Riaad Moosa’s long walk to funny – Noor-Jehan Yoro Badat

Tell Riaad Moosa that portraying a struggle hero is a departure from his comedy shows, and he’ll disagree with you.

The award-winning stand-up comedian, who has given us shows such as Strictly Halaal, Riaad Moosa For The Baracka and, more recently, the movie Material, plays Ahmed Kathrada in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

The Anant Singh biopic – Nelson Mandela granted the producer the film rights to his autobiography – received an eight-minute standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Portraying “Kathy”, as Kathrada is fondly called, is “really not entirely a departure” from the work he has done, says Moosa.

Material, he says, may be peppered with comedic scenes but it also had “strong drama”, a slightly challenging medium for him as it was his first movie role. “I’ve had little cameo roles, but I was the lead in Material.”

When he was approached to play the part of Kathrada, he found it a difficult decision to make. But he was honoured at the thought of being a part of it, and he realised it was a role he couldn’t pass on.

He believes he was chosen because of his performance in Material. “They thought I should read for the role. They had had a difficult time finding the right person to play Ahmed Kathrada. And when I met Justin Chadwick, the director, he liked me.”

The behind-the-scenes interaction took place at the beginning of last year. It was a “whirlwind” for him, as he was involved in getting his movie out. Within two months he was on set.

To prepare for his role he read Kathrada’s memoir and books on the struggle, and watched videos on the subject. He was also given the opportunity to interact with and study his subject closer. Over the last two years, he saw Kathrada a number of times, visiting him at his home, and accompanying him – with Moosa’s wife Farzanah – on a tour of Robben Island.

“He is an amazing man. Humility is the one word to describe him. He has taught me a lot. Even though I have a small role in this film, having my experiences and chatting with him, it changed me.”

Kathrada, he says, taught him patience, sacrifice and understanding the important things in life. Did Kathrada offer him tips on his role?

“He deflects advice, like how he deflects compliments. For him it’s water off a duck’s back. It was nice to be around him.”

The tour of Robben Island resonated with Moosa. He was 34 and realised that Kathrada was at a similar age when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On the ferry ride to Robben Island, Moosa pondered Kathrada’s release at 60. “He was the youngest of the trialists. But his whole life was gone.”

He asked Kathrada how he had felt about life imprisonment, and Kathrada responded with a Chinese proverb: “I grumbled because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

That spoke volumes to Moosa. And then he asked Kathrada how he felt when he knew he was going to be released after 26 years.

“Kathy said that he was told that a fax had been received from prison headquarters. And his first question was: ‘What’s a fax?’ It hits a funny line, but it says a lot, that he came out to a different world. Their (the trialists) approach to life was important. They understood sacrifice.

“They thought they were going to be hanged. And they had a meeting to discuss whether they would appeal if they were going to be hanged. They said ‘no’. They decided to die. They wouldn’t appeal. The struggle would lose its momentum. The cause would lose its momentum.

“Hearing these stories, I internalised these emotions in my acting. It helped me to understand sacrifice. And I was more thankful about my life.”

However, he thinks he “over prepared” for his role. “Especially after having seen the final product,” he says with dry humour. “There I was in the background, doing all his (Kathrada) mannerisms, and the focus wasn’t even there, or it was on a wide angle. But I had a very good experience.”

Still, the movie project had its difficult moments.

“The shoots were challenging, very physical.

“And it was also dealing with the mismatch of historical accuracy and the need for a movie narrative. To condense life in two-and-a-half hours is a big challenge, as well as leading people in a story that makes sense.

“But I think they did the best job that they could. The Toronto audience loved it. The reaction was extremely positive.

“I need to see the movie again with fresh eyes. There’s a difference to script and final edit. I think people will discuss this movie.

“We (the actors) certainly discussed it afterwards.”

British actor Idris Elba, says Moosa, has “done the best Madiba” he has ever seen.

