What’s New ENTERTAINMENT

Puppets with an Attitude

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | December 2000 | pp. 58–60

A classic Illy Fat Sat (What Is Past) skit critiquing the slow pace of the judicial process begins with an old man knocking on the door of a dilapidated house. “Who are you?” asks the figure answering the door. “I am so-and-so,” he introduces himself, “a lawyer and the son of lawyer so-and-so, Allah yerhamu [may he rest in peace]. Your grandfather, Allah yerhamu, has filed a case in my father’s law office because your father’s headmaster, Allah yerhamu, flunked him in primary school. Thankfully the court has reached a verdict. Today, your father, Allah yerhamu, can enter secondary school without repeating primary school.” 

 

Premiering three days before the end of Ramadan last year, Illy Fat Sat’s groundbreaking satire and parody holds up a mirror to popular culture with themes that blend current affairs with comedy sketches, biting wit and rhyming couplets. For eight long years Samir Habib, 49, the show’s creator and producer, stubbornly pursued the concept of a Spitting Image-inspired show. To bring his idea to life, he needed to create the puppets, find a compelling storyline and get the show on the air. Trekking from one production company to another, he was met with lukewarm receptions from ART, Orbit, Voice of Cairo, Al Ahram and NileSat. 

 

Sixteen months later, Habib was starting to get depressed. He then proposed the idea to Media City executives, showing them the first eight puppets he had made. They tentatively agreed to the project but wanted to know what the show was going to be about. “Everyone in Europe does politics. We have red lines. So what do we write about?” contemplated Habib, founder and chairman of Eko Sound production studio, which does the dubbing for Illy Fat Sat. Once the first two pilot scripts were approved, the work began. Scriptwriter and lyricist Fedaa Shandawely conceived the show’s name, although Habib had suggested calling it Karakeeb Fada’iyah (Satellite Trash). The characters are modeled on Egyptian cinema stars who cooperated in setting up a television station where they broadcast whatever they wanted.

Perusing the newspapers and especially the readers’ letters pages, Habib and Shandawely hammer out the scripts over the phone. “We cooperate like Ahmed Ragab and Mustafa Hussein,” says Habib, referring to the celebrated pair’s political cartoons featured on Al Akhbar’s back page. More than 120 Illy Fat Sat episodes have been scripted, but the show’s 32-year-year old lyricist, who is credited with dozens of dramas including this year’s fawazir (riddles) on Channel 1, promises something exceptional. “The 30 shows I’ve written for Ramadan are the best I’ve written yet,” he says.

“A lot of people tell me I speak in their voice,” says Habib, who for 15 years was the popular lead singer and guitarist of the Jets band. The stars of their generation, the band sang the tunes of Sayed Darwish and other Arabic classics. Years later when a recording engineer who worked with Habib before moving to the U.S. asked if he would be interested in doing the Arabic dubbing for Walt Disney productions, Habib, deeply touched by the Lion King, agreed. Eko Sound has been dubbing Disney’s feature films, TV shows and home videos since 1993.

Habib’s favorite Illy Fat Sat character is Mahdoud El-Dakhl Mazloum El-Ghalban. “This is a guy who owns nothing in the world and wants to meet all the officials and talk with them freely.” Created in the likeness of actor Omar El-Gizawy, the character’s name was inspired by an address by President Hosni Mubarak where he constantly referred to the necessity of championing the underprivileged mahdoud el-dakhl (those with limited incomes). “He laid stress on a personality, representing a segment of society. So I thought why not take this character and bring him over? We’re on the safe side. The president himself talked about him.” 

 

Never shying away from controversy, the show’s comic sketches explore a plethora of social and political issues. Habib thought of creating a section entitled “Me and the Minister.” When the idea was rejected by Media City and television executives, Habib solved the quandary by replacing “minister” with “el-mas’oul” (the official) played by actor Lotfy Labib. 

 

“We tackled politics through these personas,” says Habib, who studied economics and political science at Cairo University. “With these mouthpieces, the minister of education becomes mas’oul el-korassa wi-l-kashkool [the notebook and notepad official]; the minister of supply becomes mas’oul el-tabeekh wi-l-bateekh [the cooking and watermelon official]; and the minister of electricity becomes mas’oul el-lumba wi-l-shamaa [the light bulb and candle official].” 

 

“Here, sir, is the design of the new electricity bill,” Hammam, a puppet in the likeness of comic legend Naguib El-Rihany, tells the mas’oul in one sketch. “Mr. Hamman, who told you we want to print new electricity receipts?” he retorts. “We need to print new receipts because the old receipts list our old telephone numbers. If someone wants to call us with a complaint, he won’t know how,” replies Hammam. “Why are you asking for trouble?” the mas’oul shoots back. “But sir, some people will persist and find out our new number. What are we going to tell them when they ask why we didn’t print receipts with our new numbers?” Says the mas’oul: “That’s easy, just tell them the telephone exchange switched our numbers without telling us, like they do with everyone else.” 

 

The troupe of endearing puppets croons, parodies and lampoons everything imaginable. Turbo brandishes a gigantic stopwatch and charges private lessons by the femtosecond. The puppet lookalike of famed Nubian comedian Aly El-Kassar plays the role of poet and plumber Sayed Salikha. Con artist El-Mustasmer El-Sagheer (The Small Investor) speaks in a low, crafty tone: “Shut the door, close the windows, and listen to what I have to tell you,” he begins. “Can’t find anything to do and want to make money? Go to a sidewalk café. Find two people who don’t know how to write. Invite them for a cup of tea. Have them write the lyrics to a pop song, then find anyone with a miserable voice and have him sing it and sell the tapes.” 

 

For Ramadan, the producers rolled out a platoon of new characters—now 64 in all—and added more spice to the skits. Officials are subject to even harsher treatment. “We didn’t leave anyone alone but no one was upset with us,” says director Adel Makin. “At first, people couldn’t imagine that television would criticize anyone from the establishment.” Commenting on the show, Al Akhbar cartoonist Amr Fahmy says there is no flattery in the art of caricature. 

 

Behind the scenes, preparations for Illy Fat Sat include designing the set and arranging the puppets’ wardrobe and makeup. From the studio control room located in an alcove in the Sixth of October’s Media City complex, Makin takes the helm. Shooting begins at night and extends into the early morning hours. “No one showed us the ropes of putting on such a production,” says Makin, who continually works on increasing the show’s complexity. “We are the ones who created the system.” 

 

Habib commissioned three companies in the U.S. to create the lovable puppets—from sculpting the body down to the placement of the eyeball and eyelid mechanisms. At least two puppeteers are needed to move the hands, mouth, eyeballs and eyelids of each puppet. The set’s furniture is elevated two feet above the ground to make it easier for the puppeteers to move around. In the puppets’ makeup room, Habib picks up a pair of latex puppet hands from among 300 lying around. “Every episode we lose maybe seven or eight hands.” Customs, taxes and shipping costs add up to more than the price of the hands, and the puppets also take a lot of wear and tear during filming, he continues. “I had to make a second copy of all the puppets we had,” says Habib, with each puppet taking about one month to make. It takes two days to shoot one episode of Illy Fat Sat, plus another day for dubbing. The script for a 20-minute show takes from one to three days to write, says Shandawely. Total production costs tally at roughly LE30,000 an episode. 

 

Involved in the creation of Illy Fat Sat with Habib for two years, Makin sees the show’s role as eliciting controversy and debate. “To influence people’s thinking is a bit difficult, but like the caricatures you find in magazines, Illy Fat Sat makes viewers aware of the issues they are living,” he says. “The show ultimately says what the people want to say.”