With more than 30 Egyptian TV series airing during Ramadan, Al-Ostoura (The Legend) quickly emerged as one of the hottest topics among viewers and critics alike. The series managed even to compete with European Football Championship matches, dividing the crowds seated in local cafes between the two.
Directed by Mohamed Samy and written by Mohamed Abdel Moati, the series starring Mohamed Ramadan made it to the top of the ‘top views’ across web polls. Following his successful series Ibn Halal last year, Ramadan plays two roles in Al-Ostoura, brothers Refaey and Nasser El-Dessouky.
The series is set in the impoverished suburb of El-Sabtia, where Refaey -- the elder brother -- is an arms dealer, while the younger Nasser aspires to be a prosecutor.
When Refaey is killed, Nasser takes his place in the crime syndicate and mimics his brother’s appearance after he was denied entrance to the judiciary because of his family's illegal dealings.
The unconditional infatuation
Al-Ostoura’s popularity became a social phenomenon, with many young people imitating the look of El-Dessouky, to extent of copying the character’s behaviour, including his aggressive attitude and insults.
Rough criminals and attractive womanisers – Nasser has three wives whom he beats regularly – both brothers gained a lot of sympathy among viewers who saw in them epitomes of courage, fearlessness and an ability to succeed in life using their fists instead of the law.
A shopkeeper from El-Sayeda Zeinab district who sells T-shirts with a print of Nasser El-Dessouky on them, told the popular website Etfarag that viewers were severely saddened when Nasser received a life sentence for his crimes.
“There is a big demand for the T-shirts. I don’t even have enough of them,” he said pointing to the garment priced LE 55, an amount considered excessive for the dwellers of the district.
In parallel, several cafes across Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods mourned the fallen Nasser by hanging his photo with a black stripe in its corner.
This was paralleled with young men having beards and haircuts that imitated Nasser's look.
In June, a mobile application featuring Mohamed Ramadan as Nasser El Dessouky in an action-packed game was released. In less than a month, the application was downloaded 100,000 times and rated 3.9/4 by over 6,000 individual users.
The critics were less enthusiastic about the series and Ramadan in specific, whilst the main debate focused on the moral messages transferred by Al-Ostoura.
However the most alarming element of the Nasser frenzy was when the viewers began adopting his behaviour, provoking or engaging in violent incidents.
Several media outlets reported that when a man in the southern Fayoum governorate published nude photos of a girl on social media, his relatives forced him to wear female lingerie and walk in the streets, copying the act in one of Al-Ostoura’s episodes a few days earlier.
The same incident was also repeated in Cairo’s Helwan district.
Mohamed Ramadan: the hard worker and a “tough guy”
Critics were troubled with the way Mohamed Ramadan uses his talent, referencing his roles that promote violence and immorality within the society. Concerns also addressed the viewers’ inability to discern between fiction and reality.
In response to these allegations Ramadan insisted in an interview that the criticism targets him as an actor, not the fictional character he depicts, and such allegations are made out of spite fo rhis success.
In a 2012 interview with CNN Arabic, Ramadan attributed his popularity to the fact that “people feel I am one of them,” in reference to his physical features and background.
But it is not the first time for the young actor -- who was born 1988 in Qena governorate and who climbed the ladder of success all by himself, as his family and friends were never linked to the artistic world -- to find himself in the heart of a controversy.
With over 40 roles in cinema, television and theatre, in no time Ramadan has become among the highest paid actors in Egypt, with some accounts quoting that he earns tens of millions per role.
One of his first significant appearances, and his television debut, was in 2006 when he landed a role in the series Cinderella about Egypt’s iconic late actress Soad Hosny starring Mona Zaki. Curiously, at first, the director was hesitant to give the role of Ahmed Zaki to Ramadan describing him as 'too young'. To prove he is worth the choice, Ramadan worked hard on the role and was rewarded with positive reviews.
In numerous interviews that followed, Ramadan always underlines the fact that it is hard work that makes one successful, often adding that he hopes that this attitude will inspire other young people to follow his example.
His big break came in 2008 when he acted alongside stars Mona Zaki and Mahmoud Hemeida in Ehky ya Sharazad (Tell Us Shahrazad) directed by Yousry Nasrallah. The film garnered seven awards from The Egyptian Film Writers and Critics Association at the 25th Alexandria Film Festival, with Ramadan scooping the Best Young Actor award.
