Our very own Emad El-Din Aysha goes to work on Nelly Karim's latest movie Bashtery Ragel and he is not very impressed!
Manliness in Egypt has always been up for grabs. Bashtery Ragel (I Am Buying a Man) is yet another Egyptian movie desperately trying to get men to reassert themselves in the face of the ‘aggressive’ woman prototype. Don’t take my word for it, just watch the endless stream of movies from the time of Esmail Yassin turning into a woman, to Ahmed Zaki getting his nuts kicked in Eztakouza, to Ahmed El-Saadani’s Satow Mosalath, to this.
You watch TV, and you have endless scenes from comedy series where the husband says ‘But I’m the Man’ and the wife says, ‘What?!’ – you can’t tell whether the women are angry that that their men are trying to be men, or that they're not trying hard enough to be men. For what it’s worth, Bashtery Ragel is actually quite original. It just isn’t terribly funny!
Manliness in a Bottle
The story, in a nutshell, is about a (typically) unmarried businesswoman, Shams Nour E-Din (Nelly Karim), who wants to hire a man to get pregnant without them actually doing anything – through artificial insemination. Shams is sick and tired of untrustworthy men and traditional means of getting married. She’s getting on in years and all that counts in her (financial) book is having a baby, so she posts an advert on Facebook for a sexless marriage. She’ll pay for everything, marriage expenses included.
Enter the hapless Bahgat Abu Al-Saad (Mohammed Mamdouh), a veterinarian who’s in dire straits, on the verge of losing his farm to the bank. He goes along, hiding the fact that he already has a fiancé – Sally (Leila Araby), and puts up with Shams’ insults and the fact that she has the power of divorce over him to pay off his debts. So far so good – as far as the premise is concerned, but the execution is sloppy and the plotline cliché-ridden. The jokes are mostly flat, the movie plods on for too long in places and the camera work is not inspired in the slightest. The casting isn’t so hot either, with too many trademark faces that pop up but do very little; Mohamed Shahin, Bayoumi Fouad, Laila Ezz El Arab, Boutros Ghali, Lotfy Labib.
Nelly Karim is as gorgeous as ever and is a proven and accomplished actress, but even she feels a bit underutilised here and making her out to be grouchy with a course voice doesn’t quite work. And any Egyptian worth his salt can recognise this a mile away.
It’s the idea that men are no longer in the driver’s seat because women have become big earners, and not just big spenders. Shams, more or less, says this, which is one of the things that scares off previous candidates; the one suitor you see, the aptly name Karim, works in the government and so is described by Shams as having a woman’s job, being an assistant of sorts.
For those of who don’t know, the term bashtery ragel is an oxymoron, used in Egyptian marital negotiations where the parents of the bride claim that they are not concerned about how well off the groom, but with how manly and trustworthy he is. Hence the ‘investment’ they are making in him. The lie is exposed in all its gratuitousness here, thank heavens. How many men out there wouldn’t want the woman to pay for everything? I know Christian and Muslim friends who are very happy with the idea of a dowry!
Rolling on the Reversals
Still, more clichés follow. Shams is as serious as they come and even her female employees can’t stand her. By contrast, Baghat doesn’t know the first thing about money and is a free-hearted romantic – which is why he has spent two long years wining and dining (and bedding) his sweetheart Sally, with neither of them really thinking about marriage too seriously. Then again, if you can do it all outside of the legitimate channels, who needs marriage? His name is Bahgat (means exhilaration or rejoicing) and Abu Al-Saad (father of happiness), after all! He cooks through emotion, not pre-planning and moonlights as a DJ to boot. He’s also successful with women despite his obvious appearance, whereas the sophisticated beauty Shams puts off most men.
When Shams and Bahgat wed, Shams’ mother makes the compulsory visit the next day to see if the man knew his way around the bedroom. When she finds out what’s really going on, she decides to stay with the honeymooners at Bahgat’s farm and steals all her daughter’s clothes to force her into wearing something skimpy in front of her so-called husband, as if men are beasts who can’t control themselves when they see a little skin – you saw the same kind of animal antics on display in the TV series Al-Ostoura/The Legend and Oreedo Rajolan/I Want a Man. And there’s the fact that Dr. Bahgat is a veterinarian specialising in pregnant cows, with his wife almost giving birth on the farm after his prize cow has her baby. Not very flattering, is it?
Banking on Lopsided Symbols
On the plus side, there’s some political lessons to be learned here. When Dr. Bahgat goes to the bank to get an extra loan to pay off his first loan, the banker says his creditworthiness is too low for that to be an option. Isn’t that what was said about Egypt till it finally got the IMF loan? An acronym is used for his financial solvency, and the scene follows a similar scene where Shams is given an acronym for her declining level of fertility.
When Bahgat and Shams begin to warm up to each other, she makes a series of entrepreneurial suggestions that he finally implements, which convinces her to go back to him in the end – she finds out about Sally. And Sally herself wants him to sell off the farm and live off the money, but his sense of belonging and responsibility prevents him; he inherited it from his hardworking ancestors and messed up his inheritance. Sally herself is the happy-go-lucky type; spending her time following foreign fads – like Yoga – and vacationing, often abroad. And she doesn’t believe in chastity.
Note also that the original suitor we saw was from the government, a bunch of people who are always interfering in economic affairs and messing things up. The last scene has Shams pregnant again and about to give birth on the farm, which has now become a veritable cornucopia, signifying the Egyptian idea of ‘baraka’ (divine blessings) that come from the act of consummation and childbirth – a taxi driver once told me not to worry about money before marriage because these blessings will solve the problems for you, provided you get married. If people want to believe this, that’s fine with me,to each their own; the trouble is that you have one potential sperm donor here complaining that he’s penniless and has three kids, hence his eagerness to make a contribution – he leaves the beaker, even though rejected, because he insists on never showing up empty handed.
Like I said, the story line is weak on consistency, although its heart is in the right place. If someone as gruff and rough as Bahgat can get someone like Shams, who am I to complain? And for what it’s worth, sperm banks are an embarrassing topic everywhere in the Middle East, including the supposedly liberal Israel, and for macho reasons too.
I’m all for reaffirming traditional Egyptian family values, but there’s got to be a better way of doing it than this. Shams does eventually get pregnant, as if that’s the only point of marriage, and the old-fashioned way. And keeps on getting pregnant too – boo, hiss!!