2019 has been an exciting year in exploring new voices, narratives and terrain within the South African film and television industry. The year kicked off with the release of smash teen comedy, Matwetwe, which became one of the few South African films, predominantly in vernac, to sail passed the R5 million threshold at the local box office, whilst rom-com Kandasamys: Wedding became the first local box-office chart topper in 4 years. Debuting television programmes like e-Hostella and Giyani: Land of Blood have taken South African viewers by storm by exploring sonic pallets not usually traversed whilst providing gripping dramas with a mainly fresh-faced cast whilst Pallance Dladla lead cop-drama; Shadow, became the first South African television series to be acquired by Netflix. All of these programs speak to the growing excitement that surrounds the African narrative, and specifically how its scope is expanding across our various screens. Zee World’s Mehek, not only continues this expansion on a local front but breaks ground inter-continentally by becoming the first Bollywood TV production to feature Africans in prominent roles. Having launched on the 6th April 2019, this article takes a look at the show’s first month on air as well as exploring what this ground-breaking project could mean for the African narrative.
Filmed completely in India, Mehek is a reimagining of popular Zee-Entertainment drama Zindagi Ki Mehek which follows the titular character’s, an aspiring chef, journey in finding love and following her passion for food with all the tribulations that come with it. Shortly after Zindagi Ki Mehek’s original run finished, 16 September 2016 till 1 September 2018, additional filming began for Zee World Africa’s viewers with the introduction of the Gabela family to complete what we now watch as simply Mehek. Anchoring the new-storylines for the landmark series are South African actors; Shonisani Masutha, Nomava Kibare, Ndaba Ka Ngwane and Kamogelo Mogale as Norah, Leleti, Eddie and Dennis Gabela; a well-to-do African family who find asylum in India following false criminal accusations. Zee World Africa as a channel has had an unprecedented level of success across the continent and as it currently stands, it’s the leading general entertainment channel in markets like Kenya, Zambia and Nigeria and ranks within South Africa’s top 3 channels within Zee’s key demographics. All of these achievements have been accrued within a space of 4 years and these achievements are what framed the decision-making that informed the creation of Mehek. Ratna Siriah, head of Business at Zee World Africa, states the decision to develop a Bollywood production with African actors stemmed from the unequivocal success the channel received from their audiences. Harish Goyal, the channel’s CEO, builds on this by stating that Mehek represents an important evolutionary step in providing exciting and innovative content to its viewers.
Mehek does prove to be an evolutionary bold step in connecting Bollywood with an African narrative, but it comes with the growing pains of being a first step. Throughout the first month we’re introduced to The Gabelas, they are given ample screen time and story arcs but those arcs aren’t integral to the main story or the original show’s two main protagonists. Zindagi Ki Mehek’s two lead characters were Mehek Sharma and Shaurya Khana. The show is built around their rivalry come ill-fated romance that stems from them being of two separate classes. All the characters involved in the show directly orbit these two characters and their actions directly affect either of these two characters, all except the Gabelas. The Gabelas are introduced in the first episode dramatically through Norah, who in her first scene tries to commit suicide, a suicide attempt fuelled by the heartbreak of starting her life over in a new country and leaving her boyfriend behind. A whole new story world is built that frames Norah and Dennis as new protagonists with story arcs that are built around them with Norah’s tumultuous love life and Dennis’ search for a job. That story world has yet to meaningfully collide with Mehek and Shaurya in the show’s first month of airing. None of the drama that affects the Gabelas has any effect on The Sharmas or Khanas and vice versa. The problem with that is that with a majority of the story time spent with Mehek and Shaurya, the Gabelas then feel completely disconnected from the rest of the show so while we do have Africans in prominent roles, their contributions don’t feel as meaningful as they could be if their actions provided stakes for either of the other leads. The lack of story integration could be attuned to scheduling conflicts with Zindagi’s leads, since additional filming begun way after the series had wrapped shooting. This could very well change as the series develops but the next month’s teasers don’t seem to hint at such a development.
Mehek is a necessary step that’s opening doors to see how future projects like this can work because collaborations between Bollywood and African territories have been completely uncharted territory up until now. Developments like this if successful could mean great growth not only for our stories but our various media industries and other industries that surround them like tourism and fashion. As such, these innovations come with a lot of excitement as well as substantial growing pains that need continuous pointed research and collaboration for the fruits of it to be felt and to grow. The success of projects like Black Panther has invigorated an international interest in African characters and narratives like I have never seen in my life. On an international scale, we’re beginning to explore the depths with which African characters can be depicted, to whom, by whom and how. With Mehek, Zee World continues this expansion of African’s narrative footprint and it’s incredibly exciting to think about what could evolve from this with more productions.