One of the most important reasons why Egyptians loved Indian cinema was the uncanny similarity between their own films and those from India. Both were loud and dramatic, laced with tear-jerking emotions.
However, over the years, Indian cinema branched into a realistic alleyway, thanks to auteurs like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, John Abraham, Girish Kasaravalli, Shyam Benegal, and Mrinal Sen among others – who gave us what we called the New Indian Cinema. This was of course post-Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, although Ray continued making movies even after 1969-70, the time when a new wave swept the Indian screen.
Mohammed Hammad's latest Egyptian work, Withered Green, which was part of the Cairo International Film Festival, seemed to herald a new kind of film movement in Egypt. I was quite surprised to see it – a subdued, subtle and minimalistic way of story telling aided by some fine performances, controlled yet powerful.
One critic felt that “thematically speaking, Withered Green (Akhdar yabes) is reminiscent of women-oriented movies produced during the golden age of Egyptian cinema. That is as far as any similarity goes. This debut feature by Hammad is so resolutely understated and oblique that it almost feels like a deliberate response to many of the theatrical and melodramatic trademarks its national cinema continues to possess”. How true.
The film's bare frames heighten the emotional sequences between two sisters, one content with her single-hood, and the other at the gates of marriage. Two women living alone without male company is uncommon in Egypt, and this creates hassles for Iman (Heba Ali) – who is the guardian for her younger sister,Noha (Asmaa Fawzi), about to get engaged. The ceremony requires a male member to be present, but the two women have lived secluded lives and are not close to any male relative. When Iman asks two of her uncles, they make excuses and refuse to take on the responsibility.
In the meantime, Iman is also worried that she has missed her period, and she runs through a battery of tests – all of which add to her stress level.
Finally, Noha decides to get engaged without any male member of her family. She is confident that the man she is going to get married to and his family would understand her predicament.
I could not miss the social implications in Withered Green. It is a film that almost cries for the freedom of women, a plea that they be allowed a life unfettered by male supremacy and dominance. Also, I did not miss the scene where we are shown a sanitary napkin, and mind you menstruation is a taboo subject in many cultures (India included), more so in the relatively conservative Egyptian society.
And herein lies Hammad's gutsy portrayal, and I believe that Withered Green would have a free theatrical release. Even the Festival was bold enough to screen nudity and sex – and, well, while countries like Egypt are trying to walk out of a medieval mindset, India is being dragged into it!
(Author, commentator and film critic Gautaman Bhaskaran is now covering the Cairo International Film Festival)