Why Tunde Kelani is one big film industry unto himself
When you try to name a singular champion among them, you’d be faced with the kind of celebrity dichotomy that has been a marker of the country’s music industry for at least 20 years. For instance, when Tuface Idibia reigned over afro-pop, there was at different times notable competition from a few other fandoms; and today, everyone speaks of the three-way afrobeats tussle, featuring Davido, Wizkid, and Burna Boy. But talk about the movies and Tunde Kelani, 73, is incontestably in a class of his own.
This distinction came to light again when, in June this year, Kelani premiered Ayinla, his richly toned biopic about one of Yorubaland’s most iconic singers, the apala music big shot Ayinla Omowura.
The subject of the film, although murdered during a bar brawl in 1980, has remained like an unrealised dream for many Yoruba people, especially those who witnessed the frenetic rise of the man in the 70s.
Even in death, Omowura’s devoted following has endured. Festus Adedayo, the lawyer and journalist who in 2020 published the biography, Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend, spoke in an interview of Omuwura’s rareness. He said, “Till today, seldom would you find a musician who has his kind of lacerating lyrics. That lacuna cannot and has yet to be filled by any other musician.”
Despite his well-known short temper and the attendant sharp tongue, Omowura was a philosopher, storyteller, entertainer, poet, and public critic all rolled into one person. It was an unfortunate disaster then that he would suddenly be brought down in the middle of such a blistering career.
As Kelani himself said, Omowura might not have been an educated man in the conventional European sense but between him and his drummer, “they gave us 20 volumes of music” from 1970 to the year the artiste died. Omowura rarely wrote any lyric down; he always performed from memory.
“I think it would be irresponsible of me not to make this film,” Kelani said. Besides, “Everybody is telling their own stories and promoting their own culture. That is what we should do [as well].”
In fact, this is what Kelani has been doing with his entire vocation in film. Before that spellbinding torrent of movies he unleashed on Nigeria in the 90s – Ti Oluwa Nile, Koseegbe, Oleku, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, and Saworoide – he’d launched this business in the previous decade by making a film that told a serious African story. Idamu Padi Minkailu (The Dilemma of Rev Fr Michael in English) was adapted from a book written by the poet, academic, translator, playwright and novelist Chief Adebayo Faleti, who would in the course of about 30 years transform into a permanent Kelani collaborator as writer, co-producer, and actor before he passed away in 2017. Another recurring screenplay partner of his was Prof Akinwumi Isola, author of Oleku, Saworoide and Agogo Eewo. Prof Isola also departed in 2018.
Either because the writers of Kelani’s movies were some of Nigeria’s most distinguished literary figures or because the narratives of his films made a statement about the common African experience — or both — Kelani’s immensely awarded filmography has been uniquely one man’s stunningly photographed mission to prove the perpetual value in African mores.
It’s as if he’s constantly beating a reminder gong with each new book adaptation, and now a biopic, that, as Africans, you might think you needed some outsider to show you how to solve your continent’s developmental and political problems but if you looked in your own villages and remembered the parables your elders have told you for centuries, you’d know you already had the wisdom to get out of your own way.
His manner of presenting this loaded gun of a theme, though, is what marks him far apart from everyone else. It’s not enough for Mr Kelani to have plots and characters with irresistible appeal and memorability; he must also have costume and makeup that reflect deliberate effort. And then there’s the dialogue. No movie of his ends without the viewer being bitten by lines that would stick with them for years.
So, it’s understandable that every actor would consider it an honour to be in a Tunde Kelani flick. With Ayinla, for instance, young stars such as Lateef Adedimeji, Bimbo Ademoye, Omowumi Dada, and Debo Adebayo showed off on Instagram their involvement with the film with such satisfying pleasure, an icing on the cake of burgeoning careers that had seen some of them play celebrated roles in several movies already. But nothing ever seems to come close to a Kelani collaboration. On the one hand, these actors get a rare chance to be part of potentially historic work. On the other hand, they may cement their reputation as genuine artists, as Kunle Afolayan, Faithia Balogun, and Yemi Sodimu have done by being cast in some productions helmed by the man.
“If you know my track record, I’d always make a film that has a bit of me in it,” Kelani said on the Ayinla premiere red carpet. This makes a lot of sense. Born in Lagos, raised in Abeokuta by his grandparents, he’d read all the classic Yoruba novels by D.O. Fagunwa by the time he was a teenager.
Later, he would develop his taste for storytelling when he worked as a correspondent for BBC TV and, soon after, as a student at the London Film School.
All of what formed Tunde Kelani include his provincial Yoruba upbringing, his affinity for the theatre, his collaboration with pioneering producers and filmmakers, as well as his friendship with leading writers such as the Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka.
Altogether any artist on this earth would benefit tremendously from the kind of sophisticated experiences that Mr Kelani has had but what makes him the most significant in the Nigerian setting is his masterful command of those experiences — how he’s made them into an esteemed canvas for his own generation and at least the four that are right behind him.
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