Mandisa Nduna. Picture: Supplied

The story of one of history’s towering figures Queen Mkabayi Ka Jama, aunt of Zulu King Shaka has taken centre stage through the making of She is King, a musical film that also seeks to celebrate the finest of South African music.

Against the backdrop of the City of Gold as the Broadway of Africa, the film tells the story of Khanyisile (Gugu Zulu), a talented singer, dancer and actor who wants to be a star. 

She travels from her home in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, to audition for a new musical to be staged at the Joburg Theatre based on the life of powerful Zulu Queen Mkabayi ka Jama. 

The musical celebrates the powerful woman that she was and how she helped shape her nation.

Under the direction of Gersh Kgamedi, the cast features some crowd favourites in Khanyi Mbau, Khabonina Qubeka, Mandisa Nduna, Sophie Ndaba and Aubrey Poo, to name a few.

Khanyi Mbau and Khabonina Qubeka in She is King. Picture: Supplied

Speaking to Tonight, Kgamedi said the process of moving the film from a stack of paper to a full length film has been fun, but a lot of hard work.

“Nicola (Rauch-producer) invited me and said ‘Gersh, I’ve worked with you for many years. How would you like to direct a musical on the life of Mkabayi ka Jama?’ I said that should be fun. And from then, till the film is where it is now, we worked till draft 18 or so,” he said.

It’s a process that Kgamedi explains took them a year before they were ready to shoot. He added that in preparation of meeting him, Rauch had also been busy with the script for about a year.

“We had several workshops to develop the characters further. The basic storyline was there but there were some problems there. So the characters needed to be fleshed out. But we also wanted to present Johannesburg in a better light,” he said.

This is something that is rather different about the film. It features beautiful wide shots of the city and while in other films this is done as a part of the project, here it was deliberate and intentional.

“We know that there are many films and television programmes that we watch these days that don’t do this. I was driven by this desire to showcase black people of Johannesburg and South Africa in a positive light. No violence, no sex, no prostitution,” Kgamedi said.

While he acknowledges the need to tell stories in film on a broad spectrum, Kgamedi said this film provided him the opportunity to portray the other side of Johannesburg, a hopeful Joburg.

This is not, however, to say that the film, in the eyes of Kgamedi and his team, is sugar-coated.

“We didn’t want to present the story as your typical trials and tribulations, you go through hell and the rest of it. We said it could be easy if you’re talented, but there will be obstacles along the way. And obstacles are not necessarily the challenges from the industry itself - which we do showcase - but it can be that person’s demons, your past following you,” he added.

In terms of casting, one of the pleasant surprises for Kgamedi has been of Mbau in the role of Vivian. Mbau here is stripped bare, something she admits was challenging.

“Playing Vivian came with its own challenges,” Mbau says. “I was stripped bare. Being made to change my hair and wear minimal make-up, I was completely out of my comfort zone.

“But Vivian is a great character. I’m often cast as the villain, but in this film, I play the role of an angel. Vivian is an adviser; she is someone that young girls can talk to and trust. She provides guidance for the dancers who are looking to become stars,” Mbau said.

But for Kgamedi it allowed him to see Mbau as the talented actressshe is.

“When I first had a meeting with Khanyi I said to her: ‘Here is the character you’re going to play. Vivian is very African in her aesthetics - she doesn’t wear weaves, eyelashes or nails. She’s just natural’. And she gave us great performances and loved playing the part of Vivian. She brought more into Vivian and I was quite amazed how great an actress she is,” he said.

One of the other important aspects of the film is the music.

She's King cast. Picture: Dominic Barnardt

Some big numbers by the likes of Brenda Fassie, Steve Kekana and PJ Powers, to name a few, have been done for the film. It’s something Kgamedi describes as the film being a form of ethnomusicology.

“It’s quite important that we don’t lose our musical heritage. For us to protect our heritage we need to keep it alive by constantly repackaging it for a new generation. Ten years from now, if we aren’t careful, the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be forgotten,” he said.

Songs like Paradise Road by Joy , Feel so Good by PJ Powers are remade for the film. And while Kgamedi said they agreed they couldn’t package them as they were in the ’80s, they were very careful with what songs they included.

The film was made with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry, M-Net and the Gauteng Film Commission, and will be distributed by Indigenous Film Distribution.

The film opens in cinemas on Friday, December 1.