism himself. In the scene when Shoukry visits Nawal for the first time, bringing a mirror she forgot at the salon, they make small talk and she tells him she doesn’t eat sweets. But the simple dialogue says much more than that when paired with dynamics of their eye contact and the unspoken words screenwriter Bashir al-Deek (who has a cameo, along with Khan’s fellow realist pioneer, Khairy Beshara) placed somewhere in a magical parallel screenplay, giving room for Hosni and Zaki to brilliantly fill in the spaces.
The progressiveness of the sparse script, with long dialogue-free stretches, is matched by the cinematography. Indeed, director of photography Mohsen Nasr takes the experimental realism up a notch with many fades from one image to another, and by frequently filming through mirrors (Nowal and Shoukry, for instance, first meet through the hairstylist’s mirror). This style bares a striking similarity to director of photography Abdel Halim Nasr’s work in Said Marzouk’s 1972 film Makan Lil Hub (A Place for Love, or Fear): unusual angles, montage, and reflections. (Coincidently the two directors of photography worked together with Hosni and Zaki in Shafiqa and Metwally.)
The film’s repeated use of mirrors and layers of glass perhaps suggests that each character possesses more than one face, or that they live in a world with many realities. Camera and protagonists integrate and become one; it sees what they see in a very believable, almost trippy, way.
“I see a reflection of myself in you, and so I don’t want to lose you,” says the sinister ex-husband to the beleaguered Nawal.
The minimalist screenplay, the progressive photography and ingenious casting fit under the young Mohamed Khan’s huge puppet-master umbrella as a powerful doomed love story.