CAIRO: At the peak of her career in the mid-50s and 60s, Egyptian screen goddess Hind Rostom was the biggest film star in Egypt and the most desired woman in the Arab World.
Her savage European beauty, unbridled confidence and defiant spirit set her apart. A versatile, charismatic performer, Rostom was the poster girl of Egyptian cinema’s golden age, the most beautiful woman to grace the silver screen.
The strong-headed, independent characters Rostom so memorably embodied in enduring classics like Youssef Chahine’s “Cairo Station,” “The Nun” and “Between Heaven and Earth” opened the door for an entire generation of emotionally-dependent, self-empowered actresses who broke the female archetype that dominated the first three decades of Egyptian cinema.
Dubbed the “Queen of Seduction” and the “Marylyn Monroe of the East,” Rostom died on Monday evening at 82 at Al-Borg Hospital in Cairo after suffering a sudden heart attack. Her funeral was held at the Sayeda Nafeesa mosque on Tuesday, Aug. 9. She is survived by her only daughter Passant.
Born Nariman Hussein Murad on Nov. 11, 1931 in Alexandria to a middle-class Turkish father and an aristocratic mother, her parents separated shortly after she was born. She moved to Cairo with her father when she was nine and then later with her single mother a few years later.
Rostom caught the acting bug early in her childhood, idolizing American starlet Rita Hayworth and Egyptian actress/belly dancer Tahia Karioka.
Her friends showed her the path to film sets where she instantly caught the attention of technicians and directors alike. Her start was anything but glamorous; she appeared as a silent extra in nearly 20 films between 1947 and 1954, including Anwar Wagdi’s “Ghazal El-Banat” (Flirting with the Girls) in 1949 and Youssef Chahine’s debut “Baba Amin” in 1950. She scored her first talking role in 1954 with Mohamed Abdel Gawad’s comedy “El-Setat Maye’rafoosh Yegdebo” (Women Can’t Lie) starring Kamal El Shennawy and Shadia.
Her breakthrough came in 1955 with Hassan Al-Imam’s melodrama “El-Gasad” (The Body). Widely credited for discovering her, El-Emam — celebrated for his impeccable direction of women — created for Rostom the screen persona that would inform the most part of her career; an ambitious, determined seductress who uses her sexuality, wit and fierce intelligence to get her way.
For the next 10 years, Rostom’s star rose dramatically thanks to a series of diverse roles in some of the biggest hits of the time. She tapped into every genre there was, ranging from comedy (Fateen Abdel Wahab’s “Ibn Hamido” and Raouf Kamel’s “Ismail Yassin fi Mostashfa El-Maganeen” (Ismail Yassin in the Sanitarium) with the late king of comedy Ismail Yassin and “Ishaa’et hob” (A Love Rumor), also by Abdel Wahab, with Omar Sharif and Youssef Wahbi); to melodrama (Ezzel Din Zulfikar’s “Rod Qalby” (Return My Heart) with Shukri Sarhan and Atef Salem’s “Seraa fel Nil” (Battle on the Nile) with Omar Sharif and Rushdi Abaza); to action (Hussien El-Seify’s “Wakr Al-Ashrar” (Den of the Wicked) with Farid Shawky and Rushdi Abaza); to biopics (Ahmed Badrakhan’s “Sayed Darwish” with Karam Motawa).
It’s with Al-Imam, Salah Abou Sief and Chahine — Arab cinema’s foremost filmmakers — that Rostom achieved greatness. Along with “The Body,” Rostom starred in two of Al-Imam’s most controversial films: “Chafika El-Qeptia” (Chafika the Copt, 1963) and “El-Rahba” (The Nun, 1965). In both films, Rostom played a Christian woman with an insatiable lust for life forced into isolation as the price of her social deviance.
She collaborated with Abou Sief, pioneer of the Egyptian neo-realism wave, in two highly acclaimed films: “La Anam” (I Don’t Sleep, 1957), an adaptation of Ihsan Abdel Quddous’ novel co-starring Faten Hamama, Omar Sharif and Yehia Shahin, and “Been El-Sama wel-Ard” (Between Heaven and Earth, 1959), a black comedy about a group of passengers who get stranded in an elevator.
Her supporting comic turn in Chahine’s musical comedy “Enta Habiby” (You’re the One, 1957) was succeeded a year later by her most iconic role: Hanuma in “Bab El-Hadid” (Cairo Station). In Chahine’s Golden Bear nominated noir masterpiece, Rostom played the wild, unruly lemonade seller who drives Chahine’s crippled newspaper vendor, Qinawi, into insanity.
Much like the real Rostom, Hanuma is that unattainable object of desire; an insubordinate voice challenging the structure of a very patriarchal society that cannot contain her. The screen burns with Rostom’s beauty, Chahine once said, and it’s not difficult to see why. Her striking eyes, sultry smile and strong facial features made men go weak, unable to cope with her unpredictability and individuality. Her sense of humor misleadingly gave an impression of her accessibility when, in fact, she was unreachable. The vulnerable, sacrificial side she unveiled in her later work enhanced her myth, adding another shade to a larger-than-life character no man is able to decode.
The strong morality defining the cinema of the time often led to the demonization of Rostom’s voracious, atypical characters and their inevitable punishment, yet they always managed to stand tall above their traditional, unforgiving milieu, driving the self-righteous, politically correct and awfully dull men of her world into obsolesce.
By the mid-60s, Rostom decided to break away from earlier roles with a number of works that showcased a calmer, older, wiser if no less autonomous, personality. The most notable of these films is Mahmoud Zulfikar’s “El-Khouroug min El-Ganna” (Exiting Paradise,1967) in which she played the patient, supportive wife of Farid Al-Atrash, a reckless, unemployed singer.
In 1979, Rostom decided to retire, going into near seclusion till the day she passed away. She was married twice, to director Hassan Reda, father of Passant, and physician Mohamed Fayad. She received several awards, including a special mention at the Venice Film Festival for Fateen Abdel Wahab’s “Nessa’ fi Hayati” (Women in My Life) in 1957 and the lifetime achievement award from the Arab World Institute in Paris.