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Friday, 20 July 2018

Remembering Zeinat Sedki: The most famous spinster in Egyptian cinema

Ashraf Gharib, Friday 2 Mar 2018
Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)
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Today we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Egyptian actress Zeinat Sedki, who passed away on 2 March 1978.

Sedki began her artistic career as a belly dancer and stand-up comedienne before working as an actress in Naguib El-Rihani’s company in the early 1930s. El-Rihani gave her the stage name Zeinat Sedki instead of her birth name Zeinab Mohamed Saad.

Despite this start in dancing and comedy, the Alexandrian actress is indebted to the cinema for her stardom, and her films still enjoy an enduring popularity 40 years after her death.

Although her cinematic debut was in ‘The Accusation’ (1934) directed by Mario Volpe, Sedki’s real beginning, according to the actress herself, was in ‘His Highness Wants to Marry’ (1936) starring Naguib El-Rihani, the biggest comedian at the time, and directed by Alexander Farkas.

In this film, she played the role of a rural maid, later reprising the role on stage in the play ‘The Egyptian Pound’ written by El-Rihani and Badie Khairy.

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

After the film’s success, offers started to trickle in for Sedki, who acted in one or two films each year.

Following the end of World War II, Egyptian cinema’s golden age of comedy began and the offers started to flood in for Sedki. Her acting roles increased from one film in 1944 to nine films in the subsequent year, reaching 40 films in 1950.

Despite the humble nature of most of these parts, they were enough to make filmmakers take notice of Sedki’s gigantic comedic energy, especially after director Helmy Rafla cast her in two successive roles with Ismail Yassin; ‘The Millionaire’ and ‘The Hero’ (both in 1950).

Consequently, Sedki became one of the most famous comedy stars at the time. In addition to being a constant part of the sweeping comedic formula, directors also cast Sedki to soften the bleakness of melodramas, which were also popular at the time.

Rafla cast her in this capacity in ‘My Loved Ones Were Unjust to Me’ (1953), and Hassan El-Imam cast her in ‘The Unjust Angel’ and ‘People’s Hearts’ (both in 1954).

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

However, the most successful and persistent figure in this trend was director Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar, who cast her in more than one film, including ‘An Appointment with Life’, ‘Loyalty’ (both in 1953) and ‘I am departing this Life’ (1955).

It is worth mentioning that Sedki’s roles in melodramas did not transcend playing the maid, for which she was most known. However, she did not play the type of maid who does the cleaning and other chores in the vein of actresses like Widad Hamdy. 

She was also neither the nosey maid like in roles by actress Gamalat Zayed, nor did she have a marginal presence as with others who played the part of the maid. 

Sedki was more like the heroine’s closest friend rather than just the maid. She was the feminine equivalent of Abdel-Salam El-Nabulsi and later Abdel-Moniem Ibrahim in their relationship with the films’ protagonists. 

But the age gap between her and the heroines of the 1940s and 1950s and the mental image of her artistic persona in the eyes of the audience hindered her from being cast as the heroine’s intimate friend outright. 

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

However, she substituted this by her presence in the heroine’s life. Was she not the witness of the love story between Madiha Yussri and Emad Hamdy in ‘I am Departing this Life’? Was she not the keeper of Hussein Riad’s secrets and the safe haven for his daughter Faten Hamama in ‘The Unjust Angel’? Sedki was the maid who did not perform chores and the heroine’s intimate friend who was not her equal.

Despite Sedki’s success in performing the role of the maid, to the extent that it constituted one of her most distinctive artistic features, her widespread popularity was built upon films that were far from melodrama and in parts that had nothing to do with maids.

Another staple of her roles was that of the spinster character in comedy films such as ‘Dahab’ (1953) directed by Anwar Wagdi, ‘Girls’ School’ (1955) by Kamel El-Telmisani, ‘Hamido’s Son’ (1957) by Fateen Abdel-Wahab, then ‘Street of Love’ (1958) by Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar, which was one of her most successful roles.

It is also worth mentioning that Sedki was cast in a third kind of role, that of a landlord who rents rooms to newcomers to the capital. 

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

She played this role with Farid El-Atrash and Ismail Yassin in ‘Ghost Lady’ (1949) directed by Barakat, with Sabah in ‘Miss Mammy’ (1950) by Helmy Rafla, with Anwar Wagdi in ‘Dahab’ (1953), with Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ahmed Ramzi, Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama in ‘Our Sweet Days’ (1955) by Helmy Halim, with the Hassaballah Company in ‘The Street of Love’ (1958) by Ezz-Eldin Zulfikar, and with Abdel-Halim Hafez again in ‘Female Idol’ (1967) by Helmy Rafla. 

There is no obvious explanation for this persistence in playing such a character, except that Sedki’s ability to contain and bestow her tenderness and kindness on every lonely newcomer, even if she appeared stern at first as with Farid El-Atrash in ‘Ghost Lady’ or with Anwar Wagdi in ‘Dahab.’ 

Filmmakers are to be blamed for not benefitting from this warmth in her relationship with others and casting her in other similar roles, especially the mother role.

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

Sedki had other brilliant comedy roles such as in Ismail Yassin’s film series, where she played the sweetheart’s mother in ‘Ismail Yassin in the Police’ (1956) and ‘Ismail Yassin in the Navy’ (1957) both directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab, and ‘Ismail Yassin in the Mad House’ (1958) by Essa Karama. 

In all these films, she mixed comedic elements with an inclination towards evil, or what you may call a mother’s desire to have her daughter marry the best suitor. 

Moreover, her other important, distinctive films with Ismail Yassin were playing his stepmother in ‘Miss Hanafi’ (1954) directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab, his fiancée in ‘Ismail Yassin’s Ghost’ (1954) by Hassan El-Seify and his buying partner in ‘Ataba Square’ (1959) by Fateen Abdel-Wahab. 

We also should not ignore her important role of the bakery owner in ‘Heart Decisions’ (1956) directed by Helmy Halim.

Whether with Ismail Yassin or with another actor, she expressed her low class origin and reflected its values, traditions and vocabulary at a time when these classes were just beginning to ascend the social ladder and aspire to get their rightful share in entertainment, especially through going to cinemas. 

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

From this point on, Sedki’s popularity was ascendant and filmmakers were keen to make use of this in their films, to the extent that in 1954 alone she acted in 24 films, and her entire body of work reached 159 films.

There are some important exceptions in Sedki’s films, such as her performance which was close to tragedy in ‘Her Ladyship’ (1956) directed by Hassan El-Seify, where she played a nanny who was accused of killing the boy she was taking care of before it was revealed that she is his real mother. 

She played a Greek woman in ‘The Man with the Bold Eyes’ (1959) by the same director. We must also mention her only starring role in ‘The Women’s Barber’ (1960) directed by Fateen Abdel-Wahab, in which she was cast against type playing an aristocratic lady. Perhaps this was one of the reasons the film did not perform as well as expected at the box office.

In the last 10 years of her life, offers began to shrink to the extent that she appeared in only three films before she passed away in 1978.

Zeinat Sedki
Zeinat Sedki (Photo: Al Ahram)

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