From the small screen as a contestant on Survivor South Africa: Malaysia in 2007 to becoming a regular face on KykNET’s Suidooster and now with a movie under his belt, Irshaad Ally is slowly becoming a household name.
Raised in Maitland, Cape Town, Irshaad had a rough youth: he grew up on the Cape Flats, never finished school and got involved with the wrong people.
He then re-invented his life and worked his way up from a runner at an ad agency, to a graphic designer. After his appearance on Survivor, he began a career in entertainment, and has since appeared in several television series including eKasi: Our Stories, When We Were Black, Homeland and Strike Back.
His latest project, Nommer 37, is a crime thriller about greed, deception and a dangerous criminal underground. It’s also a story about hope, loyalty and redemption. Ally stars alongside Monique Rockman, in the character of Randal Hendricks, while Rockman plays his devoted live-in girlfriend, Pam.
IOL spoke to him.
How did you prepare for the role of Randal?
I was part of the short film four years ago, and what happened was that I auditioned for the villain. They wanted me to play either Lawyer or Emmie. They then came to me, two days before the shoot and said we want you to play the lead. It fell into my lap in a good way, my brother-in-law is a paraplegic, he’s been one for almost 20 years. Through his experiences I’ve come to know the depression, I understand the suicidal thoughts.
He has close friends who are also paraplegic, so they are also my older brothers. I was able to get into that world, and explore. Before we shot the full feature film last year, I sat down with them and had a serious chat about what it was that they went through. I know their mannerisms, I started smoking for the role, lost about 5 kgs. I have been part of the movie for four years, but now with the full feature, it’s such a layered story and characters.
What’s been the hardest part of being a part of the film and getting into your character?
The hardest part was that I was busy on another job, my day job, a soap on KykNET, Suidooster. I am very grateful for it, but it meant I had five days before we started shooting. I was still working on Suidooster, which was tough, but it also created the haphazard, manic sense that the character needed. Randal is in bad shape, so it worked well.
Once you watch the film, it draws you in.
Yes, it’s set in a particular location, and at first glance, you’ll probably have a stereotypical thought about it. But once you get into it, you realise it’s a film that can speak to almost anybody.
Ja, The Gambit (Gambit Films is the production house responsible for Nommer 37) guys are really good filmmakers, they’re good storytellers, and they were by no means going to allow the film to be some form of poverty porn or gangster porn, or whatever you want to call it. They literally understood what the genre is.
In terms of films that are crime thrillers, which is what Nommer 37 is, what does this film bring to the genre?
The novelty of this film is that something like this hasn’t been done in South Africa, until now. It’s very ambitious for Cape Town filmmakers to tell a Cape Flats story, in this genre. I think they’ve pulled it off. It’s not your typical Cape Flats film.
And the song that’s accompanying the film, Dala wat jy moet?
Youngsta CPT and I have known each other for quite a long time. He made a song for another movie I was a part of, years ago. I hated the fact that I played a thug and people looked at me and thought a gangster is glamorous.
So the concept of Dala wat jy moet, which translates to do what you’re meant to do, means do the right thing. We’re speaking to anyone in the country at the moment, to remind them that the buck stops with you. You’ve got to take what you’ve got and do what you can. You cannot blame anyone for your circumstances.
Why is it important that there are films like this that seek to depict life on the Cape Flats in a way that challenges the accepted stereotypes?
If we are just going to tell stories about ourselves as if it was a khumbaya situation on the Cape Flats, that’s a misnomer. And by the same token, if we just tell stories that are just gangs and people killing each other, that’s a misnomer as well.
We need to find the mean, the middle pathway. I come from that world, I have a chequered past that everyone knows about, but I wasn’t brought up that way. It was the elements around me. So I believe, as storytellers, we have to find that middle ground where we talk about the good people that wake up early in the morning, get on a taxi and go clean people’s houses in Sea Point, for instance.
Does the film have a sentimental value to you?
I am a rehabilitated drug addict. I’ve been a bit of a rebel. When I was young, I really wanted to belong to the Numbers gang. I wanted to go to prison to become a Number. I commiserate with kids who want to do that, because that’s what seems achievable to them. It is what gives them a sense of validation. The hood itself can be a prison, where you see nothing else.
What’s next for you?
There are a lot of projects I am involved in. I also write, but I really don’t want to go into those details as yet. There’s a lot happening in the very near future. I don’t know how this is going to sound, but I can’t stand that people are telling me to go to Hollywood.
No. I am a South African storyteller and I am going to stay and tell our stories. From storytelling, I get to learn, to have a glimpse into people’s lives. I think in SA we need that.
Why should people go watch the movie?
I think the film’s title itself is an enigma. I get asked at least twice a day, why the number 37? And that is they reason people should go see it, to find out why this film is called Nommer 37.
Nommer 37 is currently in selected cinemas, nationwide.