“He did a good job, without a doubt. The accent was not perfect, but it was good. And he had that same emotional presence, charisma and tangible star quality that Madiba has.

“When Idris walks into a room people’s eyes immediately fall on him, a quality just like Madiba, which other actors may not have. And Naomi (Harris, who portrays Winnie Mandela) did an amazing performance.”

How does he think his fans will react to his role in the biopic?

“Not much, if you think of how difficult it is for other characters. For example, Idris has to portray Madiba. I have more in common with Kathy. I can change my voice and adopt the mannerisms. Idris has a greater challenge.”

Moosa has his hands full with his countrywide tour for his new show Doctor’s Orders. Balancing his family – he has two children – and work schedule is a tricky act. Primary to his family’s well-being is ensuring there’s stability.

He tries to perform most of his shows on a couple of weekends a month. He plans the long runs during the school holidays, so that his family can accompany him, particularly if the shows are outside of Cape Town.

Inspiration for his material is gleaned from different periods, experiences, elements in his life, and global events.

In Strictly Halaal, he bantered about the post-9/11 phobia. In Riaad Moosa For The Baracka he waxed lyrical on becoming a new dad. For Doctor’s Orders, it will be “a little bit of everything”. The show, he says, draws on personal experiences, “all things relevant to a time of me getting older.

“It will primarily be on my periods with my kids, confusion between doing medicine and comedy, being a dad, and a bit on Material and Long Walk to Freedom.

“I’ll worry about the teenage years later, right now it’s just Barney the Dinosaur.”

He relishes fatherhood, and relives his life with his children.

“You’ll never be as happy the way kids are. People think about holidays, shopping and contemplating existentialism.

“But see how happy a child looks when he’s digging his nose,” he laughs.

“Parenting is challenging, but at its core it’s very rewarding.”

The comedy industry, which he dived into 10 years ago at Cape Town student venue the Armchair Theatre, has been good to him. And when pressed, he admits that it pays well, more than if he had practised medicine – Moosa is a qualified doctor. “But it has taken a long time to get in this position.”

Stand-up comedy remains his first love. As long as he can get on stage, he will continue, he says. His passion for it is simple – he loves jokes. He loves the creation of it, the cycle of writing a joke and performing it for the first time.

“It’s risky if it doesn’t work the first time, but it’s a thrilling experience if it does. I hope to get better, to master it one day as an art form.”

Audiences’ appetite for comedy has grown over the years, and Moosa puts this down to new voices that are emerging.

“The beauty about comedy is that it’s a leveller. We come from separate histories and we try to create a common South African identity.

“Humour tends to heal injustice. We utilise humour to deal with it. At some point people crave it. Comedy allows people to understand different cultures.

“You have people like David Kau, Jewish comedian Nik Rabinowitz, and me, a Muslim comedian.

“We learn about each other. Humour breaks down barriers, and you laugh at how similar you actually are.”

Outside comedy, he loves medicine and is passionate about medical education. He assists his family – Moosa’s father is an orthopaedic surgeon – and their shareholders in a project that involves setting up the Rondebosch Medical Centre.

He also presents a show, Keeping in Stitches, that helps fund UCT’s family medicine and its community health initiative.

“Our health system is a huge challenge, and it needs to be nurtured. It’s one thing I’d like to devote a lot of time to.”

His father was supportive of his decision to become a comedian. “He was never obstructive. He’s a hard worker. He believed that as long as you work hard and don’t behave irresponsibly, you are happy.

“I worked hard in comedy as much as I did in medicine.

“It just so happened that more opportunities opened up in comedy. I followed the least resistance and found myself here,” says Moosa.

“I never had those aspirations to one day perform on a huge stage. My only aim is to get better at my art.”

* Catch Moosa in Doctor’s Orders at The Mandela in The Joburg Theatre Complex, Braamfontein, on October 19.

*********Riaad Moosa, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Dean Lotz and Terry Pheto pose on the red carpet before a screening of the film “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” at the 38th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

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