Material, headed up by funny man Riaad Moosa, is not a funny movie. Because, as we are told by his movie father Ebrahim (played by Vincent Ebrahim), “life is not a funny business”. And it does well to demonstrate this throughout with a well-told story that is heavy in tone with some fantastic emotional beats.
That’s not to say it’s not funny too. In Moosa Material has a perfect lead – his character Cassim is incredibly sweet and sympathetic and carries the movie perfectly. As a counterpoint to all the drama, Cassim’s stand-up material interspersed in the movie can be average at times, although it’s very culturally specific and may be forgiven by more lenient viewers. However, genuine laughs are abundant with Joey Rasdien on-screen, who is excellent in his supporting role as best friend Yusuf, providing an authentic and heartwarming friendship. Then, of course, there’s Vincent Ebrahim who delivers a big performance as the out-of-touch, stubborn and authoritarian Ebrahim. The granny many will love as well, although I found her to be quite annoying and the one fake character in an otherwise solid cast.
It’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons with Judd Apatow’s Funny People, even though the movies are obviously worlds apart. However, like Funny People, Material shows how comedy can become a subject of great dramatic potential and goes looking for real human emotion behind the laughs. Where Funny People exposes the tortured soul of a long-time comedian, Material highlights the torture of getting into the business to begin with. Cassim works at his family’s struggling material store in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, selling fabric to people in their small Muslim community, but what he secretly dreams of is making people laugh. But he has to keep it secret from his overbearing father who would never approve.
It’s incredible, only because we manage to live such culturally insular lives in South Africa, that you can go see a locally made movie such as this and feel like you could be watching a foreign film playing out in drab Delhi or something. And even though Material appears to be performing well at the local box office, I hope the strong Indian flavour of the movie hasn’t discouraged South Africans from other cultural groups to give this a go. It tells a universal story of aspiring to something different in life, facing obstacles on the way and making some very hard choices. And it tells the very South African story of how history and culture can have a very stifling effect on your life. Also to its credit, something that I want to see more in our films, it largely sidesteps the baggage of Apartheid in our cinematic tradition, although it is implicitly there and pivotal in the plot.
It’s not perfect, but for a local effort Material is truly impressive, firstly for its deft storytelling and secondly its slick production value. That depressing track is overdone slightly toward the end, making it feel unbearably sad at times. That being said, you end up missing it when it’s gone, because my biggest and only gripe really is that the ending is way too easily wrapped-up. Nonetheless, this is a really pleasing film as sweet as the character at its centre, and it bodes well for South African cinema.