CELLULOID: Baba Suwe’s metamorphosis

Babatunde Omidina aka Baba Suwe. [Photo: Punch]
Babatunde Omidina aka Baba Suwe. [Photo: Punch]

Is Baba Suwe the most gifted comedian of his generation? Cheeky poser, the response would be as fluid as Babatunde Omidina’s own approach to comedy.

In a recent interview, Mr Latin (Bolaji Amusan) described Baba Suwe as the greatest and most gifted comedian of his generation. A rather intriguing description; I disagreed with him, slightly. Greatest? Yes. Most gifted? That’s perhaps a stretch.

The fascinating thing is success is so infectious that it is capable of blurring the line between greatness and talent. And of course with success comes ignorant verdicts—-long on emotive platitudes and short on critical assessment. Like Mr Latin’s assessment of Baba Suwe.
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Since Latin himself spoke as a competitor, I understand him quite well. “From his (Baba Suwe’s) head to the toe, everything is comedy…,” he said. Typical Latin, elevating mischief to art, even outside of the big screen.

Frankly, Babatunde is great but I do not consider him the most gifted (Yoruba) comedian of his time. But because I understand that the conversation would be fluid, we may forgive Mr Latin and move on. What’s more, to ignore Baba Suwe’s gift, his larger than life posture, and his ubiquity, is to assume that comedy was nonexistent in Yoruba movies of his era.

There is this ubiquitous image of Babatunde Omidina that has left an everlasting imprint on the surface of my memory: the old thespian decked out in his trademark winter coat, his face a horrific shade of darkness, eyes fixated on a lone figure in dreads, his old trousers bound violently to the waist with a long twine. In that image, now effectively pushed out of circulation by time, that lone figure was Awilo Longomba, perhaps Congo’s best creative export of the noughties and one-time favourite artiste of joyful kids on the dusty streets of Lagos and Lokoja, and elsewhere.

There were two persons in that image, with the background of a salon: there was a barber, who stood akimbo, and then a client, placed on a wooden chair. Baba Suwe was the barber and Awilo, the random client. Frankly, nothing captures the powerful force that the comedian represented in the culture space of that era like the ubiquity of that image; it was every barber’s favourite wallpaper, at least in major parts of Lagos.

As these things appear now, like every other thing taken from a distant past, that image is now a blur, eclipsed by the noisy atmosphere of my barber’s shop in Igando, Lagos. Yet as Tunde Omidina’s career remains on suspension, amidst serious battles with ailments, one could not but picture that powerful image and reflect on whatever it represented.

To be sure, the image was photoshopped; clearly, there is no evidence that there was any such encounter between the duo, whether on the big screen or elsewhere. But it could also have been inspired by Baba Suwe’s legendary performance in Iru Eshin, Waheed Ijaduade’s movie, shot in the autumn of the 1990s.

In that movie, Baba Suwe, an unskilled barber, was hired to provide comic relief within a plot studded with emotive lines and catastrophic twists. So, as the movie climaxes, with a mixture of tension and suspense, Baba Suwe would emerge to calm nerves: he would suggest that a client allow him apply glue on a barren scalp in an attempt to “re-fix” his hair after a terrible haircut or place a cutlass around the neck of another client for ostensibly flirting with his girlfriend, “Safu”.

Vintage ‘Adimeru!

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If the anonymous “Safu” was Baba Suwe’s girlfriend in Iru Eshin, Omoladun Kenkelewu (Monsurat Omidina) would emerge as his wife in the years after. But Omoladun, Babatunde’s partner in the other room and behind the klieg lights, was not particularly funny, and often, the couple’s numerous duets on set produced cringe-worthy burlesque contents than they did any decent, truly hilarious spectacle.

The late Moladun may appear as Babatunde’s better half on the big screen but Opebe, originally christened Yomi King, was indeed the yin to Babasuwe’s yang. And the royalty inherent in his name notwithstanding, Opebe was no king, and he had no palace, at least for the most part of the 2000s. He was at best regarded as a mere court jester inside Baba Suwe’s commodious comedy palace.

