Lauded stage and film actor John Kani has such a laissez-faire manner about him that he leaves people defenceless against his charm.
But despite his status in the entertainment industry, his humility never leaves him lacking admirers, or an audience.
A chat with Kani proved to be insightful and very funny.
He starts: “The make-up guy was busy shaving me; he only got one side done.”
Remaining scruffy beard aside, he comments on his vision for the telenovela: “When writing a play, in my mind I know the journey of each character, the areas where there is going to be a contradiction. Then, when I start penning, the character takes over and almost dictates to me. And some things surprise you – in the middle of the night, you might get a line for a character.
“The original idea is based on Romeo & Juliet, with two old families who are enemies for life and how it carries on for generations. They have children, both are in the transport industry, but while Mkhuseli Mthetho (Kani) is ‘connected’, Mzi Khumalo is still distributing coal and gas. But Mzi was the man who did the business plan and I chucked him out. And they were both in love with one woman. Now their children continue the warfare in the fashion world.”
Getting back to his vision, Kani continues: “I always said, you would never find me alive in a soap. This is my television debut and, this time, I didn’t just create it, I am in it and I am the executive producer.
“I am working with incredible talent with Portia Gumede in charge of the writers. Then there is the creative producer, the technical person. You have people sitting in a room, taking your idea and giving it to you in blocks of episodes.
“Some raises eyebrows, some makes you go ‘wow’, I’m amazed at how in tune they are with the original idea and are using my vision as the parameters.”
But the response to the initial screenings were mixed, I point out.
“That was a challenge to explain. Telenovelas in Asia, China, Japan and south Mexico are very popular. But they are not soapies. The story looks slow, but a telenovela is like that. You lay the groundwork in the first 10 to 15 episodes. As the audience gets it all, then the story kicks into overdrive.
“Soapies, on the other hand, are open-ended. A telenovela is one story divided into 280 episodes as we play four times a week. Imagine reading a book – in the first 10 chapters you are introduced to the broader landscape of the characters and their journey. One of our challenges was that.
“People were comparing iNkaba to Generations, 7de Laan, Rhythm City, now they can’t miss an episode.”
I push Kani for a hint on what’s coming up, especially with his character’s messy divorce on the cards, and he replies with the artfulness of a politician: “In entertainment, everyone is sworn to secrecy. As Barbara Windsor (EastEnders) would say: ‘It’s very interesting.’”
Expanding on Mkhuseli and how beneath those immaculate suits lurks a ruthless and dangerous business- man, the actor says: “Like Tony in The Sopranos, who hides the fact that he consults a psychologist, Mkhuseli conceals the fact that he consults a sangoma and is in cahoots with JP. My character is crooked, rotten to the core, and can buy everybody from the judge, the prosecutor…
“I’ve always played the nice guy. I’m enjoying the evil of the character. People often stop me to ask why I treat my wife like that.”
On Mkhuseli getting a little too friendly with Petunia (his wife Nomsa’s friend), Kani laughs: “That’s just a warning to never take your best friend’s advice because they actually want your husband.”
Besides the family feud, the telenovela touches on relevant and identifiable issues such as xenophobia, infidelity, family strife, dangerous ambitions and love.
On the continuous injection of familiar faces into the storyline with Rami Chuene and Florence Masebe (now in e.tv’s Scandal) being cast, Kani explains: “One of the conditions I made… when I was pitching [the show], I said: ‘It would please me greatly, if we were to use ‘actors’. Actors take a story and text and fly with it. They are able to create people’s favourite characters, without just being voice boxes for the storyline…
“I always say: ‘You may hate The Bold and the Beautiful, but you can’t take away from it their great actors.’ We can’t use actors who aren’t experienced. That is where the weak link is and where you start to lose the audience.”
With Sthembiso “SK” Khoza, Seputla Sebogodi and Bonginkosi Dlamini already signed on to add more twists to the storylines, Kani says viewers can look forward to a poetic Shakespearean finale.
And, after the amazing response he received while accompanying President Jacob Zuma to the unveiling of a sculpture at the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in KwaZulu-Natal, Kani is chuffed about “being famous in the rural community… at last” and “launching SA’s first telenovela”.
iNkaba airs on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 107) at 8.30pm, Monday to Thursday.