Originally published in Balanced Life magazine
It’s drizzling in Cape Town the day I meet Zakeeya Patel in the lobby of The Cullinan, but this five-foot-two firecracker has a playful energy that makes everything around us seem less grey. An accomplished actor, she has a diverse repertoire of characters on her resumé, from her breakout roles in Material and The Wild, to 2018’s The Docket. Her latest feature film, 3 Days To Go, is due for release in 2019. In the meantime, you can also catch her presenting SABC2’s lifestyle show Mela, which is a love letter to the South African Indian community.
In light of the countrywide celebrations due to take place on 24 September, I ask Zakeeya how working on Mela has impacted her own sense of heritage.
‘I don’t tell this story often,’ she says, ‘but my sister and I were six and eight in 1994, and it was a tricky time to navigate as young girls of colour. We’re mixed race; my mom’s coloured and my dad’s Indian. But at school we were never Indian enough to fit in with the Indians, and we were never coloured enough for the coloured people. A bunch of white friends adopted us, but then we were called “coconuts”. Our parents have always been very multicultural, which is a good thing, but I think it left us with a big question mark. Presenting a show like Mela, I’ve learned so much about my culture – and about myself. It’s been a journey of discovery, figuring out who I am in this space and why I love what I love. I think if you're growing up out of apartheid, you’re told it's not beautiful to be colourful. Even today, the lens through which we see a lot of the world tells us there’s only one way to be. But the older I am, the more I’ve chosen to embrace this side of myself.’
Multiculturalism was definitely a strong theme when Zakeeya married her economist boyfriend, Rob Price, in a gorgeous interfaith ceremony last November. ‘My mother said I was crazy to try to reinvent the wedding wheel. But – and I get this from my dad – I hate doing anything like other people do it. So my gran did a Muslim prayer. We stood under a chuppah surrounded by our family and friends, because in the Jewish faith those people represent the walls to your home, the ones who support you and hold you accountable. Rob’s sister and mom did readings from the Bible. My brother-in-law, who is Xhosa, performed part of a traditional Xhosa union. We had a Hindu priest do the actual ceremony… It was a melting pot of everything.’
Barely two months later, Zak celebrated another milestone: turning the big 3-0. So far, she says the new decade has been a welcome coming-of-age period. ‘You couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to be 19 again! I’m more comfortable in my skin now than I’ve ever been. 2018 has been a really big year of self-discovery for me. This journey hasn’t happened by accident – I am actively chasing the best part of me. I feel like now I’m in an empowered enough space to tell my own stories, create my own ideas and execute them. I’m going to take life by the horns and I’m going to tell it where I want to go.’
Women taking control of their own narratives is very much part of the 20-teens zeitgeist, particularly in the film industry in the wake of #metoo.
‘South Africa has a similar movement to #metoo, driven by SWIFT [Sisters Working in Television and Film],’ says Zakeeya. ‘It’s starting with the actors, in our agencies, in our inboxes. It’s so powerful because so many women I know have been put in a casting-couch situation, and the reality of that moment is that you have to choose between your career and your physical body. And that is unacceptable. You should never – ever – have to make that choice. So the fact that this movement is happening, and with such a tidal wave of support in a place like Hollywood, is unbelievable. I used to think we just had to take it. We don’t have to f***ing take it any more.’
Zakeeya is also a firm supporter of the #EndGirlHate campaign, which promotes a culture of women supporting, rather than competing with, one another. ‘The women-for-women thing is so important,’ she says. ‘Every woman, especially every brown woman, slaying it, getting those castings, taking those lead roles – that’s another story being told for us. It doesn’t matter who’s scoring the goals, it matters that they’re being scored. The fact that men are still pitting women against each other is so backwards for me. I’ll call out anyone, even those close to me, for bad-mouthing or smack-talking other chicks. I’ll tell them, “That’s not the sisterhood. We don’t talk about other women like that.” I was guilty of it too when I was younger but now I’m like, “Good for you! You be bigger, you be stronger, you run your race and I’ll run mine.” Obviously we all get jealous inside sometimes, but I don’t speak it, I don’t give truth to it, and I don’t fuel that voice in my head any more.’
As well as an end to workplace sexual harassment and women-on-women crime, I ask her how she hopes to see the local industry grow. ‘I would love to see stories about women, told by women. Stories of agency. Stories with three-dimensional characters – whether it’s the protagonist or the antagonist. I want the leads to be female – even better, females of colour. I want the big stories to be told, and I want to see people who look like me telling them in the mainstream media. People always ask me why I love Bollywood so much; it’s not just the amazing singing and dancing, it’s because I can watch actors who look like me doing it. A lot of people don’t understand that, because they get to see themselves all the time – entertainment is a mirror of their world. I want a mirror of my mine.’
Photo by Andreas Eiselen