Godwin Muzari Arts Editor
Yesteryear drama “Paraffin” remains one of the best local television productions. The combination of the late Phillip Mushangwe (Paraffin) and Rhoda Mtembe (Mai Sorobhi) was always hilarious.
As husband and wife, the duo made flawless scenes that were not only comical but also mirrored relationships and social issues.
While viewers enjoyed the final production on the screen, the cast — just like in any other filmmaking — went through various experiences behind the scenes. On Tuesday, we visited Mai Sorobhi (74) at her Kuwadzana Extension house and she revisited some of events and activities that punctuated the making of “Paraffin”.
She still watches the drama series and sometimes laughs at herself. It might have happened many years ago, but the memories are fresh in her mind. As she recounted the twists and turns of the drama, Mai Sorobhi revealed how they were kidnapped on set in Macheke. Yes, Mai Sorobhi and Paraffin were kidnapped by a stranger for almost an hour until the police came to their rescue.
“We were shooting some scenes along Harare-Mutare highway near Macheke. We were close to the road, so most people that were driving past would see us. A stranger stopped his car and our producer thought he had recognised us. Those were the very first episodes and the drama not gone on screen then. Paraffin and Mai Sorobhi were not yet popular and our producer thought this person could be a friend or relative,” she recalled.
“Then there was a coincidence. The scene we were shooting had a part where we were supposed to get in a car as if we were going somewhere. We had actually unsuccessfully tried to stop many cars and we thought this was a blessing.
“After the man greeted us, our producer told him about the scene and he agreed to have us in his car. We got in and hell suddenly broke loose. Instead of driving for a short distance as he had been instructed the driver sped off. He was with a lady in the car and they were apparently drunk.
“They started making fun of us and said they wanted to fix us. The man said ‘you drama people are stupid. Why did you not bring your own car? You think you can use people. I do not want your money, I just want to teach you a lesson. I will drop you off when I want, for now you are our prisoners’.
“At first we thought he was joking, but as he drove further we realised we were in danger.” Mai Sorobhi said she started crying while Paraffin pleaded with the man to drop them off. She said the man drove for about 40 kilometres and he was stopped by the police in Macheke.
The ZBC crew that remained at the shooting site had contacted their Harare office and police in Macheke had been notified about the kidnapping. Mai Sorobhi said the police took the culprits and she does not know what happened to them.
“I was in great shock. Our ZBC truck came and picked us, but we could not continue shooting. We came back to Harare.” It is one of the incidents that Mai Sorobhi does not forget about the drama “Paraffin”. However, she has so many sweet memories about the production and the main character, Paraffin.
She says she is still pained by his death because she believes they would have gone places with their production. They had become a formidable combination and makers of the film did not have to worry about giving them strict instructions about the script. They would just be given a rough sketch of the scenes and they would fill in the flesh on their own.
“We used to sit down together a few minutes before going on set and tip each other on how we were going to make the best scene. It was easy because we had worked together for a long time. Things would just flow and it was exciting.”
Mai Sorobhi said they often used sign language to remind each other about the flow when either seemed to get lost and people did not notice it.
“He would use his eyes or hands to direct me when I got lost. There was a certain look that meant I had to check my lines. Sometimes he would gesture with his hands and I would immediately notice and correct my mistake without disrupting shooting. People who were watching the drama at home would never notice. It also took time for our directors to realise that certain gestures meant something they had not noticed.
“I also used the same gestures to control him when he got lost. It was a perfect match on set.”
Mai Sorobhi says her best episodes were the popular “Zino” scene when they go to hospital to seek assistance for her toothache and the other one when they get lost looking for house where they are supposed to attend a funeral in Highfield.
Those that followed the drama would recall the “Zino” episode when Paraffin confronts hospital staff for being slow while Mai Sorobhi continuously groans with pain with a cloth tied around her face to cushion the painful tooth.
“I always watch the episode. I sometimes laugh at myself and I also salute everyone who took part in the episode. That was good acting. It was well executed.”
She said they did their best to make everything appear real, adding that some individuals in the current crop of actors fail to beat yesteryear’s level because they show on set that they would be acting.
Mai Sorobhi said the other factor that made their drama successful was that their cast worked as a family. “Everyone, even Paraffin himself, listened to advice. We were all willing to learn despite being called experienced actors and actresses. He would take advice from anyone and that kept him on top of his game. The moment he took off that regalia after shooting, he became a different person. He was jovial and everyone liked him.
“We became friends and our families also became close. We used to visit them with my husband and family and he would also visit us with his wife. We were like relatives. I was so pained when he died. It was worse when his wife also died because their children were still young. I am relieved now because I heard the older daughter is working and taking care of others.”
Mai Sorobhi saluted their producer Agnes Gwatiringa for building unity among the “Paraffin” family.
“She wanted everyone to be happy. When a cast member had a problem, she would assist in solving it and we were always happy. When the first episodes were about to go on screen, she made sure that everyone had a television set. I did not have one and we passed through the city centre on our way from shooting and she bought one for me and also for others that did not have sets. Yes, it was our salary but she said we had to have TV sets in order to watch the drama and prepare ourselves for next episodes.”
And talking about salary, Mai Sorobhi said acting was rewarding and she bought her Kuwadzana Extension house using proceeds from “Paraffin”. “I saved money over the years we were doing the production and bought this house in the late 1990s. My husband was so supportive and he would encourage me to work hard. He was a machine operator at a fertiliser manufacturing company and he died in 2000.
“We have seven children (two boys and five girls) and I live with my son and grandchild here. I only had two roles in other dramas after ‘Paraffin’, but could not make impact. I am now concentrating on my work as a volunteer social health worker.”
She has been a volunteer for many years and landed the role in “Paraffin” because of her outstanding performance in a drama competition for social health workers in the early 1990s. A ZBC crew that attended the competition discovered her talent and she was called for auditions. That was the beginning of her eventful journey as Mai Sorobhi, which made her famous in the arts.