Monoglot Movie Club: LOLs of Arabia

Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them

Some countries make this job easy. When I’m travelling, I usually have to rely on a combination of Google Movies and individual cinema websites to get a decent idea of what local films are playing. Time Out Abu Dhabi, however, does all the work for you: its film listings allow for filtering by cinema, genre and language. So all I need to do is ask the site to show me the places and times where Arabic language films are being shown, and I’m home and dry.

Unfortunately, that’s where they stop making this job easy.

My trip to Abu Dhabi towards the end of April 2012 was the third time I’d visited the United Arab Emirates, following a previous visit to Abu Dhabi and another one to Dubai. You can’t help but analyse the obvious cultural differences compared with home. As a male, I spent my first week in Abu Dhabi getting much amusement from a society which apparently had been constructed primarily to reassure me that I was a member of the best gender in the world.

This may well have a bearing on the main problem in UAE cinemas, which is this: they don’t show many UAE films. What they do show are American action movies. Lots of them. The new films by Mel Gibson and The Stathe wouldn’t open in the UK for another couple of weeks, but they were already cluttering up the Abu Dhabi multiplexes, playing to audiences which revelled in the international language of balding blokes beating the snot out of things. And the appetite for these movies is so huge, they’ll give any old DTV tut a cinema release: the UAE may be one of the few territories where the likes of Dolph Lundgren and Steve Austin still have a theatrical career.

But something I hadn’t been aware of before now was how much Indian cinema is available to watch in the UAE. A few minutes away from my Abu Dhabi hotel was the National Cinema, a dedicated Bollywood house showing a selection of new Hindi movies – sadly, all ones that have played in the UK recently. But down the road from that was the Eldorado, which specialises in non-Hindi Indian cinema of the sort that rarely makes it out to our desi-friendly multiplexes. The Eldorado’s a splendidly old-school picturehouse, its huge neon hoarding still advertising that they show films in Dolby Stereo. (Note from the picture up top that the Dolby logo appears in English and Arabic, two languages you won’t encounter in the films shown there.)

This is how I came to watch my first film in Malayalam, the language associated with the cinema of the Kerala region, sometimes referred to as Mollywood. All the Indian regions have their own superstar actors, and Dileep certainly seems to be one of Mollywood’s biggest: Mayamohini opens with him taking a literal curtain call to the audience before he’s even done anything. This confused me a bit initially, and I found myself wondering, “if he’s such a big deal, why do all the posters have a slightly chubby woman on them instead of him?”

This is one of my favourite things about Monoglot Movie Club: the slow realisation that a film assumes you know certain things before you watch it, and how your brain copes with the cognitive dissonance of not knowing those things yourself. The opening bow by Dileep serves two functions in this film. Firstly, it reassures the star-hungry audience that he’s in it, as he’s not on screen at all for the first half hour. Secondly, when that slightly chubby woman finally enters to the general lust and approval of all the male characters, someone like me who was previously unfamiliar with Dileep only had to stare for several minutes before exclaiming “hang on, that’s a bloke.”

The first half hour of Mayamohini follows an entirely different character over a period of 25 years. We see the wedding of his parents, the early loss of his mother, his own failure of a marriage, and his involvement in a dubious financial scheme. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the mysterious Mohini (Dileep) breezes into his household, and sets all of the men in a flutter with her flirtatious ways. Of course, the Keralan audience is just waiting for the big reveal, which obligingly comes shortly before the interval – but the question is, why?

I think I only understand about 50% of the answer to that question, but it’s a fun ride even if half of it turns out to be a mystery. It’s fascinating to see another culture’s gender stereotypes through the prism of what’s really a classy drag act: and for me, that’s filtered through yet another prism of the depiction of women in Indian cinema. (Mohini gets plenty of shots where her hair’s blowing in an unseen breeze for artistic effect.)

As with most Bollywood cinema these days, it seems that Mollywood aims for a crazed masala of styles within its 165 minute running time, all tied together with hyperactive visuals that steal most of their tricks from music video. It starts off as a fluffy romantic comedy, takes some strange genderbending turns along the way (surprising in a cinema as sexually repressed as India’s), and powers through to a full-throttle revenge climax. But somehow, it all holds together. Its highlight is probably a frenetically edited chase montage, which just about moves fast enough at the time to stop it reminding you of Benny Hill.

