The launch of Imbewu: The Seed is a colourful event at the Congella Studios hosted by the newly formed Grapevine Productions, and it involves many drinks and a tour of another set.
The Imbewu studios have been built in a similar way to Uzalo’s – an industrial space adapted to function as a high-end swing or floating studio. The launch of the new soapie includes a screening of the first episode. It’s top-quality TV – cinematic, textured and beautifully performed. And so it should be given the heavyweight executive producers involved: Anant Singh (Videovision Entertainment), Duma Ndlovu (Word of Mouth Pictures) and Leleti Khumalo.
Successful talks between e.tv and Grapevine established Durban as the hub of the show, but there were no studios in Durban. They set out to locate a 2 000m2 space, which production designer and art director Nerina du Plessis says “was daunting ... to build sets in a space this compact”.
Ndlovu adds: “I walked into this building and started salivating. It was just being used for storage. We fetched Nerina from Johannesburg and she built our world.”
The show’s premise, he says, “focuses on two brothers whose mother is played by Thembi Mtshali. The one is infertile and the wife [Khumalo] discovers that she is not the problem. She tells her mother-in-law, who asks her oldest son to sleep with his brother’s wife. Four kids later, the younger brother has a successful life and our show starts...”
On the set, he points out the interior of the older and poorer brother’s house in Umbumbulu. Imbewu shows the lives of both of the brothers, the younger one in Umlazi and the Rampersads from Chatsworth. Their worlds intersect at an oil company that they all have a stake in, and it’s trippy how realistic the huge studio sets are.
The charismatic producer sits and explains the Imbewu move, an expansion of his efforts on Uzalo. He’s all but beaming with pride, like he knows Imbewu is going to be a hit.
It’s his first stint producing on free-to-air e.tv, which he says was an enticing prospect. The connection was facilitated by Singh, the producer of some of the country’s best-known feature films, including Sarafina! and Long Walk to Freedom.
Ndlovu says he is a storyteller with millions of tales to tell.
“When the chance arises to tell one, I always want to. As a writer, I’m always writing and developing new concepts. It takes me two years or so to develop one, then I take it to a broadcaster.
“Sizobukisa [We came to show off] and, to do that, you need a certain combination of ingredients to tell the story. I’m unapologetically an African storyteller.”
For him, the essential question is whether viewers can relate to your story.
“The man in the street should identify with it and be able to see themselves or their family in the story. Everybody wants to be heard and respected. One needs to make sure you know what you’re talking about before telling a story so that you give people that respect. Research is the absolute key to this, and we did tons.”
Ndlovu explains the Imbewu collaboration: “South African television takes people for granted, but not in my stories. I’m not Indian, but part of my story is about Indian people. I’ve covered this by collaborating and finding cultural advisers.”
“Movies are my game,” says Singh in a room in the back.
“This is my first TV soap, so I was happy to align with the likes of Leleti, who I have been friends with for years.”
The idea behind the show appeals to him.
“We have different ethnicities and Durban is a perfect backdrop for that. It’s about Durban’s society.”
He believes it’s important to give audiences what they want.
“Leleti called me and said she and Duma wanted to see me. I loved the concept. We are all partners and we’re hoping Leleti will start directing soon. She knows film better than most people.”
He concedes that every production has its problems. Imbewu has been marred by sexual misconduct allegations, as well as threats by the lobby group the Injenje Yaba Nguni Council, whose leader threatened to burn down Singh’s offices if the racial conflict between black and Indian South Africans was not depicted in the series.
Ndlovu and Singh are evasive when asked about these matters.
“It was quite surprising,” says Singh about the threats. “If he has issues about the way we tell these stories, why not come speak to us? His actions were absurd and upsetting. But, back in my day, I made films against the apartheid state – they didn’t like it and I still made what I had to. If you don’t like it, don’t watch. Audiences have choices these days.”
The legendary, award-winning actress left Uzalo and we weren’t certain why.
Today, we know.
“They approached me to join Imbewu as a producer and that was tempting. I was happy at Uzalo – it is a brilliant production – but I had wanted to go into producing for a while. I think it was time, it made sense to do something behind the scenes,” she says.
She had cut her teeth as one of the hard-working producers on Ayanda, which opened the Durban International Film Festival a few years ago.
“It’s difficult to balance the two as I’m wearing two hats – actor and producer. When you produce, you always think of money and, every now and then, the director has to bring me back if I get lost.”
The relaxed star is in her element.
“I always want to work with different people, fresh young talent, especially from KwaZulu-Natal,” Khumalo says.
She does her best to guide the new talent on the show. The young actors look up to her and she considers this an honour. Also, being a producer means you can help shape the story.
“It’s time to start telling our own stories. Some of our stories are swept under the carpet, but this one will touch many people and it will ask many questions.”
One of the themes in Imbewu, of blood not always being thicker than water, rings true for Khumalo.
“You could be related to someone, but not consider them family – it depends how you take things. The big thing is that there are secrets that some people are prepared to die with.”
Ndlovu says: “I hope I am never confronted by that, but if I was, I would have to remember that I’m an African and family is important. But when I die, my name must remain. In pursuit of that, people can do crazy things.”
And crazy things will be done on Imbewu, that’s for sure, and they will be done Durban style.
Khumalo says: “We’ve been waiting forever for the things that are happening here now. To have productions come and shoot here. The problem has been when talented people had to go to Joburg to flourish. That is now at an end.”
(Photos: Supplied/City Press)