She has played every role, lived every life, and still continues to make audiences gasp, laugh and cry thanks to timeless roles in over 60 films. In these never-before-seen photos we catch a glimpse of living legend Hend Rostom in her prime, while Enigma’s Maissa Azab talks exclusively to the icon about her loves, losses, highs, lows and what it took to change the face of Arab cinema forever.
They just don’t make stars like these anymore. Killer looks, seductive curves and lashings of talent. Hend Rostom was – and is – all woman. She was the ultimate Egyptian sex symbol; as tantalizing in couture gowns as she was in a galabeya. In an era when starlets were calm, collected and demure, she burst onto the screen with style, grace and gregariousness. She made everything just that little bit sexier.
Yet Rostom wasn’t just sexy in the 60 plus movies in which she starred from the late 1940s to her final role in 1975. She was strong. This wasn’t a damsel in distress. This was a woman that went looking for distress, and if she did get into trouble, her feminine wiles soon got her out. When she appeared in her first film, El Tadheya El Kobra (The Greatest Sacrifice) at the tender age of 16, she was already much more than the wistful wallflower audiences had come to expect. But it wasn’t until 1955 that her true talent shone, in her first starring role in Hussein El Emam’s Banat El Leil (Girls of the Night). She played a seductress like no other Arab woman before her. She wasn’t just a voluptuous vixen; she was a woman to be reckoned with.
Rostom cemented her icon status with a riveting role as a femme fatale selling soft drinks at Cairo’s Ramses train station. Youssef Chahine’s revolutionary film, Bab El Hadid (Cairo Station) was banned from theatres for 12 years due to issues of poverty, sex and temptation. In the film Rostom’s character is caught in the middle of a love triangle which turns obsessive, in a world poverty-stricken by government injustice. Selling kazooza at a train station doesn’t exactly scream femme fatale. But as she shimmies her hips and flutters her eyelashes, she might as well be the only woman in the world.
Her personal life has always been shrouded in mystery. She has been married twice, the first time to Hassan Reda, a director who fathered her only child Passant, and a second time to the admitted love of her life, Dr. Mohamed Fayyad, who died tragically early this year. Rostom, the ultimate perfectionist, was last seen on the silver screen in the 1975 feature film El Gaban wel Hob (The Coward and Love), choosing to leave the limelight at the peak of her stardom. This is one femme fatale who will live forever.
Let’s start from the very beginning. What made you want to become an actress?
It was pure chance. I was trying to buy a ticket for a movie at Cosmos cinema, right opposite Studio Misr, but it was incredibly crowded. A woman came up to me and said she’d give me the seat next to hers, but before we went in, she had an errand to do at the studio. I was thrilled at the chance to do some celebrity spotting, so I went along with her. Screenwriter Hussein Helmy El Mohandess and assistant director Ezz El Din Zulfikar were both there. I looked very foreign and the first thing they asked me was if I could speak Arabic. I told them I was Egyptian but they didn’t believe me. They made me read some lines and the director was impressed. He couldn’t believe it was my first time acting. I was very confident back then. The more famous I became, the less confident I got.
How did your family react?
They were livid. They completely stopped speaking to me! I was brought up in an aristocratic family and acting was so close to scandalous at the time. My uncles would even turn their heads to avoid looking at me when they saw me out. We only started speaking again when I married my second husband Dr. Mohamed Fayyad.
You’re often dubbed the Marilyn Monroe of the Middle East; the ultimate seductress. Do you see the resemblance?
Not at all. Marilyn Monroe was a very western icon. She always played the seductress. I was never typecast into playing one role. I’ve played every type of woman.
Which one of your characters came closest to the real Hend Rostom?
None of them! I’m actually very masculine, would you believe that? When I was a teenager I was a complete tomboy; playing football, messing about on my bike and wearing trainers when the other girls wore heels. The way I carried myself was also very boyish, like a soldier. My characters gave me the opportunity to be a completely different sort of woman.
Yet you exude femininity and sexuality on screen. Surely that can’t all have been an act?
I swear it was! It was all acting. I am the complete opposite in reality.
What about your trademark throaty laugh? Was that an act?
No, the laugh is all mine! I don’t know why people loved it; it wasn’t a cute laugh. It’s strong and loud – not feminine at all – it’s actually quite rough.