Unlike Opebe, there were others who, as their countenances suggested, would not pay homage to Babasuwe: The late Alaran, Aderupoko, Eleso Enunjawaya Oba Afin, Aluwe, Dejo Tunfulu, Koledowo, James Idepe, Otolo, Ojoge, Pariolodo, Epokin-kin, Lawori, and co. But their non-alignment did remove nothing from Babasuwe’s supremacy in the game, and he never disappointed.

Once, Baba Suwe was driving at top speed on a highway, followed closely by a number of other road users. And suddenly, without any sign of an attempt to pull over to the side of the road, he slammed on the brakes and put the vehicle to a halt, leaving in his trail devastating collision, damaged vehicles, apprehensive road users and, well, fluctuating blood pressure. Surprised and furious, a few road users with relatively stable BP approached him And there he was, mute and calm, standing firm beside his own damaged vehicle, his hands placed at the side like a soldier, his facial gestures directing the furious crowd to listen to the sound of the Nigerian anthem coming out of his vehicle. By the time the anthem ended, he would eventually agree to speak and did lecture the crowd about respect for the national anthem, the beauty of patriotism and the willingness to die for one’s own country, irrespective of geography. Of course, he was mobbed. But that was vintage Babasuwe!

By early 2000s, Bolaji Amusan (Mr Latin) emerged as a threat to Baba Suwe’s legitimacy in the game, yet the man remained the favourite comedian still. While Mr Latin sought to appeal to the educated among Yoruba audiences, notably by taking ownership of the languages of retired railway workers and ex-postmasters, Baba Suwe had no neatly defined target. So he served his comedy as he wished and pushed it out, unfiltered, leaving his largely heterogeneous audiences to take their pick.

Then in September 2009, tragedy struck. Moladun died. The circumstances surrounding her death generated ripples, with unverified reports that she perhaps was assaulted. For months, Baba Suwe himself had to battle the stigma of being perceived as having a hand in the death of his wife. That would eventually snowball into his arrest in 2011, over allegations of drug trafficking, barely two years after Moladun’s death.

But by the time he would overcome the trauma of ‘Moladun’s death and, of course, the alleged drug trafficking kerfuffle, now dubbed ‘Oya-gbeti’, the industry seemed to have moved on, sans Babasuwe. That marked the beginning of a slow end to an otherwise glorious career on the big stage. Yet, like a true fighter, Babasuwe would not give up. He showed up in a few flicks and struggled to remain in the limelight.

What perhaps nailed the coffin was the emergence of the duo of Kamilu Kompo and Sanyeri, coupled with the near-total proliferation of Yoruba comedy flicks, a development that turned every regular actor into faux ‘comedian’. Yet as Babatunde’s otherwise glorious career came to a grinding halt, he inevitably showed signs of wariness, too, with the most glaring being his decision to stop darkening his face on set, a step considered by many a Yoruba viewer as the actor’s own way of moving with time.

But by the time the dust would settle, and until his recent ill health pushed him out yet again, it became apparent that time did not just erase the dark spots on Baba Suwe’s face, it also erased him from the big screen, and ultimately, from viewers’ consciousness.

If we judge by his feats from the days of the popular comedy sitcom, ‘Erin ke ke’, Babatunde proved that longevity in the culture space is a function of gruelling hard work and resilience. But his eventual battle with obscurity has also shown that neither of these could triumph over the agency of time and season. But that notwithstanding, Baba Suwe, by sheer genius and industry, earned immortality and his position in the pantheon of greats remains unoccupied. This, for me, is the ultimate.

And if we ever had any archival document in which actors/artistes would have their career trajectories captured in a sentence, this perhaps is what would adorn Baba Suwe’s: Here’s Babatunde Omidina, the greatest (comedian) of his generation.

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