Malayalam cinema’s all well and good, but obviously I was hoping to catch at least one film in Arabic during my week in Abu Dhabi. And even though that covers a fair spread of movie-making countries, there wasn’t one on release until the final day of my visit. I was taunted by posters for forthcoming attractions in cinema foyers: in particular Reklam, a grim-sounding Egyptian drama about a group of women who are forced into a life of prostitution. Western audiences may be surprised to see that they’ve chosen to advertise Reklam like this:

Instead, I ended up seeing the more family-friendly Amn Dawlat. Another Egyptian production, it looks like it was released in its home country some time ago, as there are fuzzy camrips of the entire film all over YouTube for anyone willing to investigate. (So if you fancy playing along with this at home, now’s your chance.)

When we first meet anti-terrorist agent Hossam El Farshooti (Ahmed Halawa), he’s sitting on a toilet waving his gun around and mumbling “James Bond!” to himself. While doing this, he accidentally shoots a suicide bomber in the back, and is hailed as a hero by his colleagues. So it’s a surprise that his next assignment involves babysitting a house full of kids while their mother is away doing something important. He has to deal with two little ‘uns, two teenagers, a baby whose sole contribution to the plot involves defecating, a grandma who keeps waving a syringe around (I think she’s deaf and wants her ears doing, and isn’t just a junkie), and an Asian maid who hilariously fails to grasp the language. (Ha ha! Oops.)

Obviously, there’s a fair amount of slapstick involved – Hossam manages to wring at least two minutes of Mr Bean-style pratfalls and gurning out of the simple act of getting his jacket caught in a car door. In other words, he’s Johnny Arab. But I didn’t really consider – until reading the comments on those YouTube rips – that the basic setup of Amn Dawlat is the same as that of The Pacifier. Except Ahmed Halawa is obviously more of a comedian than a tough guy, so we don’t get the layer of comedy that comes from a brick shithouse like Vin Diesel being outwitted by children.

As the plot develops, we can more or less guess where it’s going to go. The kids will initially be suspicious of the agent, but gradually they’ll all learn life lessons from each other. And towards the end, the family will be threatened by the bad guys Hossam was sent to protect them from in the first place, and it’ll all work out happily. Which is more or less what happens, except the threat turns out to be such a feeble one that it hardly seems worth the wait. And you’d kind of hoped that the kids would have been threatened more than they are, because they’re annoying little sods who can only communicate through the medium of CONSTANT SHOUTING.

Tonally, the film is all over the place, but never seems to resolve into a coherent whole the way that Mayamohini does. In the opening few minutes, there are uneasy laughs derived from suicide bombing, fatal shooting and the torture of terrorist suspects. They’re followed in rapid succession by scenes of the kids being theoretically cute, a faint romantic subplot involving their school’s guidance counsellor, mystifyingly brief cutaways to their mum looking worried, and a couple of poorly-staged musical numbers. (I’m not sure what tone is intended by the song performed at a wedding dance, where lots of people fire machine guns into the air at the climax.)

Most jarring of all is the implication that Hossam’s security department – the one where all those torture gags took place at the start – has been closed down by the end of the film, the victim of a burst of Arab Spring cleaning. The sudden insertion of actual footage from Tahrir Square into all this silliness seems peculiarly out of place to me, but maybe plays better to the home audience. (Or not, if those YouTube comments are anything to go by.)

Maybe that gives us a clue as to why Arabic cinema seems a bit quiet: it’s got bigger things to think about right now. It’ll be interesting to see how their movies respond to the events of 2011, but I don’t think that Amn Dawlat counts as a proper response. I’d have to say that on balance, despite it being imported from another country, Mayamohini is the most astonishing thing I saw in Abu Dhabi during the week I was there. And to put that into perspective, I also saw a pizza with mini cheeseburgers baked into its crust.

Spank The Monkey blah blah website blah blah Twitter blah blah photos.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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