In the history of Arab actors there is a long list of names that have achieved widescale fame. Some of them reached stardom, but very few of those can be considered geniuses in their profession. One of the most prominent of those geniuses is Mahmoud El-Meligy, who died 35 years ago on 6 June 1983 while filming his last role in Ayoub directed by Hany Lasheen.
Mahmoud El-Meligy was born 22 December 1910 in El-Migherbeleen neighbourhood in the heart of Cairo to a middle class family that soon moved to El-Helmeya neighbourhood. As a child, Mahmoud El-Meligy found himself attracted to the art of acting and searching for the performances made by some wandering theatre troupes in El-Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood.
Many a time he tried to imitate the plays he watched. When he enrolled in Khediweya High School, he searched for its acting company which the theatre giants at the time, such as George Abyad, Aziz Eid and Fattouh Nashaty, trained and directed.
El-Meligy recounted an incident that was about to change his entire life, when Aziz Eid told him more than once that he doesn't fit in the acting profession.
Naturally, this made him sad and even sometimes drove him to cry. The moment he was about to object to his mentor he was surprised to find that Eid told him that he was testing his persistence in pursuing this career and that indeed he was a talented actor, making him join the theatre company of his wife, Fatma Rushdie, in 1930.
Fatma Rushdie expressed her admiration of his performances in the Khediweya School. El-Meligy kept rising in the roles he was cast until he became the leading man in the company.
Afterwards the company was disbanded. He started to work in the Ramses Theatre Company where its founder, Youssef Wahbi, made him return several steps back, casting him in secondary and supporting roles; he was even relegated sometimes to be the prompter.
However, Fatma Rushdie believed strongly in El-Meligy's talent, so she made the biggest move that opened up the doors of fame and stardom to him. She cast him as her co-star in The Marriage in 1933 which she produced and directed when he was just 23 years old.
From this point onward, El-Meligy began his rich cinematic career in which he made 350 films. making him the most prolific actor in Arab cinema, surpassing Farid Shawqi and Amina Rizq who outlived him both on the screen and in life.
At his beginnings, El-Meligy played a number of small roles; the most significant was in Wedad (1936, Fritz Kramp) and A Woman's Heart (1940, Togo Mizrahi). However, in Martyrs of Passion (1944, Kamal Selim) viewers began to take note of the first characteristic of Mahmoud El-Meligy's screen persona, that is of the villain which he played innumerably afterwards to the extent he was dubbed "The Screen's Monster."
He was criticised for succumbing to the villain stereotype. Perhaps this was due to the predominance of tragedies and melodramas in that period. And since these kinds of films needed a villain hatching plots, inciting animosities and prejudices, seducing ladies and killing honorable men, El-Meligy had always a reserved place in the casting. This explains the huge demand for him to the extent that he was offered more than 20 films per year.
But Mahmoud El-Meligy, who possessed extraordinary acting abilities, was keen to diversify his performances and improve his acting skills.
When the role needed cunning and slyness, his facial and eye expressions became fully alert along with obvious smoothness in his voice. This was what he evidently did in The Flirtation of Girls (1949, Anwar Wagdi).
When he was cast as a usual gang member or its boss, physical strength was needed which he demonstrated in playing one of Upper Egypt’s most notorious outlaws in The Monster (1954, Salah Abu-Seif).
Perhaps this role, which relied on physical strength, opened the door for him to act in a series of roles that coincided with the rise of action films at the hands of directors such as Niazi Mostafa, Hossam Eddine Mostafa, Hassan El-Seify and Mahmoud Farid.
They exploited the huge popularity which Farid Shawqi has acquired throughout the 50’s and 60’s as a valiant hero and used Mahmoud El-Meligy as his nemesis forming a successful couple in action films such as Dock No 5 (1956, Niazi Mostafa), Abu-Hadeed (1958, Niazi Mostafa), and A Hero Until the End (1963, Hossam Eddine Mostafa).
Apart from this duet, he played in a number of action films solo, the most prominent of which was Son of the Devil (1969, Hossam Eddine Mostafa). However, Mahmoud El-Meligy’s unforgettable roles weren’t the ones he played as a villain.
The first of these was as the brother of Mustafa Kamel, the Egyptian national leader in Mustafa Kamel (1952, Ahmed Badrkhan), the drunken helpless father in Days and Nights (1955, Barakat), the French lawyer in Djamilah (1958, Youssef Chahine) until he reached his magnum opus performance in The Land (1970, Youssef Chaine).
In this film, Mahmoud El-Meligy (playing Mohammed Abu-Swuleim) wasn’t just an ordinary peasant suffering from poverty and oppression in the 30’s, but was an embodiment of the Egyptian people’s state under occupation and the corruption of the royal palace.
In spite of those injustices, he was steadfast in defending his land and principles to the extent of sacrificing his own life in the film’s end. Mahmoud El-Meligy’s charisma, solemn performance and his facial expressions were very faithful in conveying suffering.
Perhaps his ingenious performance endowed the film with the magic and aura that accompanied it in every showing on film festivals. Perhaps because of this film Mahmoud El-Meligy was dubbed The Orient’s Anthony Quinn, while his colleagues and directors called him "The Ghoul."
Youssef Chahine said that he was afraid to look him in the eye when he was acting due to the degree of his identification with the character he was performing.
El-Meligy kept acting until his last breath, 6 June 1983, while acting with lifelong friend Omar Sharif in Ayoub.
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