Soad Hosny, Egyptian singer and the ‘Cinderella of the silver screen,’ led a remarkable life that came to symbolise the vigour and vitality of Egypt during its golden age of cinema. Despite her talent and prolific career, the potent cocktail of rapid success, the seductive power of the cult of celebrity and the tainted glamour of stardom have come to unjustifiably overshadow her legacy. Here we examine the life, influence and creative output of Egypt’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor.
Dubbed one of the most influential actresses of the Middle East, Cairo-born Hosny was propelled into the media circus at the tender age of three, singing on the popular children’s radio show Papa Sharo. As one of a family of 17 children, she was well practiced at projecting above the crowd and quickly moved beyond radio into the glittering world of the film industry. A traditionally difficult transition, Hosny’s graduation from audio to visual was made smooth by her incredible versatility as an actress. Early roles such as Nayima in the story of Hassan wa Na’ima (1959) – a tale following the familiar trajectory as that set by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – was proof of Hosny’s arresting presence on screen and confirmed her status as ‘one to watch’ in the realm of Arab cinema. Over the next few years, Hosny drew up an impressive stack of commissions in which she deftly portrayed a series of lively young women – Sunrise, Sunset, Too Young to Fall in Love and The Second Wife to name but a few.
Hosny was famed as much for her doey-eyed, striking beauty and wide smile as for her acting ability, thus embodying female characters struggling in environments of poverty and war provided her with the chance to play with public perception. The first film of this ilk was Cairo 30, in which Hosny plays the impoverished Ehsan, who in an act of desperation sells herself to a rich man who assumes complete control of her existence. Important films such as Ala mn notlik Al-Rosas (Whom should we Shoot?) confirmed the move from screen darling to a canvas reflecting political discourse, her character Tahani passively moving in the changing social and political environment of 1970s Egypt as houses crumbled, corruption reigned and Sadat’s open-door policy wreaked havoc with a struggling nation. Despite her efforts to demonstrate the diversity of her skill, however, Hosny never lost her ability to entertain and amuse a crowd. Proof of this lies in her decision to accept the role as anchor for the successful television show Hekayat Hwa we Heya in 1985, a series that combined her love of singing and frivolity with a subtle drive for equality between the genders – demonstrable in the tone and content of the songs.
Famed for her excellent execution of these romantic protagonists – one may think particularly of her portrayal of a college student falling in love with a teacher in landmark Egyptian film Take Care of Zouzou (1974) – Hosny was also highly capable of changing tact in favour of the darker, grittier roles. Her depiction of the tortured Egyptian student prisoner Zeinab, from the film adaptation of Mahfouz’s novel Al-Karnak, demonstrated her ability to adjust with skill and sensitivity to opposing subjects and settings.
Hosny herself was raised in a domestic environment of two halves, mirroring the facets of her dramatic persona. Her father, a Syrian-born calligrapher devoted to music, encouraged both Hosny’s vocal training and the propensity for musical talent discovered amongst her siblings. The strained parental dynamic however, led to a divorce that resulted in the eventual addition of numerous half-siblings and step-siblings to the family unit, a move that affected and, arguably, marred Hosny’s outlook on romantic relationships and the influence of motherhood indefinitely. Hosny never became a mother – despite being married four times – and reputedly avoided roles that would require her to assume a maternal form. Her marriages, love affairs and search for true love have become a popular way in which to sensationalise Hosny’s time in the public eye: first was the one-year marriage in 1968 to cinematographer Salah Kurayyem, followed by a marriage of 11 years to Ali Badrakhan and the short marriage to Fateen Abdel-Wahab in 1981. Finally, Hosny married Maher Awwad in 1987, to whom she was still married when she died.
Hosny was forced to withdraw from public life and film production upon the discovery that a reputed ailment with her spine was affecting and complicating various parts of her body. Such a discovery led to a period of intense struggle for Hosny, during which time she famously maintained her belief that she would recover, continue to create films and perhaps appear on stage. This was never to be: in 2001, Hosny fell to her death from the window of a friend’s apartment in London, a conclusion to her full and glittering life that has led to numerous conspiracy theories, murder inquiries and various investigations. To have her death crowned by a mystery – an accident that has prompted Egyptian discontent, English disbelief and global consternation – seems fitting for an actress who defined her acting ability in terms of its indefinability. Throughout her professional life and now in death, Soad Hosny leaves us unsure of whether she was the happy, laughing girl or the struggling, dark minded woman and thus utterly retains her title of the shrouded ‘Cinderella’ of Egyptian cinema.