Fikile Mogodi on Bringing a Bestseller to the Small Screen in 'The Wife'
As the series prepares to wrap its third and likely final season, the director talks tweaking the source material for TV, shooting sex scenes with care, and what fans can expect in the current season of the hit Showmax show.
When the first season of The Wife premiered in November 2011, it smashed Showmax’s first-day viewing record. The South African drama wasted no time in drawing viewers into its choppy world of romance and crime. A taxi rank run by feuding gang families (the Zulus and the Majolas) sparks night-time shoot-outs, home invasions, and counter-heists.
Based on the series of books from South African author Dudu Busani-Dube, The Wife ties together the perspectives of the women married to the men in the Zulu family. In the first season, the focus is on Hlomu, a journalist played by Mbalenhle Mavimbela, and Mqhele (Bonko Khoza), a taxi driver, who instantly falls in love with her while she's on her way to work.
For Hlomu, it takes a little while longer to figure out her feelings -- especially since she’s already engaged -- but she comes around soon enough. Mqhele is dangerous, though. Bit by bit, she realizes he’s a criminal with like-minded brothers. Yet, she stays put, lodging herself further into the Zulu household. There might be the “women love bad guys” trope implied from her relationship with the men, but the show’s appeal only grew throughout the season.
Around 25 minutes per episode, The Wife packs in practical action beats with familial drama. “It’s been such a groundbreaking show in many respects, in terms of the story, and the scope in which we engaged with the written text,” director Fikile Mogodi tells OkayAfrica. “But it’s been a ride. It’s been fun.”
Adapting the book for television has been tricky. The series spans over seven years and couldn’t be shoehorned into a television format verbatim. Stained Glass, the production studio behind The Wife, had to make creative maneuvers to sustain the interest of television viewers.
As one of the talented minds behind the show, Mogodi believes Stained Glass was the right creative outlet for the adaptation. They'd already produced shows like Uzalo and eHostela that had drawn healthy audiences. “From a filmmaking and production perspective, we decided to be inspired by some of the events that happened in the book," says Mogodi. "The love dynamic between the couples were very specific, so that we couldn’t deviate from. The first book was dealing with a very volatile love between Hlomu and Mqhele, and we stuck to that." Then, he says, they dove into the dynamic between the brothers, aiming to keep viewers engaged for the 24-minutes of each episode. "We took creative license to keep it pacy and intriguing, while respecting the source material.”
With pockets of sex scenes in season one, things took an explicit turn in the second season. The love story between Nkosana (Mondli Makhoba) and Zandile (Khanyi Mbau) is explored as the Zulu brothers deal with treacherous stakes. Episode 11 is famous for the couple’s sex scene, which went viral on social media, and caused much pearl-clutching among viewers.
While the clips have seemingly disappeared from Twitter, viewers remarked that the scene looked real. A casual observer may have concluded it was ripped from a porn website, but in fact, it showed the technical feat that was achieved. Inspired by the sex scenes from the Power series, Mogodi had the express willingness of the actors (Makhoba and Mbau) to play the scene.
“The challenge was, how do we shoot something this explicit but in the most safest environment? We observed safety precautions and implemented all barriers, making sure genitals don’t touch," says Mogodi. "Technically, the scene involved stunts and demanded proper stunt coordination between the actors. From a camera-angle perspective, the question here was, how do we make sure that everything is the way that it’s supposed to look and feel? How do you hide things in place and make edits?”
The two-minute sex scene that viewers saw took the director 4 hours to shoot. It was Mogodi’s intention for it to look realistic, nudity and all, taking risks from a creative perspective. He carried this over into episode 23 of season 3, which spotlights a different couple, Naledi (Gaisang K. Noge) and Qhawe (Kwenzo Ngcobo). Their shower sex scene was also a moment of choreography.
If African viewers can comfortably watch sex scenes on shows like Power or elsewhere, and don’t feel scandalized, why can’t African content have the same? These were Mogodi’s thoughts, but he’s also aware that Africans love their cherished conservatism, the puritanical veneer that guides their moral taste.
Behind the Veil, an 8-part special, takes fans behind the scenes of the show with interviews from the actors. A whole episode is dedicated to the care with which the sex scenes were shot, explaining the technicalities involved on a closed set.
Beyond sex, the show wants viewers to reckon with domestic violence. It’s one of the themes in the book series, embracing the dynamic of Hlomu and Mqhele’s relationship. To prepare viewers, content warning messages appear before the start of new episodes.
“Domestic abuse is a major part of their volatile love story and it was something that we couldn’t change. If not, then we would have really departed from the story," says Mogodi.
The Wife is exclusively available on Showmax, MultiChoice’s video-on-demand streaming service that first launched in South Africa in 2015. As a rival to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, the streamer is unlocking Africa’s creative potential regarding storytelling. In this streaming age, Mogodi doesn’t want authenticity to be lost. This is most evident in how The Wife is portrayed, where characters only speak Zulu.
Kwenzo Ngcobo and Gaisang K. Noge play the couple Qhawe and Naledi at the center of season 3 of 'The Wife.'
This is, perhaps, the edge Showmax has over other international streamers that have opened divisions in Africa, supporting local creatives to be as authentic as they can be. Mogodi is happy that local projects can receive international funding, but he bemoans how these projects sometimes cater towards Western sensibilities.
“We have seen many of these projects,” Mogodi says. “Yes, the future is streaming but we just need to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to make sure we are able to make and consume the projects that are made by a multitude of talented creatives across the continent.”
As The Wife draws to a close with the third and final season, Mogodi isn’t certain the show will return if Busani-Dube publishes more installments in the series. But he’s grateful for the feedback and for viewers sticking with the show. On what fans can expect for the remaining stretch of the season, Mogodi says “lots of heartaches and happy moments” with “twists and turns.”
The Zulu brothers are finding new avenues to make their money, despite in-fighting and dealing with deaths in the past. In this final lap, who is left standing will perhaps be the show’s greatest reveal.
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