The wickedly pulpy Bollywoodian crime-revenge-family drama, Savage Beauty, is a kind of Succession, set in South Africa, with Black actors. If in American shows, the characters are all look sleek, clad in designer wear, in this show the men look similarly well-groomed, but the women are “traditionally built” as another fictional character, Precious Ramotswe (in Alexander McCall Smith’s books) described it. They are extravagantly dressed in vibrant prints, headgear and chunky jewellery. (This is the kind of series an Indian production house would be tempted to remake.)
The six-part series on Netflix begins with a quick prologue of a woman washing off blood and applying make-up, after which the Bhengu family is introduced—Don Bhengu (Dumisani Mbebe) is the head of a successful beauty products empire—a vain and arrogant man, who has two wives and three grown-up children. To expand the brand and deflect criticism about using celebrities to endorse their products, the new face of Bhengu Beauty has been selected after a process of online voting, and the winner, Zinhle (Rosemary Zimu), from an underprivileged background—gets to model the products and live with the family in their swanky mansion.
When she is introduced to a gathering of the city’s rich and famous, behind her a slide displays her whitened face. The Bhengus are laughing stocks in the media, for their hypocrisy. It is hinted that Zinhle is behind the disaster, though the daughter, Linda (Nambitha Ben-Mazwi), who had organized the event gets the blame. In a patriarchal society, quite like Asia’s, Linda is eager to please, knowing that the sons a swaggering Phila (Jesse Suntele) and the gentle Ndu (Oros Mampofu), are the Bhengu heirs; she still competes for the top job when their father announces a succession plan. As expected, the first wife, a bossy Grace (Nthati Moshesh) despises the second wife Thando (Angela Sithole).
Even in her secondary position in the marriage, Grace is the one who schemes, plots and decides which way things will go. After Don suffers a heart-attack and decides he will marry again, to have more children, Grace’s claws and fangs come out.
By the end of the first episode, when Zinhle wipes away her make-up to reveal scars, it s clear that she is out to take revenge, with the help of her brother Bonga (Mpho Sebeng), for their own suffering and the horrific death of their cousin, due to the experiments carried out by the Bhengu’s on the poor children of Soweto.
As the show progresses, other crises take place—including the romance between Linda and Thando. The puffed-up-with-power Don is not as clever as he believes he is, it is the cunning Grace who pulls invisible strings, to protect her own interests and those of her sons.
Savage Beauty, created by Lebogang Mogashoa, has an entertaining plot, but is also a fairly accurate depiction of life in South Africa, where ambition and greed co-exist with belief in witchcraft and traditional rituals, not to mention a comment on the unscrupulous cosmetics industry. Nthati Moshesh as Grace, the evil queen bee, and Rosemary Zimu lead the generally competent cast and the lively soundtrack adds to the appeal. This one’s worth a binge.
(This piece first appeared in seniorstoday.in on April 14, 2022)