Aka Little Miss Devil.
This is a first for my blog: an Egyptian film. I have known about classic Egyptian cinema for a while now (the very first recommendation that came my way was from fellow blogger Richard, who had written this interesting post on an early Omar Sharif film)—but it’s taken me a while to get around to watching anything Egyptian. I haven’t yet got around to watching Seraa Fil Nil, but Afrita Hanem, a frothy musical about a female genie who pops into the life of a down-on-his-luck singer is probably a good introduction to Egyptian cinema, for one who’s been pretty much brought up on Hindi cinema.
More on the similarities (and dissimilarities) with Hindi cinema, later. For now, what the film is all about.
Afrita Hanem’s male protagonist is a composer and singer named Asfour (Syrian actor-singer-composer Farid Al Atrache). Asfour works at a theatre owned by a wealthy man whose daughter, Alia (Lola Sedki) is also the star at the theatre. Asfour has long been in love with Alia, and even though he can’t afford it, buys roses for her every single day. The buying of the flowers is usually a task assigned to Asfour’s bosom buddy Bou’ou (Ismail Yasseen), and (given the very meagre funds Asfour can set aside for this), the ratio of flowers to leaves and assorted greenery is very skewed—Asfour often ends up spraying the bouquet with perfume, grabbed from a performer chatting in the corridor.
His promises of eternal love to Alia are fervent, and Alia (while she hands over his bouquet to her dresser/maid/general dogsbody to be ‘put where they always are’—in the trashcan, at the back) eggs him on. Asfour is certain that Alia is as much in love with him as he is with her.
Little does Asfour realize that Alia is having an affair with the wealthy, somewhat effete and thoroughly irritating Mimi Bey (Abdel Salam Al Nabulsy). Alia, as she triumphantly tells her father, has managed to snag Mimi Bey and his wealth. Mimi Bey too comes and meets Alia’s father and hands over a bride price of a whacking great 3,000 pounds.
Meanwhile, the ardent Asfour is seeing things. More accurately, seeing a benevolent white-haired gentleman (Zaki Ibrahim) who peeks in every now and then and vanishes inexplicably before saying anything. Bou’ou, who is sceptical of Asfour’s claims about this old man, dismisses it. In any case, Asfour has other things to occupy his mind: most importantly, the wooing of Alia.
In this, it seems, he suddenly encounters success. Because one evening, when he goes—as usual—to pay tribute at the feet of his goddess, Alia (who retreats behind a screen since she had been in the middle of undressing), he hears her respond with eagerness to all his proposals. Yes, she accepts his love. Yes, they must get a good apartment. Yes, what matters is not that they get a good apartment, but that they live together… Asfour is on cloud nine, little aware that all Alia’s responses have been addressed to Mimi Bey, with whom she’s been talking simultaneously on the phone.
Before Alia can figure out what’s happening, Asfour has kissed her and raced off to tell his friends the good news. That evening, all dressed up, he drives off with his pals (they sing all along the way) to meet Alia’s father and fix a date for the wedding. Asfour begins to chicken out, so his friends are obliged to go in and do the groundwork, which—considering Alia’s father thinks they’ve come to congratulate him on Alia’s upcoming nuptials with Mimi Bey—leads to further misunderstandings.
After some conversation, the truth emerges. Asfour is devastated to discover that Alia is betrothed to that skunk Mimi Bey, and Alia’s father laughs at Asfour’s presumption in assuming that he, a lowly singer, could hope to marry the only daughter of a theatre owner. Alia’s father, money-grubbing as he is, says that Mimi Bey paid up 3,000 pounds to marry Alia; Asfour, if he has any hope of marrying Alia, had better pay at least that much.
Poor Asfour comes away, dejected. He doesn’t have 3 pounds, let alone 3,000.
And who should turn up again but that mysterious old gentleman? This time, he speaks, and offers help. If Asfour will come to so-and-so cave, through this entrance, and down these stairs—the old gentleman will be there, and he will give Asfour something to help him out of his trouble.
A desperate Asfour grabs at the opportunity, and at the appointed time, goes off to said cave with the faithful Bou’ou in tow. The old gentleman is there, as promised, and he warns Asfour: what he is going to give will help Asfour, but Asfour must promise never to give it away, or to discard it. Asfour agrees readily; beggars can’t be choosers.
The old gentleman disappears as suddenly as he had appeared, and after some looking around in the direction he’d pointed to, Asfour and Bou’ou find what seems to be the promised gift: a small brass lamp. Asfour can hear a faint female voice calling “Save me! Save me!” from it, and when he tries to open the lamp, succeeds in letting out the so far captive genie, a pretty and saucy female (Samia Gamal) who introduces herself as Kahramana. She, however, can only be seen and heard by Asfour.
