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Sunday, 20 October 2019

Remembering actor Kamal El-Shennawi: A 'white-collar' of the Egyptian cinema

This month marks the 7th anniversary of death of the Egyptian film actor, Kamal El-Shennawi, known for roles in over 200 films and television series.

Ashraf Gharib, Sunday 26 Aug 2018
Kamal El Shennawi
Kamal El Shennawi
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By the end of World War II in 1945, Egyptian cinema witnessed the biggest capital flow into film production in its history.

The number of films churned out during this period was a huge leap for Egyptian cinema and was accordingly accompanied by the emergence of actors who became the Egypt’s first film stars. Emad Hamdy's debut was Always in My Heart (1945, Salah Abu-Seif), followed by Farid Shawqi's Angels in Hell (1946, Hassan Al-Imam) and Kamal El-Shennawi's War Profiteer (1947, Niazi Mostafa) while Rushdi Abaza’s debut was in The Little Millionairess (1948, Kamal Barakat) and Shukry Sarhan’s in Nadia (1949, Fateen Abdel-Wahab).

These names, along with Yehia Chahine, Anwar Wagdi, and Mohsen Sarhan were the stars of the post WWII period in Egypt until the emergence of the generation of Omar Al-Sharif, Ahmed Ramzy and Hassan Youssef in the mid 1950s.

Kamal El-Shennawi, who was born on 26 December 1921 and died on 22 August 2011, entered the world of cinema with a background in fine arts. After graduating from the oil department from the Faculty of Art Education at Cairo University, he worked briefly as an art teacher while also acquiring a musical aptitude during a short stint in a musical institute.

Kamal El-Shennawi broke into the Egyptian cinema scene as a fresh-faced 26-year-old, a perfect fit for the roles of the “jeune premier” or the young and handsome “Don Juan” in Egyptian cinema, along with other actors of his generation such as Emad Hamdy, Anwar Wagdi, and Yehia Chahine.

Thus, young El-Shennawi's emergence, along with his contemporaries, ushered in the emergence of young female stars, the most prominent of whom being Faten Hamama and Shadia.

This emergence led to the predominance of the duets of Emad Hamdy and Faten Hamama, along with Kamal El-Shennawi and Shadia, in Egyptian cinema, foreshadowing the appearance of Hoda Sultan in 1950, who formed the infamous duet with Farid Shawqi.

Although El-Shennawi was one of the names that defined the “white-collar” cinema star, along with Yehia Chahine, Emad Hamdy and Shukry Sarhan, he showed to be more vigorous than his acting peers in demonstrating a classical way of acting and the obvious physical symmetry.

Maybe this was because of the existence of the singer and actress Shadia as his partner within the aforementioned duet, through which they made twenty-five films together starting with The Dove of Peace (1948, Helmy Rafla) and ending with The Fugitive (1975, Kamal El-Sheikh). These films were characterised as being romantic and musical, if not repetitive.

Together Forever (1951, Youssef Maalouf), A Good Omen (1952, Hassan Ramzi) and Farewell at Dawn (1956, Hassan Al-Imam) were the most recognizable of their collaborations.

However, there remain two significant films in the frame of this duet. The first of which was Unknown Woman (1959, Mahmoud Zulfikar), where Kamal El-Shennawi was cast against his traditional archetype and played the role of the villain turning Shadia’s life to hell, a stark contrast to his previous roles as her savior. The second was The Thief and the Dogs (1963, Kamal El-Sheikh) where El-Shennawi proved his superb capability to perform the role of the villain demonstrating human weakness through the character of Raouf Elwan, though it is noteworthy to mention that Kamal El-Shennawi didn’t appear together with Shadia in any scene in this film,  which was adapted from Nobel laureate Naguib Mafouz’s novel of the same name.

After accumulating experiences in the 50s and early 60s, Kamal El-Shennawi was cementing himself as one of the remarkable names in the history of acting in Egypt. He had a special performing style that was emulated by other actors. His noticeable films in the 60s were The Warm Nights (1961, Hassan Ramzi), The Impossible (1965, Hussein Kamal), which was adapted from Mostafa Mahmoud’s novel, and Nora (1967, Mahmoud Zulfikar).

At this period, Kamal El-Shennawi’s biggest problem was that he kept clinging to youthful roles, most egregiously exemplified when, as a 46-year-old, he played the part of a university student and hot-shot journalist in The Man Who lost His Shadow (1968, Kamal El-Sheikh), which was adapted from Fathi Ghanem’s novel. Despite this unsuitability for the character, his performance was outstanding. Perhaps because of his lauded performance, El-Shennawi continued to accept many unsuitable choices during that period.

By the mid 1970s, Kamal El-Shennawi finally realised that he should begin to choose roles that meshed with his real age. Thus, he made this major leap in Al-Karnak (1975, Ali Badrkhan) adapted from Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, when he played Khaled Safwan, one of the Nasserite regime’s influential men. Due to his success in this film and in TV series such as Zeinab and the Throne (1979, Yehia Al-Alamy) and The Eyes of Love (1979, Ibrahim El-Shaqanqiri), El-Shennawi began to be in demand once again in the 1980s.

He made a number of noteworthy films such as Houseboat no. 70 (1982, Khairy Bishara), Master’s Stroke (1987, Atef Al-Tayeb) and finally ended with Zaza (2006, Ali Abdel-Khalek). In these films, Kamal El-Shennawi showed a state of artistic maturity, particularly for the humanly sympathetic roles and the roles of influential people during the Economic Openness which Egypt witnessed in the last quarter of the last century. This was accompanied with his successful TV series including The Family and the People (2000, Mohammed Fadel) and For Security Reasons (2002, Mohammed Fadel).

During the last five years of his life, Kamal El-Shennawi suffered from a series of health problems until his death in 22 August 2011 at the age of 90.

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