Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

New UAE film 'Rashid & Rajab' sees an Egyptian and Emirati swap more than just accents

'We’ve faced some judgements, ‘Oh this has been done before, it’s nothing new,’ but they should come and see it for themselves and see how we’re doing it,” says Emirati star Marwan Abdullah of the new body swap comedy

It’s been a rollercoaster couple of months for Egyptian comic Shadi Alfons. The last time we saw him on our screens was in his guest role in the ground-breaking, smash-hit US comedy Ramy, in which he played a party-loving friend of the show’s lead star, Ramy Youssef.

The show has drawn widespread critical praise as the first programme on US TV to give an accurate portrayal of the everyday lives of American Muslims. Alfons must hope his latest project, the Image Nation Abu Dhabi-­produced Emirati comedy Rashid & Rajab, receives a similarly warm reception.

“The [Ramy] reviews have been phenomenal, it’s got like 98 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes,” he says. “Twitter is one of the meanest and nastiest platforms out there and people can’t wait to say bad things about whatever you do, but the feedback and the comments have been out of this world.”

Perhaps crucially for Alfons’s new film, it’s not only western audiences that have been showering praise on his debut performance in Ramy, but Middle Eastern ones, too. “Audiences in this part of the world have been really supportive,” he says. “People can be cynical, and when it comes to religious and cultural jokes you can wind up in a lot of trouble, but it really has been positive across the board, and now it’s been renewed for a second season so I’m just hoping for that call.”

The challenges of an Egyptian-Emirati body swap

In the meantime, Alfons will hit screens in Rashid & Rajab, a body-swap comedy in which Alfons’s likeable but idiotic Egyptian delivery driver Rajab swaps bodies with strait-laced Emirati businessman Rashid, played by rising Emirati star Marwan Abdullah, after a freak accident, and a dash of sorcery, in Dubai. The film had its premiere at Mall of the Emirates last Tuesday night.

There’s nothing new about the body-swap genre, but Abdullah insists we should watch the film before making any assumptions. “We’ve faced some judgements, ‘Oh this has been done before, it’s nothing new,’ but they should come and see it for themselves and see how we’re doing it,” he says. “It’s high quality and it’s much more than a body switch. It’s culture, nationality, even dialect that we’re switching. It’s much more complex.”

The different dialects proved a particular challenge for both men, with Abdullah’s character forced to adopt Egyptian once his body becomes inhabited by Alfons’s character, while Alfons required to speak in an Emirati dialect. “I thought the Egyptian accent would be really easy because we all grew up watching Egyptian TV and films,” says Abdullah. “But when it actually came to trying to pronounce words, it was actually quite difficult.”

Alfons agrees and says the two men helped each other to master their new tongues. “It’s the equivalent of an American actor doing a Dundee Scottish accent – it was a huge challenge and I loved it,” he says. “I grew up in Kuwait so I was familiar with the Gulf dialect, but it was still a big challenge. I was constantly coaching Marwan to do the Egyptian dialect and he worked with me the same way for the Emirati dialect. The feedback was great [at the premiere], so it sounds like I should get UAE citizenship.”

Abdullah, on the other hand, is a little more cautious about claiming linguistic victory. “Yesterday [at the Mall of Emirates] we got great feedback, but yesterday everyone was invited and it was friends and family,” he says. “The real test will come when it comes out at Eid, and especially when it goes to Egypt. That’s when I’ll really find out if I have a future or I’m out of a job.”

The chemistry between the two stars is clear both on screen and in their interactions off it, with the pair joking about and riffing off each other throughout the premiere in Dubai and the publicity duties the next morning. It sounds as though the relationship between the two leads might not have been the only one that helped production go ­smoothly.

How Ali Mostafa and Saeed Harib worked together on the vision

The film’s producers – Rami Yasin, Ali Mostafa and Majid Al Ansari – also seem to have developed a close relationship with one another, having previously worked together in directorial or production capacities on films including Zinzana (2015) and The Worthy (2016).

“We’ve all worked together on a number of films, so we know where our strengths lie and we naturally fell into our roles,” says Yasin. “I became more the hands on, day-to-day logistics and physical production side, Majid focused on the overall vision from development all the way through to post, and Ali was working more with [director Mohammed Saeed] Harib on the creative and execution side on a scene-to-scene basis.”

Yasin uses the film’s action sequences as an example of how this translated on set. “We’d all meet Mohammed [Saeed Harib, the film’s director] to talk about it and ask how he sees it,” he explains. “Ali would translate this into what it means for us, I would take that and storyboard it, get all the crew and equipment we need so it’s all there on the day, then Majid would be there with Harib watching it on the monitor and saying, ‘Yeah, looks great guys.’ That’s kind of how we worked.”

We’ve so far established that Alfons is eager to make his return to the cast of Ramy after the film’s release, but what does Abdullah, a relative newcomer next to his experienced co-star, hope Rashid & Rajab can achieve? “The industry in the region needs to work hard on marketing the film,” he says. “The UAE is competing with the world in many fields, but in arts and culture it’s not really recognised by the rest of world.

“Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has asked us to be number one in every field, so we should work hard in that area, get the Emirati accent out there and have it recognised through our cultural work. We have all the requirements to build that – the budget, great minds like Ali [Mostafa] and Mohammed [Saeed Harib], so what’s stopping us from being on the top in this industry, too?”

Rashid & Rajab will be in cinemas across the UAE from June 5

Updated: May 25, 2019 05:06 PM

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