Material

What it's about:

Cassim Kaif (Riaad Moosa, in his debut movie role), a dutiful young Muslim man, has a secret. When the sun goes down and his family is safely tucked away at home, he moonlights as a stand-up comedian at Johannesburg nightclubs. But at home another fate awaits him - his conservative father (played by Vincent Ebrahim) expects Cassim to take over their deteriorating fabric shop once he's retired.

What we thought:


Much as it pains me to admit it, the prospect of a new South African - particularly a comedy film - can fill one with a sinking feeling. The variety to be had usually ranges from Leon Schuster having his nether regions pulverised for our entertainment, to a gang of Afrikaans laaities causing all kinds of mayhem in the suburbs - nether regions often getting a starring role as well.

So you'd be forgiven for approaching Material a little warily, especially when considering that the film's star, comedian Riaad Moosa - a brilliant presence on stage - has never quite acted for the screen before. Certainly not in the way that a feature film such as this demands.

What trifling, pointless concerns these all turn out to be because Material is simply magnificent. It's a hilarious, big-hearted and heart-warming story that will have not just local but universal appeal.

Like all good stories, the threads of Material feel familar and true - a simple but personal account of the value of family when weighed against a dream so big and yet so near, it dare not feel real.

The origins of the story itself were born out of Riaad Moosa's personal experiences as a young Muslim on the expected path to a medical degree, but who found he had a talent for standing onstage in front of hundreds of people and somehow uniting them in laughter.

Set in the predominantly Indian community of Fordsburg in Johannesburg, the Kaifs are just like any typical traditional Muslim family, with a hardworking mother Fatima and father struggling to keep the family's fabric shop Kaif and Sons afloat. Incidentally there's another Kaif and Sons store in the more upmarket Oriental Plaza just down the road, and it's a particularly sore point for Ebrahim Kaif, the strict head of the household.

Cassim, the only son and heir to the family business, is dependable and in every way the good, faithful young man his parents raised him to be. He and his father spend their days together, awaking before dawn for prayers at the mosque before opening the shop, which has seen better days.

His mother Fatima (played by the always fantastic Denise Newman) does the books and looks after the home, while his spirited teenage sister Aisha isn't even allowed to have a cellphone and grandmother Dadi (Krijay Govender, aged about 40 years in convincing make-up) dispenses wisened quips that suggest where Cassim may have got his comedic talent from.

But outside the Kaif's door are influences that they can't account for, a changing tide that is typical of living and raising a family in the midst of a bustling metropolis.

The performances mark Material as more than a competently produced South African film, but something far more profound and affecting, a story that touches on the joy and pain of family, of honouring your parents and breaking their hearts at the same time, finding inspiration in the mundane, feeling part of a community and, perhaps, finding love.

SA-born actor Vincent Ebrahim, who left for the UK as a young man and found fame as the tight-fisted father on the talk-show comedy series The Kumars at No 42, delivers a peformance that will leave viewers shattered. Along with Riaad Moosa, who reveals himself to be a sensitive and generous dramatic actor, this pairing achieves incredible things onscreen. To give anything away would be something of a disservice to the hard work that has been put into this labour of love.

What can be revealed is that Material is a rare treat that will, without a doubt, make you spill your popcorn as you shake with laughter. It is a riot, particularly when Cassim comes up against his best friend and eager sidekick Yusuf (a delightful Joey Rasdien) and Nik Rabinowitz, who plays a more cunning version of himself - a Jewish comedian who helps Cassim crack the big time.

Rabinowitz gets probably the best line of the movie as he ruminates on the word "haraam" (an Arabic term, meaning forbidden). Again, it's a punchline best delivered by the comic himself.

Though the issue of what is "haraam" is not something that is done away with in one witty quip, and the writers are savvy enough to fully explore the conflict between Kaif Senior's idea of what is forbidden and Cassim's courage, some would say folly, to toe that line. Material is thoughtful enough to lend weight to both points of view.

When these generational divisions finally clash, Material truly comes into itself. It doesn't preach or pretend to have a solution, it can only hope the audience finds it for themselves.

Director Craig Freimond, who has shown a knack for making the awkward relationship between comedy and drama find meaning with films such as Jozi, lets the words and performances work their magic on the audience while the Joburg locations offer a setting that feels close to home - no matter where you may find yourself watching this film.

It would be a gross understatement to say that there is more to Material than its innocently slapstick promotional poster and charming trailer would suggest.

This is a homespun tale that weaves its way through tricky taboos and truisms with a deftness that is sorely lacking in the SA feature film landscape.

It will make you roar with laughter 'til the tears roll as some of SA's best comic talent put on a show. It will affect you in ways you least expect.

The fantastic team behind Material have done all the hard work. All that's left is for you to experience it for yourself.