Two Lives

What Aida El-Kashef did next

Aida Al-Kashef in a still from Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus. COURTESY SHRITI BANERJEE
01 September, 2013

IT WAS THE END OF 2009 and Anand Gandhi, after finishing the script of his film Ship of Theseus, had begun pre-production work on it. Among those who had joined his production team was the young Egyptian filmmaker Aida El-Kashef, who had met Gandhi two years earlier at the Hannover Film Festival in Germany, where both were screening films. El-Kashef, then 17, expressed an interest in working with Gandhi in the future and, as Gandhi recounted, in 2009, she “came to India on a semi-casual trip, and started helping around.”

El-Kashef’s intention had been to work behind the scenes. But while helping out with a screen test for a male actor to play a supporting role in the film’s first segment, about a blind photographer and her boyfriend, Gandhi grew impressed with her reading of the lead character’s lines. “She was absolutely fabulous,” Gandhi said. He had imagined the lead character as an “expatriate [living in Mumbai], someone I could show without spending time on her cultural, social or economic background.” At first, El-Kashef was “curious and willing to try, but not entirely sure,” Gandhi recalled, but he persisted, and soon he was tweaking his script to make the character an Egyptian woman.

The bulk of El-Kashef’s shoot was completed in 2010, before the outbreak of the widespread protests against the Hosni Mubarak regime in January 2011, which marked the beginning of Egypt’s enormous popular uprising and its reprisals, ongoing today. “I came and acted in India, and then I [went back and] participated in the revolution,” El-Kashef told me over Skype in the second week of July this year—a week after Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, was ousted by the army. “But,” she added, “I don’t want my participation in the revolution to be taken as a promotion [for the film].”

There were times when El-Kashef’s commitment to her activism almost came in the way of the film’s progress. Gandhi recalled an occasion from February 2011. “We were looking for her, and just couldn’t get through,” he said. “Then, on the internet, we landed up on a Facebook page that said ‘Free Aida El-Kashef’.” El-Kashef insisted that the incident, in which she was detained by the army, was not a major one. “I came out in eight hours, so it was not a big deal,” she said. “It’s just that people made a big campaign over the internet and so on—I didn’t know about that.”

In January 2012, again, when Gandhi needed El-Kashef for some additional shooting and dubbing, she was in the thick of the protests. “We had to do it in four days, because I wanted to be here [in Cairo] during the anniversary of the revolution,” El-Kashef said. “They needed me for more time, I couldn’t give them that.”

El-Kashef’s recent activism has focused on fighting against sexual harrassment—she is part of the team that founded the Operation Anti Sexual Harassment campaign in November 2012, aimed at combating the aggressive sexual harrassment of female protestors. “There have been lots of cases of mob sexual assaults, starting from finger-rape, to knife-rape,” she said. On 25 January 2013—the second anniversary of the revolution—alone, there were at least 18 cases of mob assault, in which six women were hospitalised after suffering serious injuries. Groups of volunteers from Operation Anti Sexual Harrassment, who are divided across the protest sites, are trained to push through the crowd to reach victims and form a cordon around them. “I guess there is progress, but it’s because we are more organised now as a group,” El-Kashef said.

In the month of August, Egypt witnessed its worst bloodshed in recent times, with security forces killing scores of protestors whom they claimed had turned violent. Al-Kashef returned to Cairo after a ten-day trip to India to promote Ship of Theseus, a time during which the film was winning her admirers across India. Towards the end of July, I mentioned to Gandhi, who was busy promoting the film, that I hadn’t been able to contact her in some time. “Now that you tell me, I’m worried,” he said. But El-Kashef had seemed to anticipate that her life, and that of the film, would diverge completely. “Revolution is one part, acting is another part,” she insisted when I spoke to her. “I want them separate.”