Riaad Moosa talks about 'Material' and changing Muslim misconceptions
He’s a qualified doctor, a comedian revered by audiences and his peers, and now Riaad Moosa stars in a splendid new film that everyone should see.
Material is a comedy-drama about Cassim Kaif, a young Muslim who works in his family's fabric shop in Fordsburg. His father, Ebrahim, expects Cassim to take over the shop but Cassim is torn between his love for – and duty towards – his family and his passion for stand-up comedy.
The film is loosely based on Moosa's own life, but he initially had reservations about becoming the subject of a film. By the second or third draft, however, the story had evolved in parts.
"Very early on it moved away from my personal story exactly, about a doctor-comedian," says Moosa. "Because of that, I started to feel more comfortable.... The narrative has nothing to do with my life at all, in terms of the storyline."
The similarities between Cassim and Riaad, says Moosa, are more internal.
"All the conflict situations, all the issues that result from me doing comedy and at the same time wanting to be an integral part of my community were dramatised in Material," he says.
"A lot of that comes from personal experience, although not specifically from my family. It's been sort of modified to fit in with the narrative of the film."
Background-wise, Cassim and Riaad couldn't be more different, however. Both Moosa's parents are doctors and growing up, it was a no-brianer that's what he was also going to become after school.
"At the same time when I was younger I also took to performing," he says. "My mom says I always used to make voices and do impersonations. I'm generally an introverted guy but when I would do an oral or something in class, it would always be comedic and have a performing side to it."
In his early teens Moosa joined a magic school, going on to do card tricks and pull rabbits out of hats. He only started doing stand-up after fourth-year medicine, as a hobby.
He says: "My parents were supportive of my art as long as I did my work as well. There was no moment where I said, 'Mom, Dad, I want to make people laugh.'
"It was never like that for me. It was more of a slow process. I would do my medicine but over the years the opportunities of the comedy sort of exceeded those of the medicine."
Cassim's story is different, with his love for stand-up inevitably causing a rift between him and his father, Ebrahim (played by Vincent Ebrahim).
Moosa believes one particular scene where Ebrahim sees his son performing stand-up embodies the conflict that runs through the film, giving it a pulse.
"It's two worlds right there – how Cassim's father sees it and how everyone else is seeing it."
A lot of what transpires in the scene (we can't go into details, otherwise it will be a spoiler) comes from some of Moosa's own personal experience as well from people he knows.
"Material," he says, "is about the responsibility to community and family versus the yearning to do something different."
One of the reasons the film is so touching and convincing lies in the portrayal and unwrapping of its characters.
"Both the main characters (Cassim and his father Ebrahim) are flawed," says Moosa. "It's not like the one's right and the one's wrong. That's the interesting thing about Ebrahim – he's supposed to be this despot but he's still got this tenderness to him."
He clearly has deep respect for his co-stars, describing veteran Vincent Ebrahim as "amazing" and "technically brilliant".
"It was nice to have Vincent and Denise Newman [who plays Cassim's mother] there, because they both have a lot of experience dramatically," says Moosa.
"It's quite weird how with the casting we were able to do that. We fit well as a family," he says of the cast.
Ebrahim and Newman played parental roles even off-screen, guiding Moosa along when it came to the dramatic side of the film, while Cassim's sister, played by Zakeeya Patel, is a lot like Moosa's own sister.
Joey Rasdien is Cassim's right-hand man, while Krijay Govender is Cassim's all-knowing and devilishly cheeky grandmother.
Working with Rasdien, Govender and Nic Rabinowitz, it's only natural that things would take a comedic turn.
"We had a lot of jokes in the movie," says Moosa. "But sometimes it just stops the flow and doesn't allow the story to progress."
He describes the movie as a "very collaborative effort", and says they worked on it for about seven or eight years.
On how the project started, he tells me he met producer Ronnie Apteker when they were both performing stand-up at Cool Runnings. Apteker approached him about the production, putting him in contact with director Craig Freimond.
Why did Moosa agree to get involved? "I approached [ Material] like I approach a lot of things in my life: if I'm not morally-opposed to something then I just go with it and see where the universe takes me... I didn't say yes [and] I didn't say no. Let's just explore."
Why stick with it for so long? "At many points along the way we thought we were flogging a dead horse. But then there were moments of clarity, epiphanies, if you will, where a cool idea felt right and just spurred us on to continue."
One of those ideas came in the form of the film's clever title.
"That word captures the conflict of the film," says Moosa. It came from when Freimond asking Moosa, "What's the most common question you get asked as a comedian?" Moosa's reply was, "I always get asked where I get my material from. And I always say, 'From the Oriental Plaza – they've got good deals.'"
Freimond then suggested they name the film Material, as a pun for comedic material and material in a fabric shop (although during one incarnation of the script, the film was based in a bike shop).
"Upon further reflection it just opened up so many cool things," says Moosa. "Just shooting it in a fabric shop. Visually, it's awesome, the colours... just having the opportunity to play with that from a cinematography perspective was awesome.":
He loved filming the comedy scenes more than any other. "The dramatic scenes resonate with me, watching it now, but while we filming it I enjoyed the comedy more."
The on-set catering was, of course, halaal, and Moosa says the woman who owned the house where they filmed would prepare a spread every day. "The caterer would get jealous because no one would eat their food," he chuckles.
Who should see Material and why?
"Material is for everyone and they should expect a family movie, a feel-good movie," says Moosa. "It's a movie to make you laugh and cry and also possibly change perceptions about Muslim culture.
"You always have these narratives that are pervasive in the world about Muslims, involving terrorism, war, all these crazy issues, and here's a human story about a family that everyone should be able to relate to."
- Material hits the circuit on Friday 17 February.