Obituary: Farid Shawki

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THE EGYPTIAN actor Farid Shawki was known as the "King" and the "Beast" of the silver screen.

In a career that spanned almost 60 years, he worked with more than 90 directors of many nationalities, starring, producing, or writing the scenarios of some 400 films - more than the number produced collectively by all Arab countries outside Egypt.

During the first 10 years of his career he was locked in the villain's role. His name, like that of the late Mahmoud el-Mileegy - another Egyptian cinema icon who excelled in portraying the cunning villain - guaranteed box-office success.

In 1950 Shawki changed that image for good. He wrote the script for and starred in Ga'aloony Mugriman ("They Made a Criminal Out of Me"), tackling the problem of homeless children. Thus he exposed the failure of government policy and the corruption of state-run orphanages and young offenders' institutions. The film was rewarded with the "State Prize" - one of over 14 awards Shawki collected over 40 years.

Critics called him the "John Wayne of the East", but for the masses Shawki was "The Beast", who in his films championed the underdog and the dispossessed, using an effective mixture of cunning, physical strength, personal charm and unbending principles to overcome wicked aggressors.

His films realised the masses' dream of defeating "the untouchables", those above the law thanks to an unjust class system. During the totalitarian governments of the 1950s and 1960s, "The Beast" lived in people's psyche as a justice enforcer. The Egyptian cinema's influence on the whole of the Middle East ensured a similar status for him in other Arabic-speaking nations.

The veteran scriptwriter Abd-el-Hay Adeeb recalls how he had to rewrite a scene in one film after it had been released. The character played by Shawki was slapped on the back of the neck - a sign of contempt in southern Mediterranean countries - leading the audience in the upper Egypt city of Asiut to smash up the cinema in protest. These illiterate filmgoers' tickets, although the cheapest, made up the bulk of the box office. Film producers called Shawki "Malik el-Terso" or "the King of the Third Class" (terso is an Egyptian slang word from the Italian word for cheap third- class cinema seats).

Shawki was born in 1920 in Cairo's popular quarter of Al-Sayyedah Zynab, whose residents were the terso filmgoers when Egyptian cinema started to turn into a big industry. He joined the civil service as the Second World War broke out. At the same time he was given small parts in the Raamasis Theatre group. He then formed the National League of Acting whose members included the actress Zynab Abd-el-Hady whom Shawki married in 1941. The marriage broke four years later when Shawki met his second wife, the dancer Saneya, whom he divorced in 1950.

The NLA became the 20 Theatre in 1943 as the number of its members grew to 20; many of them turned into household names in Egyptian theatre and cinema. The 20 Theatre specialised in Chekhov; Shawki excelled in the leading roles - later on he loved playing classic parts in screenplays of novels by the Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz.

Success in theatre and films encouraged Shawki to resign from the civil service in 1946. A few months later the 20 Theatre became the nucleus of the Higher Institute of Acting. Shawki made his mark in the same year in the film Angels in Hell. He and his third wife, the singer Huda Sultan, whom he married in 1951, made a famous partnership acting in more than 80 films together. The marriage lasted 18 years and produced two daughters, Maha and Nahed, a film-maker in her own right. Indeed Farid Shawki's final ailment interrupted his work on a script for a film about homeless young people to be produced by Nahed.

Adel Darwish

Farid Shawki, actor, scriptwriter and film producer: born Cairo 3 July 1920; married first 1941 Zynab Abd-el-Hady (one daughter; marriage dissolved), third 1951 Huda Sultan (two daughters; marriage dissolved), fourth 1970 Suhir Turk (two daughters); died Cairo 27 July 1998.