Izzat Orujova: Azerbaijan’s pioneering movie star

A pioneer and role model for Azeri women almost 40 years since her death, Izzat Orujova is a name that should be far better known outside of her home country than it currently is.

In 1929, Orujova became the first Azeri woman to appear in a feature film. Merely be appearing on the big screen, she made a huge contribution to the then-evolving fight for women’s rights in the country, and had an enormous impact on female emancipation.

“They call me Azerbaijan’s first cinema actress. Sometimes I ask myself – is it true? Am I a real actress? In general, I was not an actress but I acted. No, I lived two female fates in front of the camera. These women were my contemporaries, or rather, my peers,” the actress recalled in her memoirs.

Becoming the first Azeri cinema actress, however, was not the only achievement people know her for. Born in Baku in 1909, the eldest of five children in her family, she and her sisters were among the first Azeri women to throw off the Chadrovaya, the traditional Azeri veil female members of society had to wear.

What’s more, she not only starred in the national cinema without wearing a Chadrovaya, taking a very bold step at that time, but she was also one of Azerbaijan’s first female students of chemistry.

After graduating from the Azerbaijan Petroleum Institute in 1932, she began working as a laboratory assistant at Azerbaijan’s national oil research institute. In her student years, she worked as a typist to help her family and that was when she got into the film industry.

While previously only women of other nationalities were cast in movies as Azeri women, Jafar Jabbarli, the great Azeri playwright, saw Ms Orujova and chose her after a long search for a female actress. She was offered the chance to play the main role in a film based on his novel about an illiterate woman, Sevil.

“The producers of the film were Alibek Nazarov and Jaffar Jabbarli. Alibek wanted to cast Nora Arzumanova in the role of Sevil, but Jaffar Jabbarli was against that. He said that an Azerbaijani girl must act,” Ms Orujova wrote.

The film was screened in 1929 and made a huge impact on the emancipation of Azerbaijani women. Her success was continued in 1935 when Ms Orujova starred in the film Diamond, also based on a novel by Mr Jabbarli.

Although Mr Jabbarli wanted Izzat to continue acting in films, after his sudden death, the country’s first actress decided to quit the industry and dedicate the rest of her life to science.

Between 1932 and 1949, she worked at the oil refining department of the Azerbaijan Research Institute. Much later, in the 1970s, she became a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. Her main works include the study of properties of lubricating oils, as well as developing a number of technological methods for producing chemical additives.

Her personal life, however, was very complicated. Her husband, Movsum Ismayilzade was arrested by the communists and declared an enemy of the people. She therefore brought up her son alone, just like Sevil, the character she played in her first movie. In anticipation of his arrest, her husband decided to divorce her to save the family from repercussions.

After years of exile, Mr Ismayilzade was eventually allowed to return to Azerbaijan but was forbiddenfrom living in Baku, and was never allowed to see Ms Orujova again.

She passed away on April 22, 1983, but remains a legendary figure amongst Azeri women.