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DUBAI: Even 22 years after his untimely passing, few stars in the history of Arab cinema capture the cultural imagination like Soad Hosny. The singer and actress known as “The Cinderella of Egyptian cinema” played a key role in the rise of her country’s film culture, starring in a number of the most popular Arab films of the 60s and 70s, working with greats like Omar Sharif and director Youssef Chahine.

But Hosny’s enduring popularity is due to something more than his talent. As brilliant as an artist she was, it was her bewitching personality – both familiar and always out of touch – that even those who knew her still try to understand to this day.

Soad Hosny with Hussein Fahmy in “Attention à ZouZou” in 1972. (Supplied)

“It was like she was split into two different personalities, and you could always see both on her face,” famous Egyptian designer Karim Mekhtigian – who had known Hosny since early childhood, being the nephew of his close friend and frequent collaborator, producer Takfour Antonian — tells Arab News.

“Whether in life or in film, Soad’s face could simultaneously express opposite feelings. It was truly remarkable. One eye (could be) full of sadness, the other beaming with happiness. She was never a thing. That’s part of what made his talent so remarkable,” he continues.

Soad Hosny holding baby Karim Mekhatagian. (Courtesy of Karim Mekhatagian)

For Hosny herself, the fact that she played such varied roles during the decades in which she dominated Egyptian cinema while topping her music charts was simply because she couldn’t force herself staying in one mode too long, becoming restless if she felt she was creatively stagnating.

“By nature, I am bored,” Hosny said in an interview with Egyptian television in 1984. “I do not wish to repeat the same thing. I can make political films; I can make entertaining films. Each film will feature something new. I can play the naughty girl or the innocent woman. I always try to play different personalities. Every character I play has an atmosphere that I can present. I want to play women in all their facets.

Like many of her contemporaries, part of what made Hosny so suited to the career she chose was the fact that she grew up in an intensely artistic family, led by her father, the famous Islamic calligrapher Mohammad Hosny – a Kurdish artist who had settled in Egypt at the age of 19.

Soad Hosny receives an honor from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. (Alamy)

Young Soad, the daughter of her father’s second wife, grew up among 16 siblings, with many luminaries of the Arab world’s artistic community moving in and out of their homes. Each of the children was affected by these interactions in different ways. Her sister Nagat, for example, also became an actress and singer, while her half-brother Ezz composed music for decades. Others played instruments or pursued the fine arts, but none reached the heights of their sister Soad.

Although this environment was far from a formal means of preparation for an artistic life, it was, in the end, all that Hosny needed.

“I entered the cinema without mixture”, she said in an interview with Qatar TV in 1972, shortly after the success of her career “Beware of ZouZou”, the classic film by Hassan El-Imam on a student who falls in love with her teacher. “I didn’t go into an institute, or anything like that. I never took any lessons. »

Hosny entered the world of cinema early. Her first film, “Hassan and Nayima” (1959) started filming when she was only 15 years old. Throughout the 1960s, Hosny starred in hit after hit opposite stars Omar Sharif, Salah Zulfikar and Rushdy Abaza, among others, eventually collaborating with Egypt’s top director. Youssef Chahine in 1970 with “The Choice”, by which time she had gone from a key collaborator with the biggest stars in the world of cinema to the main table in her own right.

“Every movie I’ve worked on has given me more education; each experience has taught me lessons. “ZouZou,” for example, was a huge hit and people loved it, and if I want to keep it going, I don’t have to take school lessons to do it,” Hosny said. to Qatar TV in this same interview.

Over the years, Hosny pushed for roles that would help define not just who Egyptian women were, but who they could be – pushing the boundaries with overtly political films as well as biting satire that deliberately gave voice to women. voiceless in Egyptian society, a movement that made her a thought leader as well as a beloved cultural figure.

“I love playing the modern Egyptian girl and expressing her problems, the environment she lives in and her psyche. I want to play her hopes, ambitions, ideas and dreams. ‘love Egypt and express all that means’, she said in 1972.

Hosny was a symbol of Egyptian femininity to many, something current Egyptian superstar Mona Zaki said she struggled to embody when playing her in the 2006 television series about Hosny’s life, “Cinderella,” with the screenwriter. acclaimed Egyptian Tamer Habib.

Mona Zaki (center) as Soad Hosny in ‘Cinderella’ in 2006. (AFP)

“Soad Hosny was so feminine both in appearance and substance, whereas I am a tomboy. I was only able to play the character of Hosny after long research. I built a new relationship with my femininity after this series,” Zaki told Vogue in 2021.

“For the Egyptian people, she was like a princess in a fairy tale. That’s why they nicknamed her Cinderella,” Habib told Arab News. “For two years, we talked about everything on the phone for hours. She felt how much I loved her, so she opened her heart to me. I was so lucky – she was truly one of a kind.

Hosny’s peak spanned more than two decades. But by the end of the 80s, she was battling illness and finally retired from acting in 1991 at just 48 years old.

Despite stepping away from the screen, Hosny has never left the public eye. When she died in June 2001, tragically falling from the balcony of her friend Nadia Yousri’s apartment in London, England, it confused and saddened all of Egypt, with her funeral drawing 10,000 mourners. Theories about the exact circumstances of his death still circulate today.

Despite the enduring love Hosny has inspired in the 63 years since her on-screen debut, those closest to her still feel she is misunderstood and underappreciated.

“Soad was incredibly talented. She had the ability to perfectly play any role, be it comic or tragic. She had charisma and charm. Yet she was unappreciated and died alone,” actor and friend Hassan Youssef told Egypt Today in 2018.

Although the mere fact that the interest never faded from his life or work seems to disprove his general statement that Hosny was unappreciated, there may be some truth in his words. After all, is it even possible to fully appreciate the nuances and variety of a life and career like Soad Hosny’s?