Khanyi Mbau: Queen of Joziwood

2014-04-20 15:01

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Khanyi Mbau is making her own sugar. The star of 22 low-budget films is now becoming a TV producer. She has dinner with Lesley Mofokeng, author of her biography, Bitch Please, I’m Khanyi Mbau

‘My life is back to front. I used to live large and now I am all about the craft,” declares the woman who once flew the flag for the famous-for-being-famous crowd.

Much has been written about ­Khanyi Mbau “toning down” and “growing up”, and it’s all true.

Lately she chooses her RSVPs carefully and has even missed a few envelope openings.

Then, this month, the actress proved her never-say-die attitude when she featured in The Comedy Central Roast of Kenny Kunene and overnight became a stand-up comedy sensation.

But that’s not where she’s headed. Mbau has been ­reinventing herself – Nollywood style.

She has cornered the market for low-budget films that take seven days to shoot and enjoy mass popularity.

It’s a formula that has seen the Nigerian industry stake its claim as the second-largest movie-making ­machine in the world – creating Africa’s own Hollywood, ­currently worth R36.8 billion.

Little known fact: Mbau has starred in 22 films between 2013 and 2014. Some of them were broadcast during e.tv’s eKasi slot, while others appeared on Mzansi Magic.

“The day I die and there’s a tribute to me, I want a broadcaster to play all my movies all day and night so people can see my work,” she says.

Many of the films are love stories because “when you have a small figure, pretty face and fair skin, you’re bound to be someone’s love interest”.

Next month her latest film, Room Divider, comes to Mzansi Magic.

It is a shout-out to the quintessential piece of décor usually found in the living room that dominated black homes in the 1980s and 1990s, and can still be found today, though shunned by the more discerning.

The film by comedian David Kau is set in his hometown, Kroonstad.

It cleverly uses the room divider as a prop that also provides social commentary on political greed, ­desires of the flesh and broken dreams.

There are beauty queens, alcohol abuse, visions of Miss Ellerines and Miss Joshua Doore, fat cat politicians and buckets of fried chicken.

The story line may be weak and poorly ­edited, but dramedy fans will be glued to the screen.

Room Divider is 90 minutes long and not 60 minutes – a format change introduced by the broadcaster of Lokshin Bioskop, which aims to narrate “the extraordinary tales of typical South Africans”.

I find Mbau over a bowl of deep-fried chicken wings at ­Melrose Arch’s Fire & Ice Hotel.

In a colourful powersuit, she looks no-nonsense and all business.

“I owed David one and he’s always wanted to put me in his movies. I had just finished Tin City and he said: ‘Let’s go down to Kroonstad.’ I said ‘cool’,” she says.

Kau told her that the film would have a Desperate Housewives vibe, township kugels.

“I said to him ‘great’, and that’s as far as the story was at that time. It developed as we shot ... I think David is a comic more than a story writer, so everything with him goes with feeling and ambience.”

Mbau says besides acting in films, she has also tried her hand at being assistant director and discovered a new passion.

“People are hiring me because they see a side of me that I also didn’t know existed: the fearless woman who works hard.

“I think I have always had a self-confidence complex ... People thought I was so confident, yet I was just protected and covered. But the book [her biography] made me so naked and I realised, oh my goodness, I actually am the creator of all that has been happening in my life. I only found my confidence three years ago when the book liberated me.”

Mbau says it was a conscious decision to target low-budget Joziwood movies.

“Every girl in this industry wants the endorsements and big jobs, and it’s so crowded in that room. I decided to take it back to the people. The new talent is so consumed with being larger than life that they end up so removed from people.

I want to remain accessible. My life may seem extraordinary, but I’m still accessible.

“There is an expiry date for big brands, but when you are a brand of the people, you are passed down to their children, hence the kids who were my fans when I started out now hear their four- and five-year-old daughters talk about me. They know who I am.”

For a woman who goes as the queen of bling and insists on the finer things in life, surely Mbau would struggle to shoot on locations stripped bare of luxury in Soweto, Alexandra and Kroonstad.

She says it has humbled her.

“In some places there are no toilets and you have to pee in the bushes. Organic peeing!” She bursts out laughing.

“I know there are two worlds and I have been in both of them. I am not fazed.

“It’s the production companies that I work with that struggle. Most of them are in disbelief that Khanyi wants to do this.

So how they treat me is that they take out their best cutlery and try to make me comfortable, but I say to them that I will eat whatever they eat.

“And it takes them three days to warm up and get used to the idea that I am cool with everything. It’s fine, let me stand under the tree and change. It’s okay.”

She insists that she feels artistically challenged enough by Joziwood.

“Some think I just want to be fabulous, but I enjoy roles where I have short hair or no hair, or I don’t speak English or act dumb.”

Is there money? “There is no money, but when you do 14 movies in a month you can make what a soap star makes. I’m lucky because my producers give me a higher rate and ­appreciate my work, and I do other jobs on the side. But when you come in as new talent, you won’t make much money.”

Mbau admits that she is doing all this in part to dispel the belief that she is the Paris Hilton of Joburg.

“It kills me. At the Saftas when I went up to present the award for best feature film, I was introduced as a socialite and TV ­presenter [of Katch It With Khanyi]. And I am the host, it’s my show. And I have done so many films.

I work. I guess people still like that girl that came on the scene, but I’m hardly at parties.

“People need to understand that I was 19 when all of this started. I am 29 this year ... I would love that party-girl image to go because I am somebody else’s mother. She is eight and she’s the one who will be leaving me at home to go to parties.”

Nowadays she finds the entertainment industry “boring”.

“I look at the girls and they remind me of me. The need to be shiny and expensive, and have the best of everything. Joburg is small. I’ve slept in all the hotels. I have lived in all the ­prominent places. I’ve eaten all that food. So the best thing for me is to work and meet different people.”

Aside from the acting work, Mbau has started a company called Her Productions to produce movies and her talk show on eKasie+.

“People follow what I have done and I have a hand in how pop culture turns out,” she offers.

She spends her days studying directors, sitting with editors and wardrobe mistresses. She dreams of being a fashion editor.

She is thankful for her appearance on Kunene’s roast.

“Comedy has liberated me.”

She says she knew the night would be about her because of her colourful past.

“That is why my outfit was dramatic.”

She admits she was scared out of her wits because all the good jokes had been told by the time it was her turn.

“I went off script. After all the insults, I had to reply to everyone. I didn’t think I would pull it off.”

Mbau is not bothered that her private parts were the theme of the evening.

“Women have breasts and [a vagina] down there. It’s all ­interesting. Men have one part and it’s finished after that.

They are logs ... Feminists must also drink some tea and relax. Sex is women.”

The Roast of Kenny Kunene will premiere on April 28 at 9pm on Comedy Central David Kau’s Room Divider will premiere on May 3 at 6pm on Mzansi Magic

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