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WHEN Ronnie Apteker, film-maker and founder of Internet Solutions, bumped into Muslim stand-up comedian Riaad Moosa at Cool Runnings nearly a decade ago, the movie buff in him immediately started thinking celluloid.
“He liked what I did and found it interesting that a Muslim doctor was doing stand-up,” recalls Moosa. “So he proposed the idFea of developing a script around the concept.”
“He introduced me to writer-director Craig Freimond and we started chatting about being a doctor and about stand-up comedy and how Muslim stand-up comedians are perceived.”
“Craig is not a Muslim and had no frame of reference in regard to the nuances within the community — things we take for granted had to be explained to him.”
Eight years and nine drafts later Moosa finds himself not entirely the subject of, but rather the lead actor in the soon-to-be-released Material.
He plays Cassim Kaif, a young Muslim man who works in his father’s fabric shop in Fordsburg. In keeping with family tradition he is expected to take over the family business, but when he discovers a hidden talent for comedy; he finds himself in conflict with his father, as well as with other family members and some segments of his community.
“The actual story line and narrative have nothing to do with my life,” says Moosa. “But a lot of my experiences have been incorporated into the script.”
The son of parents who are both medical doctors, Moosa grew up in Cape Town, and always wanted to be a doctor.
“The comedy came as sort of a surprise. I always had a talent for making voices and impersonating people, but I didn’t view this as a career option during medical school.”
This changed when, during the fourth year of his studies, he performed at The Armchair Theatre in Cape Town to a small audience of 20 who found his jokes funny. Moosa was hooked. “I wrote the whole set myself and performed it and when they started laughing I thought ‘Whoa! This is what I want to do.’ It was an amazing experience.”
These days he performs to audiences of up to 5 000 people and his one-man shows like Strictly Halaal and R iaad Moosa for the Baracka have frequently been sold out.
“I never decided that I was going to do either medicine or comedy. I started doing stand up comedy as an extracurricular activity, but opportunities just kept coming my way and I followed them,” he explains, pointing out that he still harbours a strong desire to work as a doctor, specifically in the public sector. “It’s just a matter of figuring out a way to do it — I’m so invested in what I do now.”
Doing stand-up comedy has never been about financial reward, says Moosa. “It’s always been about appreciation of an art form. I’ve always wanted to write jokes and perform them.”
He draws the inspiration for his jokes from his personal experiences and views on the world, but admits that as a Muslim comedian it’s not always easy to express how you feel about certain things.
“It’s always about how you see the world. There are some things you want to talk about, but when you do comedy the audience must agree with you if they’re going to laugh. So you have to understand what people feel and at the same time not sell out what you believe in. Not to pander to negative stereotypes is to almost be an underdog.”
Being a Muslim comedian comes with other challenges too. For instance, Moosa likes hanging out with fellow comedians, but this opportunity usually presents itself at comedy clubs where alcohol is consumed. “If I go to a comedy venue, I go for the comedy then I leave. I have to forego my love for hanging out with comedians.”
And then there are those within his own community who have been far from impressed with some of his jokes. “I get frustrated at people not understanding where I’m coming from. I want people to forget their problems and laugh. I’m very careful about what I say and when I say it, and I have no one to guide me — it’s me testing the waters. I have to walk a tight line. Sometimes it goes right, sometimes it goes left.”
But these real-life experiences made the transition from stand-up comedy to playing the role of Cassim in Material somewhat easier, he admits.
“Doing stand-up comedy is extremely different from acting. Stand-up comedy is much more exaggerated. The camera picks up so much when you’re acting, you have to feel what the character would feel in a given situation. The only reason I could pull it off was because I understood the script, the story and the character so well, having been involved in writing the script and having lived through a lot of the things I was acting out,” he explains.
Moosa says he is excited about the film and that like his comedy, he hopes it will help break down stereotypes about Muslims. “People get bombarded with all sorts of negative stereotypes about Muslims in the media. But this is a human story anyone can relate to, it’s just that the protagonists are Muslims. It’s got nothing to do with terrorism and the nonsense people are expecting to hear from Muslims. In that way stereotypes are broken down.”
But does he think that everyone within the Muslim community will welcome the initiative with open arms? “Well, if you say the movie is about Muslim people, some within the community will say that’s wrong without even watching it,” he admits. “I think there will be controversy. But I hope that people will see the profoundly positive message in Material and that it will stir lots of discussion, debate and hopefully warm hearts.”
•Material is due for countrywide release on February 17.