Backlash to 'The Wife' cast a reminder to move away from the soapie genre to free up actors
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When the news that Dudu Busani Dube's cult favourite books, the Hlomu series, was being adapted for screen, there was excitement.
So when the cast of the Zulu Brothers, the heroes (and villains) of the series was announced and pictures shared, there was an uproar across all social media platforms.
From WhatsApp and Instagram statuses, to tweets and Facebook posts, the people were outraged.
Comments went from "They can keep the show" to "They have ruined my fantasy", with many others questioning why the casting directors 'betrayed' the fans.
It was fascinating to observe. No other South African series had garnered that much attention to who was cast in the roles before.
In my years of reporting about the South African TV industry, I had never come across such heated debate.
Even when Deon Meyer's Trackers book was adapted for screen by M-Net, there wasn't this much attention paid to the casting choices.
But then there have been few characters as fascinating or as gripping as Hlomu and the Zulu brothers.
“Hlomu: The Wife” is a romantic drama with comedic moments about a journalist, Hlomu, who meets a taxi driver, Mqhele, falls in love and they quickly get married.
But she doesn’t realise that he is not just a driver – he co-owns a taxi empire with his brothers and they are secretly wealthy.
But she also soon realises that in order to be in the family, she has to turn a blind eye to many things the brothers need to do to stay ahead in the taxi industry.
Busani-Dube, a journalist, wrote and self-published the series, which has four follow-up books.
Themed after each brother’s wife or lover, the books follow the lives of the eight Zulu brothers, a formidable crime family, through the eyes of the women they love.
The book series has become a cult classic, with follow-up books being quickly devoured by fans, and made Busani-Dube one of the most successful self-published authors in the country.
The adaptation comes after years of fans asking the author to sell the rights to a production company, and producing a live action series or film.
Finally it happened, as Showmax stepped up.
Showmax commissioned three seasons of 40 episodes each, inspired by Dudu’s books “Hlomu: the Wife”, “Zandile the Resolute”, and “Naledi His Love” respectively.
In the lead up to the show’s adaptation, many fans wanted Muzi Mthabela, Siyabonga Twala, Nay Maps, Siyabonga Radebe and Thembinkosi Mthembu to play some of the brothers.
For months they have been doing their dream castings and going into detail about their choices and why the actors would be perfect for the roles.
The cast and characters were discussed in great detail by many across social media and many sent their suggestions to Busani-Dube.
They had fantasized about Nkosana, Mqhele, Qhawe, Mqoqi and the rest of the brothers for years and had certain expectations.
Fans were expecting tall, dark-skinned actors with bulging, ‘bug eyes’.
They expected actors who resembled each other. They expected the image that Busani-Dube had painted for them in the books. They didn’t get that.
Instead these actors have been cast in the series. Bonko Khoza as Mqhele Kwenzo Ngcobo as Qhawe; Sipho Ndlovu as Sambulo; SAFTA winner Abdul Khoza as Nqoba; Mondli Makhoba as Nkosana; SAFTA nominee Thulane Nkululeko Shange as Mqoqi; Ishmauel Songo as Mpande; and Swelihle Luthuli as Ntsika.
The lead character, Hlomu, will be played by Mbalenhle Mavimbela, who has starred in “Skeem Saam”.
The passionate response to the casting of “The Wife” shows how difficult it is to adapt books for screen.
The casting decisions that did not even go close to what fans of the series were expecting, was a reminder of how our industry's reliance on the soapie and telenovela genre of TV storytelling, is problematic.
Most of the actors fans wanted and expected, are tied up in long term contracts with other soapies and telenovelas, which would make it difficult for them to leave the shows they are currently working on, for “The Wife”.
This has brought to light how problematic and detrimental to the industry it is that South African TV is mainly daily Soaps and telenovellas - it doesn't allow the actors to explore other roles and leads to viewer disappointment.
“The Wife” is being produced by Stained Glass, who’ve created shows like “eHostela” and “Ifalakhe” as well as “Durban Gen” and “Uzalo”.
Hence it was possible for them to cast actors already working for Stained Glass productions in “The Wife”.
However, actors from rival production houses would not have been able to leave their shows, even for a short spell, to star in The Wife.
What has worked well for the US and the UK, is the drama and comedy episode orders, some going from three to 22 episodes.
That frees up the actor to work on other projects, including films and theatre, which is not the case in South Africa.
Will it change in South Africa? Not any time soon. Not while we are still a country that relies heavily on soapies and telenovelas for entertainment, and dramas and comedy are not given the attention they need.
Maybe the backlash to the cast of “The Wife” is what will make the industry realise what it is missing out on - variety for their actors and viewers.