Remembering Hoda Sultan: The 'Bella Donna' of Egyptian cinema

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 16 Aug 2018

The Iconic Egyptian actress and singer was born on 15 August 1925 and died on 5 June 2006

Hoda Sultan
Hoda Sultan

Hoda Sultan  is considered to be one of the brightest names in the history of both singing and acting in Egypt in the twentieth century.

Her birth name was Gamalat Bahiga Abdel-Aal Al-Haww and she was born in Kafr Abu-Gendy in El-Gharbiya governorate on 15th August 1925 to a mother of Turkish descent and a father who married a lot and had many children. As was tradition for many country girls at the time, she was forced to marry immediately after reaching puberty.

But the marriage ended in divorce after the birth of her first daughter. Hoda couldn’t find anything to fill the vacuum in her life except the arts, a love she inherited from her father, and one that was heavily influenced by her older brother, the renowned singer Mohammed Fawzi. Despite the fierce opposition she faced from breaking into the field, particularly from her brother, she succeeded in breaking into Egyptian radio with her first song in 1949.  

Being accepted as an official singer was only the first step in fulfilling her huge ambitions. She auditioned for a role that was announced by Nahas Studio, who was was searching for a new face capable of singing to participate in Bella Donna (1950, Niazi Mostafa), and landed it. Despite the fact that it was a small part, she emerged closer to the world of fame.

Sultan reached new heights after her third film, The Foreman Hassan (1952, directed by Salah Abu-Seif). When Hoda Sultan entered the world of cinema, renowned actress Faten Hamama lead nearly all the actresses of her generation (Magda, Shadia, Mariam Fakhr-Eddine and Madiha Youssri) towards the melodrama trend, which was founded in Egypt by Youssef Wahbi and led persistently afterwards by Hassan Al-Imam.

Consequently, Hoda followed the current with her subsequent roles in The Rule of the Powerful and The Scandalmonger (1951, both by Hassan Al-Imam).

In most of these films, she played the traditional role of the enchanting, helpless girl, but quite differently from other female stars’ performances, which were characterisedby being totally submissive and down-trodden.

Melodramas was not the only dominant genre at the time; musicals were also witnessing an increase in demand from foreign distributors.

Being a singer, Hoda Sultan landed starring roles in many musical films such as Love Taxi (1954, Niazi Mostafa), along with The Love of My Heart (1952, Helmy Rafla).

In addition, Hoda Sultan also appeared in Hamido (1953, Niazi Mostafa), They Made Me a Criminal (1954, Atef Salem), and The Swindler (1954, Helmy Rafla).

During the 1950’s, prominent Egyptian director Hassan Al-Imam ushered in an era of creating a model of seduction with female actresses in cinema, in the mould of Hollywood’s Marilyn Monroe.

Al-Imam's choice for Egypt’s Monroe was Hind Rostom, who, like Faten Hamama before her did during the melodrama era, drove other key actresses like Sabah, Berlanti Abdel-Hamid and Hoda Sultan towards the world of femininity and seduction, though Sultan always opted against being cast as any type of helpless girl.

Hoda Sultan tried to add a clearly Egyptian spirit to the strong seductive model by giving it a low class flavour. This was evident in Midnight Driver (1958, Niazi Mostafa), Slaves of the Flesh (1962, Kamal Attia) and her two important films with Al-Imam, A Wife from the Street and Men’s Huntress (both in 1960).

However, Hoda Sultan’s artistic and feminine climax represented itself best in Ezzeddine Zulfikar’s masterpiece A Woman on the Road, where she played the “she-devil crossing your path and stinging you with her carnal desires.”

When Egyptian cinema turned towards duets, Hoda Sultan formed one with Farid Shawqi, her husband at the time. Between the pair, the remarkable duet made nineteen films together, starting with Bella Donna and The Rule of the Powerful.

While Egyptian cinema’s duets were typically stereotypical affairs as seen with the works of Shadia and Kamal El-Shennawi, and Samia Gamal and Farid Al-Atrash, diversity dominated the Hoda Sultan and Farid Shawqi duet.

Many genres were played out in their duets, from the social drama The Foreman Hassan, to the action film Dock No.5, a melodrama in Scandal Merchant, nationalist films in Port Said (1957, Ezzeddine Zulfikar), and a comedy in The Honorable Family (1964, Fateen Abdel-Wahab), which was their last duet together until their film-producer daughter Nahed cast them in A Woman About to Fall (1992, Medhat El Sibai), though they weren’t together in any scene.

By the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s, Hoda Sultan reached the height of her artistic maturity in such films as The Circus (1968, Atef Salem), Dalal the Egyptian (1970, Hassan Al-Imam), The Choice (1971, Youssef Chahine), and especially in Kamal El-Sheikh’s masterpiece Something in my Heart (1971), which heralded her entrance into roles of motherhood., where she gradually became one of the most famous mothers on the silver screen and on TV.

What’s astonishing is that Hoda Sultan did not play the role of the stereotypical mother except in the role of Tafida in Something in my Heart, adapted from Ihsan Abdel-Quddous’ novel, and Amina in Naguib Mahfouz’s famous trilogy when it was adapted to TV.

Sultan didn’t lose her kindness and tenderness in the mother roles, but she also wasn’t the weak, helpless type. She was the strong matriarch uniting all the family members around her. This was evident in the TV series Arabesque (1994, Gamal Abdel-Hamid), The Tent Pole (1996, Ahmed El-Nahas), which adapted from Khairy Shalaby’s novel where she made an indelible performance as Fatma Ta’alba, and Zizinia (1997, Gamal Abdel-Hamid). She passed away twelve years ago on 5th June 2006.

For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture 

Short link: