CAIRO - Written and directed by Khaled Youssef, the movie “Karma” could be interpreted as a psychological thriller presenting a panorama of the Egyptian reality.
The film has parallel plots as well as parallel settings. It depicts the dream worlds of two men who look identical. One is a Muslim billionaire businessman named Adham and the other is an extremely poor Christian jobless man called Watany. Egyptian actor Amr Saad outstandingly plays both roles.
Whenever one of the two men falls asleep, he dreams of the other man’s world. Watany looks for a treasure buried under a deserted mosque while Adham looks for true self with the help of his therapist, who is also a mystical, peculiar man craftily portrayed by Khaled el-Sawy. Hence, the film is divided into two worlds: rich and poor, Muslim and Christian.
Both worlds share several aspects. The two men have many enemies regardless of the broad discrepancies between them. The synchronisation of the two plots is deftly made by Youssef.
The film highlights the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt. It depicts the life of a very poor community living in slums and that of the extravagantly rich powerful businessmen living in palaces. Adham rides a helicopter to move around Cairo but Watany cannot afford to buy his daughter, Karma, a simple type of sweets.
The child, Perla, who played the part of Karma, is quite expressive as if poverty makes an adult of her.
Among the other prominent roles in the film is that of Madina, the wife of Watany (played by actress Zeina) who, despite the extreme scarcity, is surviving and is quite supportive of her husband.
“Poverty, Adham, is a humane crime,” the therapist says commenting on Adham’s narration of one of his dreams. “It seems that your soul is rebelling against you but you, through your thoughts, are throwing it in the dark.
“I’m afraid to sleep,” says Adham after he wakes up following one of his dreams of Watany’s world.
The two men continue dreaming of each other’s lives until their paths cross and Watany becomes Adham and Adham becomes Watany. That switch of characters causes humorous situations. Here sectarianism appears on the surface, which is the main reason behind the controversy over the film.
“At this point, several questions are raised, including what is the source of happiness and whether we will be happier after we switch our lives with others or we will be more miserable,” Youssef explained.
Other questions, Youssef said, shed light on the people causing such big social gaps as the film tackles the involvement of businessmen in a major corruption case in the country.
“Get back into the arms of the ‘state’ so we can help you,” says an undefined official named Selim to Adham. The role of the official is well-portrayed by actor Magdy Kamel.
“From now on the Karma laws are the ones that will rule,” Adham tells his assistant in response to a conversation about his struggle with fellow businessmen as well as the state.
Until the end of the film, viewers remain wondering whether Adham is Watany or Watany is Adham, whether they are two men or one man, which adds to the thrilling nature of Youssef’s script.
“Since the beginning of the universe, there is no difference between a human being and another. We are the ones who create the differences,” says a voice at the end of the film.
The film has elicited mixed reactions from both critics and viewers.
“It’s not Khaled Youssef’s best film. There is confusion in the script, which does not move smoothly. It could have been better if somebody else other than the director wrote the script,” critic Magda Mouris said.
On the other hand, writer Farida el-Shobashi said the film was typical of Youssef in “a positive way.”
“The film serves a core Egyptian case. The Egyptian citizen, whether Muslim or Christian, suffers from similar dilemmas,” she said.
Similar comments were voiced by viewers.
“The film presents a small panorama of the Egyptian society with all its negative aspects,” said Ali Mohamed, 39.
“As a film, I enjoyed it artistically. Yet I expected the plots to be clearer but, in a nutshell, I enjoyed watching it,” said Heba Youssef, 29.
The film marks Youssef’s comeback to film-making after a 7-year hiatus. Youssef became involved in politics following the Egyptian uprising in 2011 and is now a member of parliament.
Marwa al-A’sar is a Cairo-based journalist.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.