You worked with legendary director Youssef Chahine on his first three movies. Tell us about those experiences…
Chahine’s work is outstanding but takes a lot out of you. On Bab El Hadid (Cairo Station) we were filming for long hours at the Cairo train station and I would have to do costume changes in a tiny kiosk. The film was banned in Egypt because it tackled some very controversial issues. We flew out to Monte Carlo for a screening and 7,000 people gave him a standing ovation. He was much admired internationally, for his style and the films he made.
Who would you have considered your silver screen competitors?
No one! I am unique. Most of the actresses of that era looked Arab, for example Faten Hamama, Shadia and Magda. But there were three of us, Mariam Fakhr El Din, Nadia Lofty and I, who looked very different. We were special.
Talk to us about your co-star and fellow silver screen icon Roushdy Abaza. Was he as handsome and charming in real life as he was on-screen?
He was irresistible and amazing! I felt so secure when I worked with him and we had so much fun working together. They nicknamed us Madrasset El Moushaghebeen (School for Scoundrels). We liked to joke around a lot but once the director yelled action it was all business.
Which movie is closest to your heart?
Shafika El Ebteya (Shafika the Copt). The character I was playing – the wife of Khedive Ismail – gambled away all her money playing poker. I used to love spending money on lavish luxuries, from jewellery to cars, but after that movie I started to control myself. I didn’t want to end up like her!
You never acted with Abdel Halim Hafez? Why is that?
We were supposed to work together in Abi Fawk El Shagara (My Father Atop a Tree). Scriptwriter Ehsan Abdel Koudous wanted me specifically for the role as did Halim, but I turned it down which upset them both. I felt my part in the movie would be insignificant and there were a lot of kissing scenes.
So you never did any kissing scenes?
They disgusted me. I’d feel queasy at the very thought of them. I had a lot of arguments with directors because of that. My big argument was, “Why can’t we love each other without kissing?”
Like any actress, you have suffered at the hands of the press. How did you handle that?
I viewed all criticism as constructive… as long as it was professional. A famous journalist once wrote in a review that I should have stayed home. It was very harsh, but I called him and thanked him. He knew it wasn’t my best work and it made me wake up and work even harder.
How did you feel when Nancy Ajram channeled your style in ‘Akhasmak Ah’ (‘I Will Upset You’), or Haifa Wehbe in ‘Ragab’?
The fact that they imitated me means that what I did was a success!
Who could play the role of Hend Rostom in a movie of your life?
During your heyday, you wore some of the most beautiful couture in the world. Have you kept any of those pieces?
Most were given away to relatives or lost somewhere, but I kept a few dresses I loved. I hate fashion these days. Why wear jeans to every occasion, day or night? In my day people were so elegant and sophisticated. We used to go to the cinema in furs.
You were offered 1 million pounds to write your biography and you refused? Why?
I don’t want to write my biography. This is my personal life and it belongs to me. I refuse to sell my life as a means of entertainment. It is of no one’s concern.
When you met and married your late husband Dr. Mohamed Fayyad you stopped acting. How has your life changed since then?
Long before I met Fayyad, I planned to stop acting at my peak. I was 40 when I finally decided to quit, and while it was very hard, I wanted to go out on top. So my marriage had nothing to do with my decision. On the contrary, Fayyad always respected my work. He knew how to treat a woman and that’s what mattered most to me. I’d always been independent so it was nice to finally have a shoulder to lean on, to support me and make sure I had nothing to worry about. My life was so full after I quit acting. I was rarely at home and I spent so much time with my friends, my lovely husband and my family, whom I love more than anything in the world. Fayyad and I shared everything and my life with him surpassed my stardom and fame.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The death of my husband. He was everything to me, my lovely companion. I miss him very much.
What do you dream of now?
Since my husband died, I’ve stopped dreaming. I have no more dreams.
Do you think we will remember the stars of today like we remember those of your generation?
The industry has changed so much. We used to work for peanuts because we were sincerely invested in the stories and our characters. I wanted to create an outstanding portfolio of movies. Quantity was irrelevant, quality was everything. It was about conveying a message through the movies. These days movies are too commercial, they’re driven by the bottom line and all actors care about is their pay check. Actors used to perform with devotion and I can still remember some of my lines to this day. I even worked for free on Eshaet Hob (Rumour of Love), because the role was so good. In those days, movies were about passion, and we were passionate about them. That’s why our work will be remembered forever.