JEDDAH: The Saudi thriller series “Rashash” has generated an unusual amount of public reaction in the Kingdom, establishing a benchmark for local cinema’s flourishing and diverse future.
The eight-episode show, promoted as the biggest Saudi production with a multimillion-dollar budget and made by Saudi-owned MBC Group, has attracted a wide-ranging audience. It has conquered every Saudi household, setting a challenging standard for future productions.
Saudi actor Yagoub Al-Farhan played the role of Rashash Al-Otaibi in the true-life story of a Saudi bandit, drug trafficker and murderer who terrorized the population in the 1970s and 1980s. The show has ignited heated discussions on social media over the past few weeks with the release of each episode every Thursday. The series outlines Rashash’s life of crime, beginning with his entry into the underworld and ending with his arrest and execution.
Al-Farhan previously played Juhayman Al-Otaibi in the Alasouf series in 2019 and portrayed a militant terrorist leader who seized Makkah’s Grand Mosque in 1979.
The controversy began as soon as MBC’s Shahid streaming platform started promoting the series in January, with promo views exceeding 2.5 million. Some members of the audience questioned whether highlighting the life of a criminal was appropriate, and worried that it might incite tribal tensions since the criminal belonged to one of the most prominent tribes in the Kingdom.
Rashash’s family also objected to the release of the series on local media, saying that it was denigrating for the family and would “open old wounds,” his sister told a local newspaper.
Distinguished by its production values, “Rashash” is a collaboration between the internationally recognized crew and Saudi talent. It features an all-Saudi cast in leading roles, including Nayef Al-Dhufairi as Officer Fahd, Khalid Yaslam as Chief Azam, and dozens of other Saudi actors.
It was directed by British filmmaker Collin Teague, whose credits include the sci-fi series “Doctor Who” and is written by Sheikha Suha Al-Khalifa, the daughter of a former Bahraini ambassador, and Richard Bellamy, a political scientist.
Despite Shahid’s disclaimer that the series is only for those above 18-years-old, many teenagers watched the show and became obsessed with the main character.
The platform is not directed at a young audience, but the show has created a social phenomenon where teenagers’ rebellious nature celebrated the criminal as a hero. Many videos circulated across social media of teenagers adopting Rashash’s personality and attitude and sometimes making threats of violence to the public; even Rashash’s messy hairstyle has become a trend.
The owners of a café in Alkhobar city have used the popularity of “Rashash” as a marketing strategy to promote their business, hanging huge photos from the series on the walls and printing phrases from the show on their cups. They also labeled some of their drinks with the criminal’s name and with the names of other members of his gang.
The series also sheds light on a young and dedicated officer, Fahd, who makes it his mission to capture Rashash and his accomplices.
“Rashash was not introduced as a hero. The story delivered an explicit message that differentiates between the criminal and the military man from the same tribe who chose to serve his country and protect land and lives from a defector’s barbarism. Each one had an ambition; one was patient and faced his challenges with courage and deliberation. At the same time, the other chose ease with drugs, rebellion, disobedience, and confrontation,” Refaa, 31, from Riyadh, told Arab News.
She continued, “Teenagers shouldn’t have watched the show in the first place because it is for an adult audience, the blame is on the parents; however, in case a teenage boy watched it and became a fan of Rashash, then parents must discuss his character and story with him to develop his critical thinking skills and learn to distinguish between right and wrong and the choices we may make in life.”
Refaa was encouraged to watch the series because it was based on a true story, which she said was a blessing in disguise. It was the reason behind the Saudi government establishing a road police force to protect travelers from bandits.
“This is an unusual story in the Saudi cinema, where many of the shows were social dramas focusing on the status of women and Saudi families,” she said, “Action is a preferred genre among a large group of society, the youth, many of whom are enthusiastic about movies.”
Actor Yagoub Al-Farhan, who played Rashash, said in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV that Saudi production throughout its history had ranged between drama, comedy and dark comedy, a few attempts at the history genre, but never action.
Al-Farhan said that the basic idea behind this show was to introduce a series within a popular genre of drama in society inspired by a story from Saudi history, which allowed the viewer to interact with it and relate to it.
Another viewer, Faris Baker, 33, from Riyadh, told Arab News.“The series started an important initiative because it broke the routine of the Saudi drama calendar; we are used to expecting seasonal shows premiered during the holy month of Ramadan, which kept the scene dead for the rest of the year and even marginalized some shows that did not get deserved attention due to overcrowded schedule of releases in one month.”
Baker preferred the action over drama in the series.
“Having a renowned British filmmaker, Collin Teague, has enormously upgraded the level of production as a Saudi series especially in its active part in fighting scenes, which is related to any societal specificity. On the other hand, I spotted a clear gap in the dramatic part of the story which was more related to the nature of relationships in Saudi society, in which the director normally lacks a realistic vision of as a non-Saudi,” he said.