DUBAI: Even 22 years after her untimely death, few stars in the history of Arab cinema capture the cultural imagination quite like Soad Hosny. Known as the “Cinderella of Egyptian cinema”, the singer-actress played a key role in the rise of her country’s film culture, starring in a number of the most popular Arabic films of the 1960s and 1970s and collaborating with the likes of Omar Sharif and director Youssef Chahine.
But Hosny’s enduring popularity is due to more than just her talent. As brilliant as an artist she was, it was her charming personality – both familiar and always unattainable – that even those who knew her are still trying to figure out to this day.
“It was like she was split into two different personalities and you could always see both on her face,” said famous Egyptian designer Karim Mekhtigian – who has known Hosny since early childhood, being the nephew of her close friend and frequent collaborator , producer Takfour Antonian, was — tells Arab News.
“Whether in real life or in the movies, Soad’s face could convey opposite emotions at the same time. It was really remarkable. One eye (could be) full of sadness, the other bright joy. She was never a thing. That’s part of what made her talent so remarkable,” he continues.
For Hosny herself, the fact that she’s filled such diverse roles over the decades that saw her dominate Egyptian cinema while also topping the music charts was simply because she couldn’t force herself to stay in one mode for too long to stay, and became restless when she felt creatively stagnant.
“I’m bored by nature,” Hosny said in a 1984 Egyptian television interview. “I don’t want to repeat the same thing. I can make political films; I can make entertaining films. Each film will present something new. I can play the naughty girl or the innocent wife. I always try to play different personalities. Every character I play has an atmosphere that I can portray. I want to play women in all their facets.”
Like many of her contemporaries, one of the reasons Hosny was so suited to her chosen career was that she grew up in a highly artistic household headed by her father, the famous Islamic calligrapher Mohammad Hosny – a Kurdish artist who settled there had Egypt at the age of 19.
The daughter of her father’s second wife, young Soad grew up with 16 siblings and half-siblings while being frequented by many luminaries of the Arab world’s artistic community. 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 devoted themselves to the fine arts, but none reached the level of her sister Soad.
While this environment was far from formal preparation for a life in the arts, it was ultimately all Hosny needed.
“I came to film in an uncontaminated way,” she said in a 1972 interview with Qatar TV, shortly after her career-defining hit Take Care of ZouZou, Hassan El-Imam’s classic film about a student who falls in love with her professor. “I didn’t go to an institute or anything like that. I never took lessons.”
Hosny entered the film world at an early age. Her debut Hassan and Nayima (1959) began filming when she was just 15 years old. Hosny starred in back-to-back hits alongside top stars Omar Sharif, Salah Zulfikar and Rushdy Abaza throughout the 1960s, eventually collaborating with Egypt’s top director Youssef Chahine in 1970’s The Choice. By this time, she had gone from being a key collaborator of the world’s biggest movie stars to a leading lady in her own right.
“Every film I’ve worked on has given me more education; every experience has taught me. “ZouZou” for example was a huge success and people loved it and if I want to continue this success I don’t have to take classes in schools for it,” Hosny said in the same interview with Qatar TV.
Over the years, Hosny pushed for roles that would help define not only who Egyptian women were, but who they could be – pushing boundaries with overtly political films as well as biting satire portraying the voiceless in Egyptian society consciously gave a voice, a move that made her both a thought leader and a popular culture figure.
“I love playing the modern day girl of Egypt and expressing her problems, the environment she lives in and her psyche. I want to play their hopes, their ambitions, their ideas and dreams. I want to explore what it means for us to love Egypt and express all of that,” she said in 1972.
Hosny was for many a symbol of Egyptian femininity, something current Egyptian superstar Mona Zaki said she initially found difficult to embody when she starred in the 2006 TV series Cinderella, about Hosny’s life, in starring acclaimed Egyptian screenwriter Tamer Habib.
“Soad Hosny was so feminine in both looks and substance while I’m a tomboy. I was only able to play Hosny’s character after a long search. I made a new relationship with my femininity after this series,” Zaki told Vogue in 2021.
“To the Egyptians, she was like a fairytale princess. That’s why they christened her Cinderella,” Habib tells Arab News. “For two years we talked for hours on the phone about everything. She felt how much I loved her, so she opened her heart to me. I was so lucky – she really was one of a kind.”
Hosny’s heyday lasted more than two decades. But in the late ’80s, she battled an illness and finally retired from acting in 1991, aged just 48.
Although she retired from the screen, Hosny never left the public eye. When she died in June 2001, tragically falling from the balcony of her friend Nadia Yousri’s flat in London, England, all of Egypt was left confused and sad as her funeral drew 10,000 mourners. Theories about the exact circumstances of her death still circulate today.
Despite the enduring love that has inspired Hosny in the 63 years since her first on-screen debut, those closest to her still feel that she is misunderstood and underappreciated.
“Soad was incredibly talented. She had the ability to play any role to perfection, whether comedic or tragic. She had charisma and charm. Despite this, she was not recognized and died alone,” actor and friend Hassan Youssef told Egypt Today in 2018.
While the mere fact that interest in her life or work has never waned seems to belie his sweeping statement that Hosny was unappreciated, there may be a grain of truth in his words. Is it even possible to appreciate the nuance and diversity of a life and career like Soad Hosny’s?