"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone" - How Shonisani Masutha's big risk payed off when she became the first African actress in a Bollywood series
Well now it is Shonisani Masutha's time, and although she may manouvre through the cracks of a historically contentious industry with a quiet confidence, there really is no denying that the 27-year-old actress is one to watch out for now more than ever.
With a radiant dimpled smile and a warm personality to match, South African viewers have found it almost too easy to embrace the star with fervour and admiration. Shonisani first enamoured SA audiences with her talent when she played the role of Langanani on Muvhango and has since worked her way to Bollywood - one of the most booming international film industries.
In light of this, - and having admired her work ethic and dedication since the fledgling years of her career - I figured it's about time Shonisani Masutha and myself had a conversation.
These were gems that came from this conversation:
If I'm not mistaken, I remember you were in corporate and then you ventured into acting – What prompted that decision and how was the transition into the film industry like for you?
Well I actually started with acting, I completed my honours degree in Theatre and Performance at UCT before doing my Post Grad in Management, specialising in Marketing. But I was lacking the confidence to dive head first into the film and theatre industry, so I accepted a job in the marketing department of a leading retailer and that's when I realised that if I didn't honour my calling to go act, to regain my confidence and do what I love, then I would simply implode.
The decision was hard to come by, but it was the most exhilarating and honest moment of my life. The transition was actually bittersweet - bitter because I had to leave a consistent income and live on a freelancers budget, sleeping on my sister's couch and going to as many auditions as I could afford to go to.
It was sweet because once I got into the swing of things in Johannesburg and I booked my first long-term role, I was able to do what I loved consistently. I think I adapted to life on set really easily because the people are so real and I found that because I was new, the people around me were really rooting for me to succeed, so they would help me in every way that they could.
Speaking of booking your first long-term role, one of your first big breaks was your role on Muvhango. As a result, you had mentioned in another interview that “[Venda actors] need to be given prime-time slots on a prominent channel or platform and show a different side to the Venda people and not just what we see on Muvhango” – but even so, what did that role mean for you as a young Venda actress? And has your view changed at all?
Yes, so I must clarify that in saying that, I meant that we need more shows that can each represent Venda and vhavenda in their entirety. I think Muvhango is an incredible pioneering show that put us on the map, and if we combine those efforts with more shows that also highlight Venda people, we as the audience can get a wider scope into the Venda way of life.
Being a young unknown actress and starting at Muvhango was such a life-changing opportunity - as a young Venda actress, that's the dream, so no, my view hasn't changed because we still need more primetime slots on prominent channels to show all facets of Venda people.
What I love about the industry now is that there are many Venda roles popping up in shows that are traditionally dominated by other languages, and producers and writers are incorporating the multilingual aspect of South Africa currently. This gives those young Venda actors a chance to audition for a bigger pool of roles which is absolutely awesome.
And you have since made it into other multilingual local TV shows, one of which is Isithembiso, where you made your debut this week. How has the reception of that been like thus far?
Yes, wow it was incredible. I had a lot of people on all my social media platforms reaching out and congratulating me on landing a role on such a popular primetime show. I am so appreciative of all the love and so grateful to the public for receiving me so well.
I cannot wait for the experience of the story as it unfolds for Khensani's character and I hope I do her justice, because she's really so special and such a firecracker of a character. Be sure to tune into Isithembiso every week night at 19:30 on Mzansi Magic, channel 166.
One of your other milestones includes the fact that you've made history as the first black actress to star in a Bollywood series. How did that come about? And how does it feel?
Yes! The show is called Mehek and it has been such a spectacular ride since the day I auditioned last year September. My agent sent me the brief and I read it and I immediately counted myself out - I just didn't think they were looking for me. I also didn't think I was good enough to go act in Bollywood as I hadn't booked an acting job in about seven months and my confidence was shaky again.
But my agent insisted that I go and try, and so I did. I was auditioning for Zeeworld in the room and for the production company in India via Skype at the same time, it was nerve racking but as an actress, you use take those nerves and use them as fuel to keep you going and I just went for it.
When I got the job I was in disbelief, I screamed for a minute straight and wow what a life-changing experience it was (Catch Mehek at 21:00 on Zeeworld Africa Channel 166 every single night).
