Jayan Moodley sets her new film Keeping Up With The Kandasamys, which she directed and co-wrote with Rory Booth, squarely in the area of Chatsworth. And, apart from a few brief minutes in the gardens of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she never leaves Chatsworth, illustrating the self-contained society of the area and the unique cultural compounds that make up life in it.
It's obvious that Moodley possesses great affection for and knowledge of Chatsworth, and the plot she's constructed works to give her views of life there along various social, cultural, and economic vectors. It involves two neighbouring families – the Kandasamys and the Naidoos – and the overblown, nearly lifelong feud between the two wives, Jennifer Kandasamy (Jailoshini Naidoo) and Shanti Naidoo (Maeshni Naicker), which is brought to a clash when they discover the burgeoning love affair between their children, Shanti's son Prinesh (Madhushan Sing) and Jennifer's daughter Jodi (Mishqah Parthiepal).
The Kandasamys are evidently much better off than the Naidoos; Jennifer and Jodi both drive shiny BMWs as Shanti pulls up in an old Toyota Corolla and Prinesh makes do with his Citi Golf; Shanti prides herself on her skillfully cooked comfort food while Jennifer blends smoothies and packs high-fibre snacks in Jodi's lunchbox. Shanti is characterised with a more parochial mindset, unfamiliar with smartphone technology, concerned mostly with cooking and domestic life, scandalised by insinuations of scanty underwear and lesbianism, and inviting over old friends who eat messily with their hands and reminisce about old times. Jennifer keeps more cosmopolitan company, hosts a musical evening in her lounge, buys fancy cakes rather than making them herself, wears tasteful blouses and short pencil skirts, and delights in a tidy, well-ordered home.
These blunt and obvious contrasts are familiar movie clichés. Much is made of the two women's difference in weight; the fat jokes are mean and predictable, and their success will probably depend on the individual watching. And, while Naicker's body type is comparable to that of, say, Hollywood star Melissa McCarthy, Naidoo is nothing like the stick figure she's made out to be; those jokes fail in conception, before anyone has even had the chance to say them.
For some reason never adequately explained, Shanti and Jennifer take it as their solemn duty to break up the romance between Prinesh and Jodi. They join in malignant congress, don't let up until both the young lovers' hearts are broken, and still seem to regard their plan as a success when confronted with their children's unhappiness. It takes an angry brawl in the rain and the well-timed failing health of a benevolent elder to end the idiotic conflict between the two women, and nothing about it is dramatically satisfying.
Apart from the inane (and, again, clichéd) reason for the feud, no change of heart or change of mind is dramatised, only a change in mood. I felt that large sections were missing from the script, or the final filmed portions of the script, in which Jennifer and Shanti are allowed to say everything they have to say to each other, to their husbands (who are also involved in unspoken resentments and ties of affection), and to themselves. Though their characters are the ones talking for most of the movie's duration, it still seems like their voices have been cut out of the story.
Keeping Up With the Kandasamys is the triumph of a storyteller's affection over her artistry, and the evocation of a social and cultural milieu (created through political designs) over that of a vibrant inner life.
The comedy of the movie is the totally unthreatening, unchallenging, convivial kind of comedy we're treated to on South African television; it's all tightly bound to the contrived script and dialogue, and the performers, as wildly funny and expressive as each of them may be, are given no room to cut loose and tear through the screen to their full anarchic potential. The wisecracks and physical comedy are devised and set out by the writers and director, constraining the actors from releasing the unrulier excesses of their imaginations and personalities, and untethering the free expression of their base impulses, which is often the essence of great cinematic comedy.
Despite these shortcomings, Moodley's heartfelt intent brings considerable merit into her film as well. Her earnest sympathy with the character Jennifer, despite Jennifer's bile and haughtiness, gives Jailoshini Naidoo a few brief opportunities to emote clearly and sketch in the melodramatic unhappiness of her story. And Moodley's filming of the setting and of what goes on in it would prove revelatory to any South African unfamiliar with Chatsworth and South African Indian culture.
She covers the large aspects of food, home décor, religion, music, clothing, weddings, sexual maturation, marriage, shopping, slang, and hair and beauty. Even the close proximity of the houses is addressed, as well as (surprisingly, I thought, in so amicable a romantic comedy) a shrewd prologue and epilogue spoken in voiceover by the wizened grandmother, Aya (Mariam Bassa), about how the Chatsworth community became so insular and so defiantly spirited when all the Indians were forcibly removed and confined by apartheid legislation.
Keeping Up With the Kandasamys is the triumph of a storyteller's affection over her artistry, and the evocation of a social and cultural milieu (created through political designs) over that of a vibrant inner life. Next, it'd be marvellous to see Moodley telling her own stories about Chatsworth, and what the locations and people in it mean to her, as well as see them given the opportunity to depict their own lives and experiences there. Though it was addressed to the American film industry, South African film-makers would do well to bear in mind Viola Davis's exhortation at the Oscars last month to "exhume those stories." A picture book or tour guide could fill us in on the reportorial details of life in a specific area or pocket of society; as Davis went on to say, it's only art "that celebrates what it means to live a life."