Jaheem Fil Hind (Hell In India), this year’s big summer blockbuster in Egypt, sees a band of bumbling musicians wrongfully selected by the Egyptian government to rescue the abducted Egyptian ambassador of India and his family from an evil criminal billionaire. They are lead by actual secret agents, played by Muhammad Imam, a well-respected Egyptian actor, and Yasmine Sabry.
It all sounds great until you see the trailer that is where blatantly racist and wholly inaccurate caricatures of India abound. Indeed, there are scenes in which we witness roaming gorillas (there are no gorillas in India), evil sultans and cannibal tribesmen, the last of which we might have seen 70 years ago in one of those racist Disney shorts.
It’s safe to say that I was repulsed beyond words not only because crude portrayals of any ethnicity that is not one’s own is of course, ethically wrong, but also because the countries in which Egyptians and Indians co-exist are oil-rich Gulf countries where the vast majority of immigrants from both countries are low-skilled, uneducated laborers vying for the same jobs.
This has inevitably created a lot of tension and hostility between the two communities.
The film is an Egyptian Valentine to Bollywood rather than an out-and-out attack on India.
And since Jaheem is a blockbuster movie that, like all blockbuster movies, casts its demographic net wide, targeting everyone from the middle-class to the lowest common denominator in Egypt, I was worried that its influence on low-skilled Egyptian laborers living in the Gulf would further strain their relations with their Indian co-workers.
Thankfully, I was largely proven wrong when I actually saw the movie.
The film is much more of an Egyptian Valentine to Bollywood than an out-and-out attack on India. In one scene, the film beautifully depicts Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, in another one of the Egyptian characters is enchanted by the Sufi vocal styling of an everyday Indian woman.
Even the film’s epilogue is that of a Bollywood tadka film – a lavish, large scale Bollywood item song with intricate dancing, vibrant colors and, of course, a very catchy hook that one usually hums long after the credits roll. When I spoke to audience members in the theater, they told me it was their favorite scene off the movie.
But what of those racist images in the trailer? As it turns out, the film is, first and foremost, a social satire that pokes fun at everything and anything Egyptian. Its few jokes directed towards India are seen as instances of culture clash that are almost always delivered in the movie by the bumbling band of musicians whose heads aren’t screwed on quite right. The two lead characters on the other hand, who are seen as much more intelligent, are not only respectful of Indian culture but even assimilate to it. This is seen in their impressive command of the Hindi language and their pride in dressing up in gorgeous Punjabi wedding garb.
I suspect the vast majority of Egyptian viewers will be in on the joke and see India the way the filmmakers intended on depicting it – as a multi-faceted wonderland.