Over the past decade he appeared in dozens of films and series, his face becoming familiar when it appeared on the poster of the 2012 film Abdo Mota, about a young poor man who lost his parents before becoming a drug dealer.
In almost all of Ramadan’s roles there is violence and illegal acts, lasting for a couple hours in a film or 30 episodes of a series on TV.
We see this in Ramadan’s role in the film El-Almany, where he portrays a slum dweller who uses illegal tactics and intimidation to become wealthy.
El-Almany was followed by Qalb El-Asad (Lion Heart) in 2013, about a tough, self-reliant young man who was kidnapped as a child and raised at a circus where he is sucked into a murder mystery.
He then starred in the comedy Wahed Saidi (An Upper Egyptian) in 2014 as a young man who moves from his hometown in Upper Egypt to Cairo where he works in a hotel and faces a lot of troubles, eventually getting accused of murder.
Audiences then saw him as a tough police officer in trouble who experiences an incident that brings his career to a halt Shad Agzaa (Gun Racking) in 2015.
Though at the end of these plots good eventually conquers evil, audiences feel sympathetic with Ramadan and the character he plays thoughout the films.
His latest is a play titled Ahlan Ramadan, which opened during Eid El-Fitr and is gaining the highest revenues in the history of commercial theatre in past years.
In the meanwhile he also acts in Gawab Eitikal (An Arrest Warrant), scheduled to be released during the upcoming Eid Al-Adha feast.
In the eye of the storm
Ramadan’s hard work and notable successes have been recognised by critics and numerous renowned figures in Egyptian cinema.
In a 2009 interview, late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif called Ramadan, “like my son. I can assure you that he will be my successor. He is very talented and I totally believe in him.” Sharif also added that Ramadan should consider international cinema, and that “he should study English to be ready for that.”
Ramadan responded to Sharif’s advice saying as much as he hopes to hit the international grounds, at this point he will focus on the domestic scene.
Though the cinematic scene and critics showered Ramadan with superlatives and praise, calling him one of the most talented actors of his generation, in recent years several voices began expressing concerns regarding Ramadan’s artistic choices.
In 2015, film critic Tarek El-Shennawi commented to El-Sabah news website that Ramadan does not lack talent and charisma, and underscored the actor’s creative intelligence and humility.
“What Ramadan needs to take care of, however, is to be more selective and aware of the roles he picks,” El Shennawi added.
Another critic, Essam Zakaria, told the same news platform that: “Ramadan should not depend on the popularity of his roles. He should shape his career. The moment of change should come.”
On the other hand, there is also a bright side for the phenomena of Ramadan. Capitalising on his influence on young people, Ramadan, who played the role of a drug dealer Abdo Mota, was selected to be the face of a governmental campaign against drugs in which he says: “I am blessed by God because I said no to drugs. Being a drug addict has nothing to do with being a man. Do not give in to drugs.”
His play Ahlan Ramadan also revived the Al-Haram Theatre where it is being staged. The stage was closed for seven years after it hosted Adel Imam’s play The Bodyguard for 11 years.
Before The Bodyguard, Adel Emam performed his most famous plays on the stage for decades, including Al Zaeem (The Leader) from 1993 to 1999 and El-Wad Sayed El-Shaghal (Sayed the Servant Boy) in the 80s.
The theatre was closed due to a lack of patronage before Ramadan graced its stage. Producer Emad Ziada published a press release saying that the new play, starring Ramadan, gained the highest revenues in its first days, garnering up to LE 210,000.
Ramadan himself said that this play aims to draw Egyptian audiences back to the theatre. In 2013, Ramadan presented his first play as a main character Raees Gomhoryet Nafso (His Own President) on the state theatre and stated repeatedly in interviews that his target was to bring the audience back to theatre.
Despite these examples of Ramadan’s popularity being utilised in a positive way, the way he presents his character in cinemas and television is still a matter of concern.
The question is, would he have gained such popularity if he had played different roles? Could his talent be framed in a different way to satisfy the critics and the audience at the same time? This could be examined perhaps in his next film in September, Gawab Eitikal (An Arrest Warrant) in which he plays the role of a terrorist.
Ramadan recently said in an interview in Al-Shabab Magazine: “What I’d like to be said about my works in the future is that they are documenting the current moment. I like to reflect the current moment and the most critical issues in my society. That’s what I am looking for.”
This controversy between Ramadan’s fans and his critics remains open.
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