Kahramana is, within moments of emerging from the lamp, all over Asfour. She firmly believes that he is her lover, Asfarot, whom she’s been in love with for the past thousand years. Much hugging and clinging and frenzied kissing follow on her part, while a harassed Asfour tries to dodge her, fob her off, and generally convince her that he isn’t Asfarot, and that he doesn’t love her.
Still somewhat petulant, Kahramana finally gets down to business. Asfour, after all, is her boss now; she is his slave and she must do his bidding.
And yes, she can really do magic! With a clap of her hands, she changes Asfour’s rather grubby suit to a fancy Arabian Nights-like one, bejeweled turban and all. A grand palace appears all around them, and four women, all as scantily clad as Kahramana herself, appear along with the palace, ready to feed and entertain and flatter… Bou’ou thinks this is fabulous.
Asfour thinks it would be far better if Kahramana would be of more tangible help. Give me money, he says. And a proper modern suit.
Since she must obey all his commands, Kahramana is obliged to change Asfour’s glittery robes into a smart two-piece suit, and fill his wallet with neat banknotes. Asfour immediately goes off to Alia’s father—with Kahramana tagging along, invisible to all but Asfour himself. At Alia’s father’s office, Asfour uses his newly acquired wealth to start throwing his weight around. 3,000 pounds, was that what Mimi Bey had paid for the honour of marrying Alia? Here you go—and he nonchalantly flings a bundle of notes at Alia’s father.
Kahramana, watching on, pulls a trick, and when Alia’s father picks up the notes, they’ve turned into playing cards. Asfour is booted out, fired from his job. He’s furious at Kahramana, who is unrepentant. She, after all, thinks of Asfour as her own; why should he want to marry another woman when she is around? And Alia, in particular, who doesn’t even love him and is only (like her father) after money?
Asfour refuses to listen. He loves Alia, and it is Alia he is going to marry. Another idea strikes him: will Kahramana produce money for him, enough to buy a theatre? If he has his own theatre, he will be able to make it big (and, presumably, Alia will take notice).
Very well, says Kahramana; if the money is going to be used to buy a theatre, she has no objection.
As luck would have it, the theatre opposite the one owned by Alia’s father has just come on the market. Asfour quickly buys it up, keeps on all the staff, including the actors and dancers, and decides to stage something that will attract everybody’s attention. The only problem is, he doesn’t have a lead female dancer. Kahramana, when approached to help, says she will provide. She does—and how! The woman who walks in through the door in response to Kahramana’s clapping is a dancer named Semsema (also Samia Gamal), who is the spitting image of Kahramana herself.
Now what? Semsema is stylish and gorgeous, besides being a fabulous dancer. She’s attracted to Asfour, and Kahramana seems more than happy to have Asfour and Semsema be an item. But Asfour is doggedly going on pursuing Alia… to what end?
What I liked about this film, what I didn’t like, and some more:
Afrita Hanem is a light, fluffy tale, part fantasy, part comedy, not too strong in the story department. The story (by Henry Barakat, who also directed the film) is a simple, uncomplicated one about wealth versus poverty, and true love versus greed. It starts off promisingly enough (the comic sequences, especially, are fun), but around three-quarters of the way through, it begins to lose steam. The end, especially, is far too hurried.
What does shine is Samia Gamal’s dancing. She is unforgettably graceful and sensuous. If for nothing else, watch Afrita Hanem’s dance sequences to see her perform. Brilliant.
What struck me about Afrita Hanem were the connections to both Hollywood musicals as well as to Hindi cinema. Like Hindi cinema, this film had a fair number of songs (though not as many as your average Hollywood musical would include—not, for example, people bursting into song every few minutes). Like most Hindi cinema, too, the songs were not really woven into the plot: take out the song, and the story would still stand on its own. And, as in a lot of Hindi cinema, the fact that the lead characters are connected to the theatre means that there’s a lot of scope, naturally, for singing and dancing.
Interestingly, after I’d finished watching this film, I had a look at reviews of it on IMDB, and was struck by the number of Westerners who’d failed to understand the ending of the film, which they called ‘weird’ or ‘bizarre’. As someone who’s grown up on Hindi cinema and its happy ability to assign the impossible to stage shows, I had no problems understanding the ending, at all. It’s a stage show, not the real (surreal?) thing.
Where I thought Afrita Hanem was closer to Hollywood than to Hindi cinema was in its ‘boldness’. Hindi cinema, back then (and even for a few decades after) looked down on onscreen kisses. Afrita Hanem had plenty of these: Asfour kissing Alia, Asfour kissing Kahramana, Asfour kissing Semsema. And the fairly revealing outfits of Kahramana wore, again, not something too commonly seen in Hindi cinema.
An interesting crossroads between India and the West? Perhaps, yes.