Comedy 2000: The Principal wins

The beginning occurred three years before the millennium, with Karim Diaa Eddin’s Ismailia Rayeh Gay (Ismailia Back and Forth, 1997). A new style of comedy, marked by family-friendliness, returned audiences to Egypt’s cinemas. It was the first film I watched in a cinema, with my family of course. It was also Diaa Eddin’s only popular success in his directing career.

Then director Said Hamed used the success of his TV show Fawazeer fi Abyad w Iswid (Riddles in Black and White) to introduce actor Mohamed Heneidy in Saeedi fel Gamaa al-Amrikeya (An Upper Egyptian at AUC, 1998), written by Medhat al-Adl. The remarkable success of Ismailia Back and Forth, which brought in unexpected revenues amounting to LE13 million, had encouraged its makers to risk a young cast. An Upper Egyptian at AUC introduced a set of new actors, made around LE27 million, and is considered to have initiated the wave of youthful cinema that’s still ongoing.

Sherif Arafa, having directed some of the most important films of the 1990s starring Adel Imam, such as Terrorism and Kebab, Birds of Darkness, Al-Mansi, Playing with the Big Shots, A Deep Sleep and Smile for a Good Photo, started providing light family comedies. He made the first film by scriptwriter Ahmed Abdallah, Aboud aal al-Houdoud (Aboud at the Borders, 1999), starring Alaa Waley Eddin. As a result of this success, Arafa and Abdallah sat on the throne of Egyptian comedy just as cinema was at a crossroads.  

Adel Imam’s films had started failing to achieve their targeted revenues as younger actors had become box-office hits – actors whose earliest appearances had been in Adel Imam films such as A Message to the Governor (1998) and Young Mahrous, the Minister’s Boy (1999). Imam and his scriptwriting partner, Youssef al-Maati, couldn’t withstand the coming wave.

Riding it, however, were Adl and Hamed, who took advantage of An Upper Egyptian at the AUC’s success by making Hamam in Amsterdam in 1999. It was a massive success and Heneidy, who played Hamam, became Egypt’s top comedy star.

To make the most of the recovering film industry, Heneidy quickly starred in his third film: Nadar Galal’s Belia we Demagho al-Alia (Belia and his High Mind, 2000). But it failed to match his previous hits he had let go of their most successful qualities. That year, directer Nader Galal had also failed in his venture with Imam in the third and last part of Bekheit and Adila, titled Hello America, and a comedy in a similar vein starring Ahmad Adam, Cinema Action Hero, also flopped. Thus Professor Imam and his students stumbled at the beginning of the millennium.

But Adl and Hamed were busy repeating their formula with Ahmed al-Saqqa as star instead of Heneidy. Short w Fanelah w Cap (Shorts, T-shirt and a Cap, 2000) was characterized by light action, quick plot developments and a meaningful message. It was a winner and put Saqqa on the same level as Egypt’s biggest stars. Meanwhile Mohamed Amin’s Film Thakafy (Cultural Film, 2000), despite not garnering major success at the time, excelled in coming up with a fresh idea and new cinematic experience in an intelligent manner.

All of this, though, was only a gateway to a complete piece of work, a beautiful work of entertaining comedic value, a film with a touch of Ismail Yassin.

Arafa, Abdallah and Waley Eddin, the filmmakers behind the strength and beauty of Aboud at the Borders, decided to craft a masterpiece that would be archived in Egyptian comedy history and make Waley Eddin one of the most important comedy actors in the history of Egyptian cinema, despite his early demise.

This new film’s original title, Al-Nazer Salah Eddin (The Principal Salah Eddin), was rejected by the censorship authority, but regardless of their narrow-mindedness Al-Nazer (The Principal) is, in fact, more elegant it’s a film that deserves a single word title.

In their films, Heneidi, Adl and Hamed also introduced many actors who would later become stars. Arafa did too: Ahmed Helmy, who plays Atef in The Principal, and Mohamed Saad, who plays Al-Limby. Mohamed Saad owes his entire artistic career to Arafa, Abdallah and The Principal.

The Principal was the first film in that new comedy wave to have such a long and costly introduction: various historical eras, special costumes and beautiful comedy. Every scene contains several unforgettable exchanges that are valid for many different situations. The filmmakers insist on comedy right from the beginning, and one that’s purely aimed at joy, laughter and entertainment.

Waley Eddin presents his artistic abilities with three characters in the introduction, then three other characters in the rest of the film: father, mother and son. But Arafa also evaded Heneidi’s trap in Belia by having an all-star rather than single-star cast. He invested in Helmy, Saad, Waley Eddin, and the giant Mohamed Youssef, famous for his role in the show Sa’a l-Albak (An Hour for Your Heart), as Atef’s father, and Hassan Hosni, who has since become the best supporting comedy actor, with the skill, humor and talent to play ping-pong with a movie’s star, creating space and the chance for multiple memorably witty exchanges. And let’s not forget Sami Sarhan.

Throughout The Principal, we don’t feel that Waley Eddin is the same actor performing the role of the father, Ashour, and the mother, Gawaher. He brilliantly embodies Gawaher, giving her enough space and convincingly impersonating a woman and creating such a complete character that you feel you’re watching a female actress. Arafa says he and Waley Eddin met for many sessions in order to reach the final version of Gawaher, and Waley Eddin was influenced by his own mother and aunt. The scenes bringing together Waley Eddin’s three characters must have been among the most difficult – to create comedy among the three characters with this degree of humor and sincerity.

The secondary roles show off the same level of skillful acting as the primary roles. Youssef Eid as Zakaria al-Dardiri, as well as Miss Ensherah, Hanan al-Taweel’s first notable role, Soliman Eid, Hagag Abd al-Azeem, Hussein Abu Hagag’s discovery in the role of Mikha.

The Principal has no clear message or advice, which may be one of the most important reasons for its success. It’s a film you can watch at any time. Nothing disrupts the laughing mood. There’s only very few scenes of serious drama, and even those Waley Eddin is incapable of letting go without a humorous remark from Salah, Ashour, Gawaher or all of them – like in the scene of the father’s death. The film’s rhythm is cohesive; not a single scene is out of context, and there are no musical bits. Arafa speaks of huge cuts in the editing stage to create this rhythm.

It’s a film for laughter and joy, its scenes consumable like daily comics, almost all spot-on, persuasive and funny.

The curse of the third work touched the third Arafa-Hamed-Waley Eddin collaboration, Ibn Ezz (Son of Wealth, 2001), which failed to achieve its predicted success, just as Heneidi had suffered with Belia. But The Principal, which made around LE11 million, remained one of the most important films of the millennium, introducing a new type of comedy that doesn’t insist on revolving around a single star or on preaching any message.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Kasra.

Sherif Hassan 

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