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Interview with Material Star Vincent Ebrahim

Interview with Material Star Vincent Ebrahim
Howard Gorman

Last week we spoke with actor/comedian Riaad Moosa, star of the hit South African film Material. The film co-stars Vincent Ebrahim (The Kumars at No. 42) who plays Riaad’s traditionalist father. We spoke to Vincent for a greater insight into this father son relationship so excellently portrayed by both actors.

Vincent, the script reached you via your sister, Vinette. What was it that struck you about this script that made you want to be a part of it all?

It was a very tender story about a family that seemed to avoid a stereotypical depiction of an Indian family. It had real people with real feelings, was funny and a South African narrative set in a community rarely seen in a mainstream South African feature film. And Craig Freimond who wrote it, was also directing and had a very clear idea where he wanted to go with it but from the start was open to a collaborative relationship about the character he wanted me to play.  So it had many seductive features for an actor with South African roots like myself.

It began a process over almost a year of communicating by email, phone and Craig actually visited me in London while we pummelled the character of Ebrahim Kaif into shape. I was on tour with a Tricycle Theatre show in America for some of that time and we sent flurries of emails between us as new drafts of the script arrived while I was busy playing a number of Afghan characters in “The Great Game- Afghanistan”. It was a very creative and productive time. I loved it! So when I arrived in Johannesburg in early 2011 to shoot the film, we hit the ground running.

You left South Africa to broaden your horizons as an actor. Why so? What are acting possibilities like in South Africa now compared to when you started out?

Well, in 1974 after I’d graduated from drama school at UCT my first professional job was with the Space Theatre in Cape Town but other than that and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg there were very few opportunities for actors of colour. So that, coupled with an irresistible itch to see something of the world, I left in 1976. I’d always determined to return at some stage not thinking it would take me 35 years before I worked there again! I’d been back regularly to visit family, so to return to film MATERIAL was an opportunity, long awaited.

I get the impression that possibilities for actors of colour in South Africa are certainly burgeoning. But like in any performing community the industry is sometimes capricious. You have to work hard at “making your own luck”, as they say in football! It’s not an easy profession and opportunities are like the proverbial London bus; you don’t see one for ages and then three come along at the same time.

Obviously, you are very popular from the TV series “The Kumars at47”. Is this big over in South Africa? You were never really a comedy actor before so was it hard adjusting to that series?

The Kumars is very popular in SA! I believe there are still re-runs of various series even now. I think it was as a consequence of seeing me on The Kumars that Craig and Ronnie, the producer, approached me.

Comedy was not my forte but The Kumars came as a lucky break after I’d met and got to know Sanjeev Bhaskar when we worked in the same theatre company, TARA ARTS, for a while. Really, without that opportunity things would be very different but Mr Kumar is just another character I play and it was down to Sanjeev’s faith in my ability that gave me the confidence to pursue the comic possibilities with this character. You know, we all have a playful side and in Mr Kumar I realised a fantasy that was nurtured in my childhood watching Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops among all those black and white comedy shorts we devoured at the cinema!

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What about Riaad? He had been a doctor before the film. From your praises it sounds like he took to acting like a duck to water. He himself says he prefers being behind the scenes. Do you think he is better suited in front of the cameras rather than behind?

Yeah. Damn his eyes! No, I’m kidding. Riaad has that natural ability and ease in front of the camera that actors, who’ve spent a lot of time on stage, sometimes struggle with. We spend years un-learning that theatricality. Performances differ with each medium and sometimes for TV comedy the demands can be quite theatrical. I’m thinking of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, who is larger than life but has to be to achieve his comic presence. Or closer to home, playing Mr Kumar has sometimes demanded a theatrical performance but always in character.

You’d have to ask Riaad about his creative preferences but he has talent to burn! I’m sure the challenges presented by a ‘straight’ role are as inviting for a stand-up as the thought of working a room in a comedy club is daunting to someone like me. I’d rather stick needles in my eyes! I need a script and a character.

Riaad said that there was a fair deal of improvisation during filming. Did many of your scenes involve improvisation and do you think improvisation plays an important part in movie making to create a more natural/realistic feel to a film?

None of my scenes were really improvised. I started with the script and may have pushed my luck here and there, with Riaad in one or two of the early scenes in the film. Riaad and Joey Rasdien, I suspect, had a great time improvising! Of course it lends a certain spontaneity to the scenes! But my approach is different. I prefer to know my script well and with a lot of luck, lose it to the moment. That’s the skill, or rather my target.

But it also requires trust, of which there was an abundance of, on the set of MATERIAL and that’s Craig’s doing. The whole crew seemed to be focused on the task at hand and then it became like a dance. Of course, I romanticise here; there was a lot of technical expertise on display, from the producer through director, cast and crew. But at the core of that process was the freedom to explore and the trust to improvise if the opportunity arose.

The movie has been a great success both nationally and internationally, screened at many international festivals? Why do you think this film has such a wide ranging appeal?

The movie has a great story at its heart. It has a heart, full stop. It speaks to many people about relationships in a family. They’re not issues peculiar to a Muslim Indian community in Johannesburg but they resonate universally because of their human qualities; tensions between a father’s expectations and his son’s ambitions, between husband and wife, between brothers feuding over a principle, a father coming to terms with a rapidly changing world, a son caught between his allegiance to his father and his need to carve out a life for himself in a modern world.

The fact that it’s set where it is gives it an added poignancy because perhaps for some of us watching the movie we glimpse a community we live cheek by jowl with and don’t really know. And they’re just like us! We laugh and weep with them. And for that community, perhaps they’re proud to see themselves represented accurately on screen, as one with a set of values and ethics and human frailties, just like everyone else.  That must be the appeal of MATERIAL; it’s story reveals what we recognise about ourselves as human beings and our strengths and vulnerabilities.

The movie deals with a great number of important messages, particularly about Muslims. Are there any reactions about the movie that took you and the rest of the cast/crew by surprise?

I don’t think there was conscious decision to convey a message, rather to tell a cracking story well. The fact that it portrays a Muslim family and does it so very sensitively is important in that, whoever we are, we may see ourselves reflected on the screen. South Africans, and not just Muslims, have responded with pride to a movie that they feel represents them so well and their pride stems from the fact that it could well be seen internationally. We have had a welter of negative images in the press and elsewhere about South Africa and Muslims in general. Perhaps MATERIAL goes some way to redressing those negative impressions in an unassuming way that surprises us all. Two birds with one stone!

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What message would you like people to go home with after watching the movie?

Tell your friends and their grandmothers to come too! No, I’m being facetious… It’s a story about family, people with soaring ambitions and unyielding expectations, enduring patience and stubborn principles, warmth and love. And surely that sends a positive message that human beings are all of these complex elements and more, whoever they are.

What have you got planned on the horizon? Having had such success with this film are you keen to work in South Africa again if an acting opportunity came your way?

I’ve just had a role as a leader of the Seljuks, a tribe that overruns Isfahanin Persiain in the 11th century, in a film called The Physician, starring Ben Kingsley which was filmed in Morocco.

If another opportunity to work in South Africa came along, I’d welcome that. I would like to “make my own luck” and perhaps try my hand at writing something for TV or film in South Africa. I sense there are unexplored narratives about its diverse communities and a hunger to see these stories on the screen. Having spent a long time performing on stage I’d like to exploit my experience with more screen work, as a writer or performer.

And then there’s The Kumars who may make a come back in 2013!

Material will be shown at Film Africa next Friday, the 2nd of November at 6.15pm at the Hackney Picturehouse.

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