Yehia Chahine wasn’t just a passing name in the history of Egyptian thespianism and the Arab world. He was also one of the prominent figures on both stage and screen due to his serene performance throughout his roles.
Yehia Chahine was born in 28 July 1917 in Miet Uqba, Giza Governorate when it was an island bordered by water on each side. In spite of this geographical hindrance, he enrolled in the Abdeen School in the heart of the capital, which is very distant from his home. His acting talents began to appear in his elementary education, and in the Industrial School. Ultimately, he received a high certificate in Applied Arts.
Pursuing his hobby of acting throughout his youth, he joined amateur acting groups while studying until he met both Bishara Wakim and Edmond Tuema. It was the turning point in his artistic life when they advised him to join the National Troupe, managed by the pioneer actor Zaki Tuleimat at the time, who was searching for fresh faces. Although Chahine succeeded in the troupe’s tests, he remained a whole year without being cast in any role. Feeling hurt, he joined the Fatma Roushdy Troupe, who was dubbed the Orient’s Sarah Bernhardt. Chahine showed his real talents when Fatma Roushdy cast him in jeune premier roles after the famous stage actor Ahmed Allam moved to the National Troupe. In this capacity he played Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, and others.
Despite his theatrical success at the time, Yehia Chahine owes the silver screen the credit for all his fame and glory. He made his debut when he was just twenty two years old in Dananeer (1939, Ahmed Badrkhan). Despite being a small role, he drew attention. It is suffice to say that, after five years, he starred along with the Lady of Arab singing Umm Kulthum upon her request in Sallama (1944, Togo Mizrahi).
He became one of the few leading men throughout the 40’s and beyond. It is true that there were five years separating his two films with Umm Kulthum, Dananeer and Sallama, during which Chahine acted in films such as If I were Rich(1942), and The Accused (1942, both Henri Barakat). But the gradual rise from being a supporting actor in front of Umm Kulthum, in his debut, to being the male star in his eighth film meant so much for the young man who wasn’t thirty years old yet.
Not only this, Yehia Chahine’s success in portraying the character Abdel-Rahman Al-Qass, this pious man in Sallama left its mark on his subsequent film choices. Playing the character of a religious man or even an Islamic sheikh were one of his most major selections on the silver screen. Many a time in films, Chahine has reprised this role in films like: Son of the Nile (1951, Youssef Chahine) They made Me a Criminal (1954, Atef Salem), A Touch of Fear (1969, Hussein Kamal) and The Land (1970, Youssef Chahine). In addition, he acted in two religious films Belal; The Prophet’s Muezzin (1953, Ahmed El-Toukhy) and The Dawn of Islam (1971, Salah Abu-Seif).
It seems that Chahine’s inclination to play the devout man has driven him to act the total opposite in other films. We see him, for instance, as a hedonist in The Train Lady (1952, Youssef Chahine) and The Enemy Brothers (1974, Hossam Eddine Mostafa) or the foul-tempered man in A Heartless Man (1960, Seif-Eddine-Shawkat) and the domineering father in All This Love (1988, Hussein Kamal). Between these two extremes, Chahine was close to roles of idealists and always giving serene performances in most of his choices.
Maybe this composed performance and his oratory skills and poetry reciting as well as his strong pitch were the reasons that drove many directors to cast him in roles of Bedouins, whichre quired a capability to recite poetry and have an eloquent tongue. In that context, the list is truly numerous: Daughter of the Sheikh (1943, Ahmed Kamel Morsi), Hababa (1944), and The Desert Sultana (1947, both Niazi Mostafa). In addition, he acted in dozens of religious and historical TV series such as The Prophet of Humanity (1985, Ahmed Tawfiq) and Judges of Islam(1987, Fayeq Ismail).
There are also many important milestones in Chahine’s cinematic career such as Have Pity on Me (1954, Henri Barakat) and Sleepless (1957, Salah Abu-Seif) along with Faten Hamama, The Stranger (1956, Kamal El-Sheikh) and Where is My Life (1956, Ahmed Diaa-Eddine) with Magda, Solomon’s Ring(1947, Hassan Ramzi) and Life is Love (1954, Seif-Eddine Shawkat) with Leila Mourad, Farewell at Dawn (1956, HassanAl-Imam) and A Touch of Fear (1969, Hussein Kamal) with Shadia. However, Chahine’s crown jewel remains the character of El-Sayed Ahmed Abdel-Gawwad, the protagonist of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy; Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street (1962, 1967 and 1972 respectively, Hassan Al-Imam). Chahine’s virtuosity in portraying this contradictory and paradoxical character reached the extent of permeating through the psyche of the Egyptian and Arab ordinary man; transcending cinematic or literary characters to social and psychological dimensions perhaps never reached by any other dramatic character throughout the history of Arab acting.
In his final years, Chahine moved to TV drama as it was the habit of his generation, in light of being increasingly in demand. He acted in a number of successful TV series; The Days (1979, Yahia Al-Alamy) based on Dr. Taha Hussein’s autobiography, The Well-bred Girls (1988, Mounir El-Toni) and El-Mawardy Street (1990, Ismail Abdel-Hafez). At the last two years in his life, Yehia Chahine suffered from series of illnesses related to senility until he died in 18th March 1994 at the age of seventy seven.
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