Remembering the 'Cinderella' of the Egyptian screen

Menna Taher, Tuesday 21 Jun 2011

It's been ten years since the mysterious death of Egyptian cinema icon Soad Hosny (1943-2001), who left behind a legacy of over 90 films

Soad Hosny

Soad Hosny was born on 26 January, 1942.  Many spoke of her free-spirit, reflected in her natural smile, and her bashful spirit. Her reputed shyness in real life contrasted highly with her television presence, which was filled with life and vigor.

Her soft beauty struck and inspired many artists. The famous sculptor Gamal El Segeiny made a sculpture of her and for some time she was the muse of Salah Abdel Sabbour, the poet considered one of the pioneers of the free-verse movement in Egypt. The poet Kamel El Shennawy compared her eyelids to two smiling lips.

She is perhaps most famous for her role in Khaly Balak Men Zouzou (Take Care of Zouzou), a landmark film in Egypt’s cinematic history. The film, with its songs written by the famous colloquial poet Salah Jaheen, whom she considered her godfather, was the longest running film in Egyptian cinemas, showing for over a year.

In the book Cinderella Tatakalam (Cinderella Speaks) by the journalist Monir Motawea, Soad Hosny says that Jaheen and composer Kamal El Taweel understood her voice. As for why the film became such a success, she believes that its topic, classism, touched people at the time and that the cast and crew were in very good spirits for the duration of its making, which affected the outcome positively.

Many, and some would argue most, Egyptians know the film's songs by heart. Soad Hosny, until her last days in London, called herself "Zouzou."

Critics, however, were not very satisfied with the film. Samy El Salamouny, for example, wrote a very harsh review claiming that the makers of the film turned to commerciality. Yet many critics also changed their minds after seeing how much of a success the film turned out to be.

Soad Hosny was raised in an artistic family. Her father was a calligrapher and loved music. The famous Egyptian singer Nagat was her older half-sister, and her older half-brother, Ezz El Deen, was a composer and played the oud with Om Koulthoum’s ensemble. However, away from the spotlight, the family struggled with many issues, which strongly affected Hosny. Her parents divorced at a young age and consequently she had sixteen siblings, half-siblings and stepsiblings.

Her parents’ divorce and her constant presence in court left her scarred until her last days in London, as is evident in the book Cinderella Speaks. She confessed that she avoided roles where she was asked to play a mother. She herself never became a mother.

But this, perhaps, also contributed to making her a great actress. Her deep sorrow, extreme sensitivity, explorative love for life, and somewhat childish spirit, and of course her natural beauty, all contributed to her making her one of the most iconic figures in Egyptian cinema.

 Many that played a big role in shaping her identity were writers and cartoonists in the magazine Sabah El Kheir, including Ahmed Bahaa El Deen, Hassan Fad and, of course, Salah Jaheen. Soad Hosny considered herself the "daughter" of the magazine. “I appeared only two years after the founding of the magazine,” she is quoted as saying in Cinderella Speaks. Her birthday also coincided with the anniversary of the magazine that she loved and read regularly.

“For me he’s still alive,” she also said in Motawae’s book, regarding her godfather Salah Jaheen, as she was preparing a series of his poetry for Ramadan.

Soad Hosny reportedly was always on the quest to expand her knowledge in all fields and always asked many questions while on the set, which sometimes tried the directors' patience, she recalls with humour in Motawea’s book.

Her first appearance was on the radio show Rokn El Atfal (The Children’s Corner) by Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban, known as Baba Sharo, when she was at the young age of three.

She faced some disappointments early on in her career. In her first role she was cast as Ophelia in Hamlet, in a production directed by Abdel Rahman El Khameesy. However, her excitement at getting the role soon deflated when she realized she wasn't able to recite Shakespeare well, and she would weep in frustration. In the end the project got canceled for financial reasons.

Her second big disappointment was when she was cast for the leading role in Hassan and Naeema, and auditioned in front of Mohamed Abdel Wahab for the singing parts in the film and was told she needed more practice. She was only 16 at the time.

Yet many directors believed in her from the very beginning. Ahmed Badrakhan, the father of her ex-husband Aly Badrakhan, saw her for the first time with her sister Nagat on set and told his crew that he wanted het to appear in his film in any way. Abdel Rahman El Khameesy was also the one to suggest that she play Naeema in Hassan We Naeema, a role for which top actress Faten Hamama was being considered.  

The first time she believed she had reached a certain degree of maturity was in 1966 with her role in El Kahera 30 (Cairo 30) directed by Salah Abou Seif, where she played a woman living in poverty who sold herself to a rich man that controlled her life.

“It is the first role that has depth and not as light as my previous roles. It is a tragic role and it showed that I am not only the 'fun girl'," Hosny said in Cinderella Speaks.

As for her most important political film, Soad Hosny believed it was Ala Man Natlok El Rosas (On Whom Do We Shoot Our Bullets, 1975), directed by Kamal El Sheikh and written by Raafat El Meehy. The film delves into the social and political change that occurred in the 70s, addressing corruption, problems in housing, including buildings falling down, and the consequences of the Infitah (Sadat’s economic open-door policy).

Also one of her most famous roles is in the film Al Karnak (1975) by Aly Badrakhan, in which she plays a university student resisting recruitment by the corrupt intelligence agency of Abdel Nasser’s regime, and featured a now infamous and brutal torture and rape scene, often cited in sensationalistic discussions of the former star. 

After a full life, however, Soad Hosny was struck by an ailment in her spine that led to further complications, and lived in London for the remainder of her days.

Motawea’s book, though not her biography as many claim, is a good documentation not only of the life of Soad Hosny and her last days in London, but it also reflects on Egyptian cinema and  one of its golden ages. It also captures and evokes Soad Hosny’s spirit.

Reading the book one gets a good understanding of who she was and the deep sorrow and nostalgia she felt. She talks about her early years and her numerous husbands, which included the famous Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, whom she married secretly, the director Aly Badrakhan, whom she was married to for 11 years and her last husband, scriptwriter Maher Awad. She was also married to the cinematographer Salah Karim and Zaky Fateen Abdel Wahab for a short period of time.

Her last days in London were filled with loneliness and sorrow as she battled her disease in exile. She expressed faith, however, that she would get better and resume her acting career, which is one of the reasons why many do not believe she committed suicide. In the book she also told Motawea that she intended to act on stage.

On 21 June 2001, she fell from the window of her friend Nadia Youssry's London apartment. Her death remains shrouded in mystery and investigations are still on-going. According to some accounts, eyewitnesses claim that falling out of the window was not the cause of her death and neighbours heard shouting before the incident. Many accuse Youssry and the former secretary-general of the now outlawed NDP party, Safwat El Sherif, of orchestrating her death.

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