Getting inside a national icon: Umm Kulthum's biopic

She still sells millions of records each year and is revered as a near-untouchable icon in Egypt and beyond. Almost 40 years after her death, Umm Kulthum is now going to be the subject of a biopic.

Speaking last year, Aaron Sorkin said that writing the forthcoming Steve Jobs biopic was like “writing about The Beatles” – an arduous task with numerous minefields if he were to avoid disappointing the droves who still adore and revere the late Apple boss.

Daunting Sorkin's screenplay may have been, but it's nothing compared to the task the acclaimed Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat has on her hands. Following from her 2009 directorial debut Women Without Men, which won her the Silver Lion for Best Director at Venice, Neshat is now working on a biopic about Umm Kulthum, a woman who - despite having died almost 40 years ago - continues to sell in the millions each year and remains an imposing cultural and political force within Egypt and beyond.

"This is a project I've been infatuated with for two-and-a-half years," says Neshat, speaking from the sidelines of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in November, where she was a jury member. Together with her husband and collaborator Shoja Azari (who also co-directed Women Without Men), Neshat - who is based in New York City - has been going back and forth to Egypt working on the script, with an eye to begin shooting there in autumn should financing come through. "We have a body of people who are Egyptian and Iranian and American who have been developing this project. We've been doing our best to make sure we get all the information together to make our fiction, because this isn't a documentary."

Unlike many biopic subjects, Umm Kulthum is far from a one-dimensional figure. She wasn't just the "star of the East", a beloved singer regarded as the greatest in Arab history, but a celebrated actress, a figure held in high regard in religious circles, adored by both the poor and the elite, and someone who rose from decidedly humble origins to become a patriotic, nationalist icon who held court with both King Farouk and Gamal Abdel Nasser and dominated Egyptian society for almost four decades between the 1930s and the 1970s. She managed all this as a woman in very male-dominated society.

"Being an artist myself who is somewhere between arts and politics, I was just so fascinated by the way in which a woman artist could rise to the level that she did and to navigate both, appealing to the people's hearts and emotions with her music, throwing people into states of ecstasy, and yet on the other hand appeal to people for her fate in nationalism and her interaction with political reality, coming to the rescue of her country at a time of economic depression, during the war with Israel," says Neshat.

And, Neshat says, it's the unseen fragility of Umm Kulthum she wants to explore in the biopic. "On the surface she seems in control, but she had to be very fragile to deliver the emotional music that she did. You cannot fake that. You cannot make people cry if you haven't been crying yourself. We're trying to give the story a picture that doesn't purely idealise her, but shows the complexity of who she was."

Although many of the recent crop of biopics, such as My Week With Marilyn and Hitchcock, have focused on a particular period in a person's life, Neshat says it's not going to be possible with Umm Kulthum.

"We're not going to make a traditional biopic, but at the same time I think who she is does not allow for focus on just a month of her life," she explains. "For example, she was dressed like a boy until she was 18 because in the environment she was raised it was incredibly taboo for a woman to sing, her father was very religious and she chanted the Quran. So you need to understand the progression of her life that led to the progression of her music."

The story will likely focus on chapters of her life, says Neshat, from the religious, Quranic chanting, to more romantic songs to the patriotic music later on, and thus require multiple actors in the lead role. "You need to cover that, to give an idea of where is her place in society. People who are in love with her listen to her and cry, but people who are crying for Egypt - and even in Tahrir Square - listen to her for that notion of patriotism. So this cannot be captured just in a one-dimensional way, like you could possibly with other singers."

And unlike many other singers, Umm Kulthum wasn't either a beautiful or tragic figure, and Neshat wants to use these factors to challenge western perceptions of the region. "When you look at iconic singers like Billie Holiday, they became addicts or alcoholics, or they kill themselves or were abused by men. Umm Kulthum is so unusual because she doesn't have that. And to western audiences, whose perception of the Muslim world is usually pictures of women as victims, we want to say 'look, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a woman dominating the men'."

Already having set herself something of a difficult subject matter, Neshat could face further scrutiny given the fact that she is neither Egyptian nor Arab. "Of course, we're going to get a lot of criticism, and I'm sure we're going to be make some errors," she admits. "Actually we have been talking to a lot of Egyptians about how they feel about a foreigner coming to make such a film about such an icon, and many think it's a healthy idea, because it gives you a good distance. A lot of people feel like she's untouchable, but I think for us, we could be a little more risk-taking in that department."

Although the film will be in Arabic, Neshat is hoping that it won't just be Egypt and the Arab world that are interested, but that it also attracts the attentions of those in the West who might not have any understanding of who she was or the power of her music. "It's as ambitious as Women Without Men," she laughs. "I don't know, perhaps subconsciously I embrace very challenging projects."