The film adap­ta­tion of Noz­izwe Jele’s award-win­ning de­but novel Hap­pi­ness Is a Four-let­ter Word opened in cin­e­mas around SA on Fri­day, just in time for Valen­tine’s Day. Ahead of the pre­miere, chat­ted to the movie’s three lead­ing ladies

CityPress - - The Good Guide -

Imeet Khanyi Mbau, Mma­batho Montsho and Re­nate Stu­ur­man, the stars of Hap­pi­ness Is a Four-let­ter Word, on a cool Tues­day morn­ing at 44 Stan­ley Av­enue in Mil­park. They greet one an­other ex­cit­edly and, for a mo­ment, it feels like I hap­pen to be hav­ing coffee with three close friends, which – I re­alise as we chat – I ac­tu­ally am.

I ask if they’ve seen the movie and all three say “No!” and then laugh. “I guess they want [our re­ac­tions] to be nat­u­ral,” quips Khanyi.

Mma­batho fin­ishes her sen­tence: “So we are go­ing to be as sur­prised as ev­ery­one else!”

“Look, at post­pro­duc­tion I kept try­ing to see what they are work­ing on!” con­fesses Khanyi. They laugh some more. Re­nate says: “Do­ing the [post­pro­duc­tion] voiceover work helped be­cause you get a sense [of the film], but I still don’t know. I am dy­ing to know their [Khanyi and Mma­batho’s] sto­ry­lines be­cause we weren’t in all of each other’s scenes and we did our own au­dio dub­bing. Also, you want to know what made it in and what didn’t be­cause of­ten the scene you think you nailed wasn’t the one...”

The other two “hmmm” in agree­ment. For black women by black women

Based on Jele’s break­out novel, the film tells the story of Nandi (Mma­batho), Zaza (Khanyi) and Princess (Re­nate), who are try­ing to get ahead in their ca­reers, and find love and hap­pi­ness in the City of Gold.

The novel was awarded the 2011 Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize for best first book, and the film prize at the 2011 M-Net Lit­er­ary Awards, and has been re­pub­lished in cel­e­bra­tion of the film adap­ta­tion. I ask why they chose to work on the film. There’s a short si­lence, and Khanyi – talk show host, au­thor and tele­vi­sion ac­tress – speaks first: “For me, it’s my first [cinema-re­lease] film, so a big rea­son is growth of craft and get­ting into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent space from just tele­vi­sion and drama.”

Khanyi says the film’s di­rec­tor, Tha­bang Mo­leya, ap­proached her. “I know Tha­bang from my ad days, and he ap­proached me to au­di­tion for Zaza and asked me to read the script for her. It was very ex­cit­ing. And also...” she clears her throat dra­mat­i­cally and then jok­ingly says: “Let’s just be real, bills must be paid!” We all laugh.

Re­nate says: “For me, I think it was re­ally the idea of a South African book, our own book, be­ing made into a film that is about three women who are sim­i­lar to us ... They are not ex­actly like us, but we all know some­one like them, and so there was some­thing so fa­mil­iar about the story – of friend­ship, of re­la­tion­ships and love and liv­ing in Jo­han­nes­burg. Also, projects like th­ese don’t come along of­ten, so when they do, you want to be a part of it.”

Mma­batho says: “I have been be­hind the scenes for some time [as a pro­ducer], but I have al­ways wanted to do a film, and this hap­pened to be it. And it’s funny be­cause Tha­bang men­tioned it to me years ago, when they were look­ing at adapt­ing the book for the big screen, and I had for­got­ten that this was the book that he men­tioned all those years ago...

“We’ve also had other South African books adapted for the screen, but what was par­tic­u­larly spe­cial for me was that it was a novel by a black woman and the writ­ing team was black women ... and that’s not com­mon. You may get a head writer here and there, but to have a team writ­ing a story for black women was re­fresh­ing.” Friends like us

The beauty of Jele’s book, and by ex­ten­sion the movie, is how nor­mal it is. It’s not tropey in the way South African black women’s sto­ries are of­ten treated. Mma­batho plays a big-shot lawyer, Khanyi plays a gor­geous wealthy house­wife and Re­nate is the trendy art gallery owner. They’re all try­ing to make it and thrive in con­tem­po­rary Jozi, which serves as the back­drop for the film, a char­ac­ter in it­self.

As dif­fer­ent as all three lead roles are, they have a strong friend­ship, which keeps them to­gether in the ups and downs of be­ing young, black, beau­ti­ful and slay­ing in Jozi.

Khanyi says that she was ini­tially wor­ried that her char­ac­ter was too much like a younger ver­sion of her­self.

“For me, it was like, oh geez, they are tak­ing me back. Like se­ri­ously, I am re­ally go­ing to deal with this again?” she says in ref­er­ence to her much­pub­li­cised re­la­tion­ship with busi­ness­man The­u­nis Crous.

She con­tin­ues: “I thought to my­self that maybe it was an op­por­tu­nity to put the past be­hind me, and go through the lessons from that time one by one and see if we have re­ally learnt them. For me, it was re­ally ini­tially ‘Argh, I’m be­ing type­cast!’ I was scared, but it was fun in the end.”

At this point, Mma­batho says to Khanyi: “What was nice was see­ing you pre­pare for it. Be­cause you could have just said, ‘Oh well I know this story, let me just fall in’, but it was deep. Head­phones on set, quiet spa­ces, quiet cor­ners. She didn’t take it for granted.”

For her part, Mma­batho says: “I ac­tu­ally au­di­tioned for two roles, and then I bumped into Tha­bang at the gym and he asked, ‘Which part are you ac­tu­ally com­ing in for?’ and he sug­gested an­other. So it was a blind date with my char­ac­ter and, at face value, I may have thought that char­ac­ter was like me, but I soon re­alised that we are so dif­fer­ent.”

Khanyi says: “I saw the hair and I knew [which role she was com­ing for]. You walked in and I was like ‘Come on with it!’”

They all laugh, and Re­nate says: “There was some fa­mil­iar­ity be­cause peo­ple tend to cast me as this friend, she has an Afro, she’s arty, in­de­pen­dent and prob­a­bly telling guys, ‘Just be quiet and go stand over there.’ So I have played sim­i­lar women be­fore with that at­ti­tude. There was some­thing fa­mil­iar about her be­cause she does rep­re­sent some part of my per­son­al­ity and that’s why she keeps com­ing back to me.”

I ask if they liked work­ing with each other and they all chime: “Very much!”

Khanyi says: “It was more like go­ing to coffee with friends ev­ery day. We would get into our own con­ver­sa­tions about what­ever else we were work­ing on and about our lives, which was won­der­ful be­cause it re­ally felt like go­ing to meet with friends more than just go­ing to work.”

Mma­batho nods and adds: “The work was col­lab­o­ra­tive, there was no ego, we looked out for each other in terms of script and even aes­thet­i­cally.”

Khanyi says: “It was a lit­tle daunting for me be­cause I am raw tal­ent and here I was work­ing with sea­soned ac­tresses and it was like the first day of high school, but the older girls were re­ally nice.”

Mma­batho and Re­nate are both amazed that she was ner­vous.

Love and the city


From left: Re­nate Stu­ur­man, Mma­batho Montsho and Khanyi Mbau are the

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