It feels so great to be able to inspire young African actors across the continent. You aren't limited to acting for and in your current place of dwelling. At any given moment, you as a young performer can make history and be the first ever young black lead in Bollywood. This experience has taught me that life starts at the end of your comfort zone and you never knows what coming so you have to stay ready. Mentally, physically and spiritually so that when an opportunity like this comes your way, you grab it with both hands and run.
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#WCW to my girl Norah, she’s going through the craziest time, she just moved to India and her life has been turned upside down. Tune into #Mehek tonight to find out how she navigates through life outside her comfort zone ??? only on @zeeworldafrica at 9pm ???? #actorslife #wce
Tell us about your character on Mehek? How much of Shoni do we get to see in her?
Norah Gabela is one of my favourite characters that I have ever played. She is a young African girl that's forced to grow up under strange and stressful circumstances. Norah goes from being a popular, well-rounded, wealthy young girl with a boyfriend who she's madly in love with; to being an outsider in a foreign country where she's not as wealthy, she has no friends, and it really really challenges her.
She has to be more than anything life's ever demanded from her, so she's forced to grow and live outside her comfort box. I learned something similar to Norah and that's where we get to see her and Shoni overlap a bit. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I adapted so quick when I got to New Delhi - I dove straight into the culture, started learning Hindi, tasting foods I've never heard of, it was such an enriching experience.
What was the overall experience of working on Mehek like?
It really was a beautiful experience. Connecting with the actors from India and learning about the way they work and seeing how it coincides with the way we work back home. It was such a blessing to get to work with young talented directors from India too and the crew on set were the best. We really bonded.
I got the opportunity to challenge myself and work harder than I've ever worked. I got to grow in my craft rapidly - there was a lot to shoot and not a lot of time, so it was about pushing myself to stay true to Norah even if Shoni was tired!
Moving to another continent for three months to shoot a show is really something I have always wished for and it was nothing short of a magical experience.
Having said that, what have been your career highlights so far?
Top of the list is definitely moving to India to shoot Mehek, getting to play Norah Gabela and everything that's come from it.
Acting in season finale of Royal Pains USA - that was my first time on an international set.
Debuting as Langanani, the chiefs potential 5th wife in Muvhango.
Playing the young and impressionable Lutendo in Ring Of Lies.
Opening my first professional theatre gig as a lead - Curl Up and Dye - where I played Dudu.
And now, landing the role of Khensani on the popular prime time Mzanzi Magic drama Isithembiso.
And any lowlights?
Going to countless auditions and not booking any jobs for more than seven months - that really builds character. It messes with your morale, but you get to spend enough time with yourself to grow and become a better performer when your time finally comes.
Where would you like to take your acting career to next? Or are you looking to do work behind the scenes?
I want to do more. I want to act more and create more, hopefully create so that the one feeds the other. I want to be the lead actor in both local and international acting spaces, whether it's films or series or plays. I want to continue to do what I love and in a big way.
I have done quite a lot of work behind the scenes - I've been an AD, I've interned as a sound technician on sets and I was the social media manager of a breakfast show where all my work was behind the scenes, so I do wish to continue on that path, as well as the path the leads me in front of the camera because performing is my spillion - the feeling is like nothing I've ever experienced in my 27 years of life, navigating a new script, stepping into a new characters shoes and portraying their life in a realistic and moving manner is a beautiful craft. I'm so glad it chose me.
What's the best advice you've received about the industry from fellow actors/actresses or veteran actors/actresses?
To always remain yourself, no matter what. It may seem cliche, but in this industry it's too easy to try and become what you think people want. The best thing you can do is cultivate the things about you that make you feel special and to be you, the world will adjust.
The more authentic you are, the more you will be able to win both in your career and in your personal life.
Lastly, what keeps you motivated?
Knowing that what's meant to be for me will always find a way to me. I used to panic about not being good enough because I wasn't booking jobs, but it wasn't about talent or tenacity, it just wasn't my time.
Keeping that in mind while staying healthy, active and praying has kept me motivated. Because I know God has a huge plan for my life and it is already done, so what I can do is try my best to prepare for the inevitable wins that will occur. I am also extremely optimistic, loving and positive by nature, it's deeply ingrained into my personality, so it doesn't take much to motivate me other than the fact that I can better myself and help those around me in the process too!
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