Kalushi is a period drama with international calibre attention to detail.
In one of the opening scenes a shop owner holds out a bank note bearing the image of the infamous man with curly black hair – that is, Jan van Rieebeck himself. This is world class attention to detail. When Solomon and his friends escape South Africa the car they are driving has those “TP” (Transvaal designation) license plates. The trains whereon Solomon sells fruits are coloured in that red hue of congealed blood, a colour which spotted the Apartheid landscape. When Solomon is in the Angola camp they sing: Oliver Tambo, thetha no Vorster, akhulul’uMandela. Kalushi is sensitive to its period; BJ Vorster was president in 1970s as opposed to the today sung version where Oliver Tambo must implore Botha to release Mandela.
The direction provided by Mandlakayise Walter Dube Jnr. makes Kalushi an effortless experience. You are never wondering why did that story go there, or why did it dwell so long on this, or continually checking your watch. One thing though I found odd in the movie (given its attention to detail) was the reference to Black Like Me, when the hair product was only launched in the 1980s; Kalushi takes place in the late 1970s. In my search for these dates I discovered that the director’s father (Walter Dube Snr) was one of the founders of Black Like Me. Whether these references were intentional anachronisms or not, the Black Like Me connection is an interesting factoid.
One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is its fidelity to portraying regional variations in South African languages. Thabo Rametsi, who plays Solomon, masterfully code switches between SePitori, IsiNdebele and English. SePitori is the creolised Sotho which is spoken in Tshwane. SePitori is not a pidgin language (e.g. Fanagalo) but a creole language (i.e. stable grammar) and is native to Tshwane. SePitori is a potjiekos of Sepedi, Setwana, a smattering of Afrikaans and smidgeon of English. I enjoyed Kalushi’s fidelity to SePitori.
Solomon’s bother Lucas (Fumani Shiluba) did justice to IsiNdebele. However, I found his mother Martha (Gcina Mhlope) to have veered off on the Nguni spectrum and thus I did not enjoy her rendering of IsiNdebele. Such inconsistencies, much as they are slight, can be distracting to local audiences much in the same way as when foreign actors play Mandela.
One of the motifs played out in the movie is the coming of age of Solomon. This motif is played out through juxtaposing his going to the mountains for initiation and his going into exile to train as an uMkhonto weSiwe cadre. His Ndebele coloured blanket is used as a device to remind us of this juxtaposition of this dual coming of age; the blanket also serves to connect his narrative to his cultural heritage.
The character of Mondy Motloung (Thabo Malema) provides the movie with its very hilarious lighter moments. One of his barbs is shown when he complains that ever since the arrival of Vasco da Gama, his mouth has been subjected to burning from hot spiced food. The SePitori delivery of this line had me laughing with tears in my eyes. Another barb is when they are in the Mozambique Xai Xai refugee camp. There Mondy complains that he is tired of go skomorah (masturbating) and they need to find a way to escape the camp. The other characters chastise him for making light of their situation in the Xai Xai refugee camp. Motloung then masterfully responds that he is being very serious.
This comment, said in jest by Motloung, about being tired of go skomorah, underlies the motif of tragic sadness that runs through this movie. A motif of humans deprived of the opportunity to be human.
As the movie plays itself out one is continually searching for the heroic, the epic, the legendary from Solomon Mahlangu and his compatriots. One is continually searching for that one act which forms the basis for the legend that is Solomon Mahlangu. That one mission which justifies the ANC naming the SOMAFCO school in Morogogoro for Solomon. However, the movie gallops and eventually drops in the gallows leaving one with a profound sense of sadness. The throw away comment about go skomorah speaks volumes to the underlying tragic sadness of the life of Solomon Mahlangu.
Today, everyone is a gold medalist in the Apartheid Olympics but in reality the families of the people on the front lines bore a compounded pain.
Here is a guy (along with his comrades) who just wanted an opportunity at a fair life. Here are normal human beings with human urges. Here are common people without the bearing of superhumans. My sadness stems from the arbitrariness of life portrayed in the movie; the sense that normal people were just killed for insisting on being treated fairly. It is almost as though, perversely, I was expecting Solomon to have done Shaka proportion conquests to justify the evil arbitrariness which was visited on him. Even failing that, maybe something Mandela-esque; something preternatural befitting superhuman status.
The bungling which leads to the arrest of Solomon and the trial which leads to his hanging amplified this sadness and tragedy. After the movie ended I just sat there in my chair and sadness engulfed me. Kalushi, the life of blacks in South Africa.
But here is a Solomon, an ordinary guy who summoned the courage within himself to fight for what is right. An ordinary guy who represents a generation of ordinary people who just wanted an opportunity at life. A guy for whom this fight is the deepest expression of his love for his people.
Foreign headlined Mandela movies leave one feeling so-so; Kalushi is different. Kalushi leaves one with that Sarafina type of after-taste. Kalushi is the true sequel to Sarafina.