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Friday, 18 October 2019

Remembering Shokry Sarhan, the Nile boy

Shokry Sarhan was born 13 March 1925 in Alexandria, becoming a household name in a cinema career of classics

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 4 Apr 2019
Shokry Sarhan
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The month of March has long been connected with actor Shokry Sarhan. His birthday was on 13 March 1925 in Alexandria, although his family was originally from Al-Sharqia governorate. Meanwhile, his death at the age of 72 came 19 March 1997.

Shokry Sarhan wasn’t just a leading man who starred in a number of films; he was one of the most important names that Egyptian cinema came to know, associated with many of its classics. He was the leading man of The Nile Boy, A Woman’s Youth, A Woman on the Road, and The Thief and the Dogs.

Sarhan was brought up in a religious conservative family within a rural environment. Hence his father wasn’t enthusiastic about his son’s enrolment in an acting institute after getting his high school certificate. However, his father gave in to pressure so that Shokry became a student in the first batch of the Higher Institute of Acting founded by Zaki Tuleimat. Sarhan’s colleagues included Farid Shawqi, Hamdy Gheith and Naima Wasfi. After graduation, Sarhan participated in a number of plays before filmmakers took notice of him. Consequently, he acted in four films all in 1949. His debut was Lahalibo along with Naima Akef and directed by her husband Hussein Fawzi, then Nadia (Fateen Abdel-Wahab), The Confessional Chair (Youssef Wahbi) and Watch out for the Wallet (Mahmoud Ismail). In 1950, he participated in another group of commercial films through which he aimed to be sure-footed in the acting scene while waiting for the role that would push him up among the shining stars.

He didn’t wait too long for that role to come his way; only two years after his cinematic debut director Youssef Chahine cast him as the star along with Faten Hamama and Yehia Chahine in The Nile Boy (1951), which represented Egypt in several international film festivals. It garnered Sarhan the desired success to the extent he was dubbed the Nile boy until now. Sarhan consolidated his status in other distinguished roles with prominent directors, such as Raya and Sakina (1953, Salah Abu-Seif), An Appointment with Life (1953, Ezzeddine Zulfikar) and Bread Seller (1953, Hassan Al-Imam). 

By the mid-50s, Sarhan proved his talent in representing the ordinary Egyptian young man, whether as a fisherman in The Memories Beach (1955, Ezzeddine Zulfikar) or as an inhabitant of a low-class neighbourhood in The Sound of the Anklet (1955, Mahmoud Zulfikar), Fools' Alley (1955, Tawfiq Saleh) or as a student from a rural background in A Woman’s Youth (1956, Salah Abu-Seif) or even the somewhat educated youth in The Road of Hope (1957, Ezzeddine Zulfikar) and We are the Students (1959, Atef Salem).

During the 60s, Shokry Sarhan continued playing variations on the role of the ordinary Egyptian citizen through films like Ambassador Aziza (1961, Tolba Radwan) and Don’t put out the Sun (1961, Salah Abu-Seif). There is also his memorable role in The Second Wife (1967, Salah Abu-Seif). Not all his roles at that period can’t be described as idealistic, for while he played the exemplary doctor believing in science and fighting ignorance in Struggle of Heroes (1962, Tawfiq Saleh), he portrayed a pervert youth in The Three Miscreants (1962, Hossam Eddine Mostafa). In this timeframe, his ultimate performance was in The Thief and the Dogs (1963, Kamal El-Sheikh) adapted from an eponymous novel by Naguib Mahfouz.

At the height of his fame, Sarhan was keen to present himself as one of the champions of romantic cinema. This was evident in The Road of Hope, Qays and Laila (1960) and The Headmistress (1968, both Ahmed Diaa-Eddine). But still the epitome of his romantic roles was in My Heart Restored to Life (1957, Ezzeddine Zulfikar) adapted from an eponymous novel by Youssef Al-Sibai. It isn’t only his most important romantic role ever, but is considered one of the very best in films of this genre across Egyptian narrative film history.

By the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, Shokry Sarhan realised that he had transcended the age of the jeune premier, so he began to gradually move away from these roles starting with The Postman (1968, Hussein Kamal). It was followed by Something in My Heart (1971, Kamal El-Sheikh) adapted from an eponymous novel by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, then The Divorcees (1975, Ismail El-Qady) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1976, Youssef Chahine) in the following year, and Behind the Sun (1978, Mohamed Radi). Thus, it was very strange when Shokry Sarhan returned in For Whom the Wind Calls (1975, Hussein Kamal) to play a young porter marrying a girl from his village. The same observation applies to his film The Night Fatma was arrested (1984, Henri Barakat), albeit the filmmaker tried to present dramatic excuses for this choice.

In the 80s and beyond, Sarhan’s roles were rare to the extent that he has acted in only nine films in this long period, the last of which was Al-Gabalawi (1991, Adel Al-Aasar), six years before his death. At the same period, he was interested more in participating in TV series. The most prominent was Muhammad, Allah’s Messenger - Part II (1981, Ahmed Tantawi), before reaching the Age of Suicide (1987, Shafiq Shamyia) and Judges in Islam (1987, Ahmed Tantawi). These choices may have reflected his religious background.

Sarhan died 19 March 1997, leaving behind one of the most memorable bodies of work in Egyptian cinema history.

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