M-Net announced on Thursday that a new historical drama based on Zulu King Shaka was currently in production.
Called Shaka-Ilembe, producer and co-creator Teboho Mahlatsi said they have “ambitions of making a series as epic and vast as Game of Thrones”.
Shaka-Ilembe is the first of three new Shaka series – one of which is international.
“With three action-packed seasons mapped out, we hope to breathe life into the kings and queens, warriors and witches, spies, slavers, marauders and traders who lived, loved and fought for this land,” said Mahlatsi.
Creating the drama will be Bomb Productions, which has been behind South Africa’s most successful series, including Isibaya, Yizo Yizo, Zone 14, and Jacob’s Cross. Bomb Productions boasts hundreds of awards, including 22 Saftas, two Sundance awards, an Emmy award, the Venice Silver Lion, the Pare Lorentz award, as well as a Bafta and an Oscar nomination.
Bomb creator and co-producer Angus Gibson said they’re currently writing the series and the production would start next year. As for casting, he couldn’t comment yet on any confirmed talent.
“We have our eyes on many actors. But if you’re asking who would be cast as Shaka that’s definitely not decided on and that’s something we would look far and wide for,” he said.
South Africans still remember Henry Cele in the role during the 1986 SABC production.
“We have a pool of people that we love to work with, but you’re telling a broad and long narrative, so we’re working out the ages of different characters and who would be best cast for what is quite a complicated thing. We’re telling the story of Shaka from his birth to his death at the age of 40,” Gibson said.
Shooting would take place primarily in KwaZulu-Natal and Gibson said historical accuracy was a priority.
“What has to be known is that there are huge gaps of information concerning Shaka and there are contradicting histories. At the moment we are talking to the different families – the Mthethwas and the Ndwandwes among them – to try to get their perspectives. We’re also in contact with different historians trying to find the different views that have been taken and making an informed decision on what our narrative is.”
MultiChoice has gathered a large budget for the show to ensure an international standard. The series has been four years in the planning and the team will include historians, traditional leaders, oral custodians, royal advisers, intellectuals and film makers. It includes acclaimed playwright Mpumelelo Grootboom, as well as writers Catherine Stewart, Nhlanhla Mtaka, Jacob Ntshangase, Hlonipha Mokoena, Benedict Carton and Thishiwe Ziqubu.
Mahlatsi said he’d heard of an international Shaka production in the works, but didn’t know details.
“I’m not surprised by the interest, post Black Panther. There’s huge international interest in our stories and Shaka Zulu seems to be a natural fit. But we’re pressing ahead and doing our own version. There’s great talent here, both in front of and behind the camera, and I believe that the team we’ve put together is up to the challenge,” he said.
So how will Shaka-Ilembe compare with Bill Faure’s series that starred Cele?
“We want to do Shaka very much from an African perspective. For instance, in the original the first scene is in England and the English talking about Shaka – so literally from the European gaze. So we are exploring it from the inside. We want to tell the story of not just the Zulu nation, but the kingdoms around at the time,” said Mahlatsi.
“There’s obviously pressure to do the story justice, but also excitement. What I take from the original is that they got a few things right, definitely the casting of Cele. So we definitely have big shoes to fill in terms of getting the right Shaka. They also got the landscape right – those battle scenes – so we would like to live up to the epic nature of that.”
Mahlatsi said access to new technology, which the original didn’t have, would certainly add to the production value.
Said Gibson: “The scale of the original Shaka series was gigantic. They shot for a year, they very often had more than a 1 000 extras on their set, it was on a scale completely different to anything else. But we’re spreading our net wider, so it will be even bigger.”
We can’t wait.