Material, the upcoming SA film produced by Internet entrepreneur Ronnie Apteker and starring Riaad Moosa, surprises in two ways: firstly, it’s as tender as it is rambunctious and, secondly, it’s actually pretty good. Consider it Apteker’s apology for setting the hoodlums from Straight Outta Benoni loose on the world.
Material is a story about a clash between tradition and modernity, not a million miles away from bittersweet comedy-dramas such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham. Moosa plays the role of Cassim, a respectable young Indian man with a gift for comedy and a dad determined that his son follow him into the family fabric business.
Cassim’s decision to pursue his gift for comedy as a career rather than go into the family business brings him into conflict with his curmudgeonly father, played by Vincent Ebrahim of the BBC’s Kumars at Number 42. It’s a simple story, but Material’s sweet-natured script and its effective use of locations in Fordsburg in downtown Johannesburg make it a pleasure to watch.
Material manages carefully to balance pathos and humour in its script, avoiding the temptation to become either too maudlin or too boisterous. “There always seems to be a fine line between laughing and weeping,” Ebrahim told me during an interview on location during the filming of Material last year. “Hopefully, there are enough dollops of both elements to make Material’s appeal very broad.”
The humour comes from the presence of many of SA’s top comedians in the film — all of them on top form, even though they’re also on their best, most politically correct behaviour. In addition to Moosa, whose own life story provided inspiration for Material, there are also appearances from the likes of Joey Rasdien, Krijay Govender and Nik Rabinowitz.
But it is the sensitive exploration of family and tradition that helps to elevate Material above its sitcom setup and give it an emotional wallop. Set in Fordsburg — an area steeped in Johannesburg history, now sadly in decay — Material gently reminds us of how apartheid tore families apart and of how difficult it can be to reason with irascible old men. Cassim’s best scenes as a stand-up comic remind us, as all the best films about comedians do, that pain is at the heart of comedy.
The performances in the film are all strong, but Moosa and Ebrahim are the two actors that carry Material. Moosa has an easy on-screen charisma as Cassim, and is equally adept at the moments of light humour and the more difficult moments of family feuding. Apteker and his team were proud to bring Ebrahim on board, and their confidence in the veteran BBC and stage actor has paid off.
Material trailer (via YouTube):
Ebrahim, brother of Sewende Laan actress Vinette Ebrahim, clearly enjoys every minute he spends on screen. As a fiery old traditionalist with a heart of gold and an ability to nurse a grudge for decades, Ebrahim has a natural chemistry with Moosa in the scenes of frothy comedy and domestic strife.
The film was shot quickly and on a relatively tight budget — Ebrahim described the production as “informal, more informal than I’m used to” when I asked how it compared to working for the BBC — but Moosa and his cowriters invested years in polishing the script. That care shines through in the final product, which is satisfying and affecting despite a somewhat rushed resolution and an occasional misfiring joke.
With winning performances from its cast, delightful humour, and affectionate rendering of Fordsburg and Jo’burg’s Indian community, Material is an upbeat comedy with plenty of heart beneath its laughs. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
- Material opens countrywide on 17 February
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