Indian South Africans number more than a million in the country’s richly varied population, yet their stories haven’t been very well represented in a film industry still slowly catching up to post-apartheid possibilities. Though not part of the community himself, playwright-turned-filmmaker Craig Freimond makes a noble attempt to rectify that situation with his third feature, “Material,” a Johannesburg-set study of a young Muslim store assistant caught between his conservative family and a calling in standup comedy. Warm-hearted, sturdily crafted and a tad ponderous, pic isn’t quite as clever as its protag’s stage routine, but global fest programmers should be tickled.
Bright-eyed, quick-witted young Cassim (Riaad Moosa, himself a popular South African standup) works by day in his father’s dilapidated textile store. However, the material of the title refers less to the yellowing bales of product on the shelf than the cultural observations he pulls from local Indian society — itself a dense, intricately patterned fabric — and assimilates into slick verbal satire for the benefit of a largely non-Indian audience.
Cassim keeps his burgeoning comedy career a secret from his dad, Ebrahim (Vincent Ebrahim, a South African-born thesp best known for British TV comedy “The Kumars at No. 42”), a sternly devout man so suspicious of the secular world he refuses to let Cassim’s teenage sister (Zakeeya Patel) own a cell phone. When Ebrahim finds out about his son’s moonlight activities, the fallout is predictably severe, further dividing a family already riven by Ebrahim’s rather vaguely defined feud with his brother and fellow textile merchant Rafiq (Royston Stoffels).
Freimond’s screenplay, from a story workshopped over several years with Moosa and three other writers, is perceptive in its depiction of a community still largely self-segregated by the older generation, even as their children embrace the fluidity of post-1994 democracy. Geography is as rigidly demarcated as it was in the apartheid era, just unofficially so: Cassim lives and works in Johannesburg’s central Indian enclave of Fordsburg, while his comedy gigs in the integrated hipster suburb of Melville, only a couple of miles down the road, may as well be in another world. Ebrahim, who stubbornly maintains his store in the faces of waning sales, prides himself on never having set foot in the adjacent Oriental Plaza, a vulgar, sprawling mall — where Rafiq’s store flourishes — built by the apartheid government in the 1970s to contain local Indian trade.
“Material” is strong on such fine social detailing, so it’s disappointing the narrative itself is painted in far broader strokes, simplifying loaded conflicts and character arcs to reach a hastily redemptive conclusion. Gestures of rebellion by the female half of the family, notably Cassim’s pained but understanding mom (“Shirley Adams” star Denise Newman, affecting), aren’t followed through, while a cutesy romantic subplot involving Cassim and a childhood acquaintance is extraneous.
Generally committed performances — particularly from Moosa, a charismatic presence around whom the film was conceived, and who performs his own material in the standup scenes — see the film through such soft spots. Trevor Calverley’s elegant, earth-toned 35mm lensing is the star of a proficient tech package, though Lizzie Rennie’s over-applied, strings-heavy score could stand to incorporate more relevant cultural influences.