The Royal Hibiscus Hotel: Experience The Magic
A typical love story is what it is: boy meets girl, they fall in love, there’s a major conflict, they resolve it and they live happily ever after. That’s an example of what The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is all about. But there is more: the movie is layered with subplots woven to create a distinct identity for the movie. Perhaps that’s what made it sell out at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which identified it as a “hidden gem”.
Directed by Ishaya Bako, it tells a story of a struggling chef, Ope (Zainab Balogun) who returns to the Royal Hibiscus Hotel owned by her parents in Lagos after quitting her job in London. Ope begins a romance with Deji (Kenneth Okolie), a guest who is on the verge of buying the hotel.
Ideal for the season of love, the story is padded with comedic moments from the stubborn hotel staff and Ope’s busybody parents (played by Jide Kosoko and Rachael Oniga).
Guardian Life met with the lead characters, Balogun and Okolie, to discuss their role, challenges and the reception of the film.
The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is Zainab Balogun’s first lead role in cinema. Starting her career at the age of 16 as a model in London, Balogun, at some point, found herself auditioning for commercials, which she loved because of what she called “TV magic”—the process from reading a script to seeing it on your television screen. “I would ask my booker to fill me for official roles—speaking roles, featured roles or supporting roles—and I would go to these auditions. I didn’t really have any experience but the fact that I liked to pretend to be other people, and they would give me the job.” She moved back to Nigeria after acting in a TV series titled The Island to pursue her acting career properly.
While her career as a television personality on EbonyLife TV gave her certain leverage, her role as an excessively finicky event planner in the hugely successful The Wedding Party launched her into the industry big time. Regardless, Zainab has had to contend with surmounting institutional and personal obstacles. “When you’re shooting any movie, you’re bound to have a few challenges here and there because you’re at the mercy of the circumstances that are around you. But I simply don’t let the challenges linger for too long. If I’m faced with a challenge, I deal with it. I deal with whatever feelings are attached to that and I just let it go over my head.”
Balogun connected with the script although she had never played a lead role in a romantic comedy before. “I found myself connecting with so many different elements of the story because I was born and raised in London. I was acting and modelling, and suddenly got up one day and was like I think I want to come to Nigeria. I could connect with how hard that was going to be for Ope and, on the same beat, you are looking for someone to complete you. Ope’s the kind of person who buries herself in a lot of work and hasn’t quite found the right man and, in the process of chasing this dream and coming back home, everything she needed was essentially right here in Nigeria.”
However, Balogun explained how The Royal Hibiscus Hotel shows the undercurrents of running a hotel. “You had all of these interesting characters in this hotel. We all go to hotels and we eat, we stay the night but you don’t know the people behind the scenes. You don’t know the chef, you don’t know the bellboy. You have all of these different components of people who have interesting lives and stories to tell as well. So, it was nice to show that part of the hospitality business.”
Shooting a film is not easy and working on the set could come with negative vibes. But Balogun had fond memories of her time on the set of the movie. “I remember we had some really long nights. One of my most memorable moments is when we were shooting our last scene in London and it was pouring down with rain. We had an outdoor scene and it was windy and cold. The crew members [were] in their rain jackets and scarves, and Kenneth and I were in our costumes, freezing in our sandals. That was tough but we had to keep it going for the look and feel that we wanted. We shared a lot of jokes and experiences with that.”
Beyond its rom-com trappings, Balogun hoped for people, especially young women, to watch the movie and learn a lot from it. “I want them to be inspired. I feel like Ope represents the new African woman who doesn’t particularly fit in one box. I’d like the young African girl to go and watch this movie and see that it’s possible for you to do something outside of the norm and take the risks in doing that. It might mean that you have to separate yourself from a lot of people that you love, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I think even people who have been married or who have had long-standing relationships for years like Ope’s parents have as well will be able to connect with the fact that love never really dies. It just changes form and continues to develop.”
In spite of the warm reception it enjoyed at TIFF, the film attracted mixed reactions from critics. US-based PopMatters said The Royal Hibiscus Hotel “proves that playing within a genre doesn’t have to result in a mediocre film,” describing it as “sweet”. However, Cinema Axis, a Toronto-based publication, noted that “those looking for a more well-rounded experience will be somewhat disappointed” in the movie.
Balogun, however, insisted that the movie was “more successful than we could have ever dreamed.” “[TIFF] is not an easy film festival to get into. Last year we were the only Nigerian movie to be selected. It means that there’s an extra crown on top of your head because your movie is being seen as something that has so much potential and calls for a lot of people to watch it. Now, I was there and I saw the response of the audience and they loved it. To take a Nigerian movie with Nigerian humour to a completely different market and have an international market, be it Asians, Caucasians or Africans respond to that humour, I think that’s anything that any production team would want because you’ve taken something that’s familiar to you, showed it to the world and they’ve responded very well.”
When Okolie first got the script, he was excited about the role he was asked to play—an ambitious, working-class man. It’s a role he could easily relate to, and his admiration with past productions by EbonyLife TV was enough to spur to bring his A-game. “For the auditions, they gave me a few scenes to read and the character bible, and that made me buy into the character and have an idea who he is. We were kind of similar in the sense of characterisation, so it was easier for me to play it.”
Okolie loves the story of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel and is glad that his audience will be able to relate to it. “The reason why I love this story is that it is very relatable.” He goes further to describe it as “a love story with a twist.”
Like his co-star, Okolie had a remarkable modelling career before he began acting, from modelling in 2006 while schooling in Ghana to winning the Mr Nigeria pageant, which he became famous for. “When I came back to Nigeria, it was a different terrain for me when it came to modelling… What made me exit it faster was the way other models were being treated, especially the male models. That respect wasn’t just there. How would you expect these people to grow when you treat them [badly]?”
Okolie fell in love with acting while still a model. “I wanted to act…it was actually inbuilt. I didn’t even know I had that drive [or] love for it. My move into the industry has been really remarkable in the sense of achievements and the movies I’ve done, people I’ve worked with [and] the experiences I’ve derived from it.”
His transition into acting didn’t come without its own challenges. But he looked on the bright side of things. “I wouldn’t say they are major challenges: they are mostly what an actor can speak to the director about and he’ll understand. Sometimes, he’ll understand and explain to the actor the reasons for certain things. Sometimes he understands, sometimes [not].”
Like Balogun, Okolie was enamoured by the reception the movie got at the TIFF. “We were blown away with the reception. People were satisfied with the movie, in the sense of the cultural mix in it, the comedic part of it and also the love part of it.”
What’s more important to Okolie, however, is for the audience to not only enjoy watching it but to also learn from it. “I believe people would love and appreciate our culture more; they’ll value our delicacies more as well. It’s also a story about not giving up, having a dream and going after it. It’s also about how to utilise an opportunity when you have one. Most times we overlook things. If one door closes, there are many other doors that will open to you.”