The legendary Nigerian filmmaker, Tunde Kelani, fondly called T.K., is noted for producing some of Nigeria’s classic films like ‘Ko Se Gbe’, ‘Oleku’, ‘ThunderBolt’,’ ‘The Narrow Path’, ‘White Handkerchief’, ‘Maami’ and ‘Dazzling Mirage’.
In a career spanning more than four decades, T.K. specialises in producing movies that promote Nigeria’s rich cultural heritage and have a root in documentation, archiving, education, entertainment and promotion of the culture.
The 74-year-old CEO of Mainframe Film and Television Productions, a movie production company, speaks about his new movie, ‘Cordelia’, which he produces alongside the University of Delaware in the U.S. In this interview, Mr Kelani speaks about the Nigerian film industry and its inherent challenges.
P.T: You recently produced a biopic on Ayinla and would commence shooting another biopic on Sikiru Ayinde Barrister. Why are you drawn to biopics?
Kelani: I am inspired by my love for our history and culture. I found out that there is a lot of history behind the late Ayinde Barrister’s history. When I listen to his music, I realise we can derive a lot of history from the title, the lyrics, and the places he visited. If you visit Sikiru’s Fuji chambers, you will see a lot of historical artefacts. Shortly after receiving the license to produce his biopic, I discovered that Barrister produced over 180 albums in his lifetime. He sang about many things; he was a man who sang almost every day of his life. I am not sure we can capture all about him in a single movie.
P.T.: Does this mean Barrister’s biopic will be a series?
Kelani: It is almost difficult to say because there are a lot of details, and we are being careful not to miss any information. The late Barrister was the epitome of history, not just about fuji music, but there were stories, events, and scenarios behind the tracks. We would start with three first and then subsequently build on it.
P.T.: Do you have a cast yet?
Kelani: No, we are not done with the script yet. We will cast as soon as the script is ready.
P.T.: Your movie, Ayinla, was one of the highest-grossing movies of 2021. Any projection for 2022?
Kelani: To make the Nigerian movie industry sustainable, we have to develop our infrastructure. It will go long if we have more cinemas and structures to market and facilitate our works. For example, Ayinla was released in 2021, and many cannot see the movie in Abeokuta. Mind you, and we shot the film in Abeokuta. It is because Abeokuta has only one cinema, which seats less than 200 people at a time. So when Ayinla opened in Abeokuta, many people went to the cinema for several days but could not see the movie because of the crowd. So I think we still have to work on the infrastructure.
P.T.: Do you think establishing local cinemas would be the way forward?
Kelani: Definitely, local cinemas should be part of it. As a young boy growing up in Idumota Lagos, there were about four cinemas in my area, and you didn’t even have to pay for transport to the cinema because it was just a stone’s throw. It was also similar to other parts of the state. The truth is that we have to return to those days. Talking about Ayinla, for instance, Ayinla was viewed throughout the South West on only 33 screens. Still, it was an English movie or all these Hollywood movies, and we would be viewed on about 55 screens nationwide, showing that there are not enough cinemas in Nigeria. Lagos, with its population and exposure, should have about 100 cinemas.
P.T.: Aside from the Sikiru Barrister’s biopic, what projects are you working on?
Kelani: In the first quarter of this year, we will release a movie very few people know about, “Cordelia”. It is a collaboration between the music department of the University of Delaware in the U.S. and us. In this case, we shot a film, and then we composed a piece of music, and then the University Delaware Orchestra brought life to the film. So the soundtrack is ready, we have finished the film, at the end credit of the film I choose the song Adura Ololufe. So when you see the work done in the U.S., you will be proud that you are Yoruba, Nigerian and African. So then, I have a project that collaborates culturally with another nation, so in Cordelia, we see Nigeria and the United States of America.
P.T.: Nollywood has been blamed for increasing ritual killings among Nigerian youths. Do you agree?
Kelani: We have to blame ourselves. The ritual killings are written in the newspapers and broadcast on television. But nobody blames it on the newspaper, but Nollywood is much easier to pick up on. So we should caution Nollywood practitioners and say we have to make relevant films. You can entertain and begin to make films that impact society.
So we take part of the blame, but nobody talks about the audience because essentially, Nollywood is like a consummate of small businesses controlled by distributors and marketers. They respond to the audience’s demands, so why does the audience keep buying films of that type? If the audience stops buying them and says, no, listen, we don’t want any of these ritual movies, the case will disappear. Therefore we have to look inward, let’s start from the home, what are we giving the next generation, when you say they should not speak Yoruba, they should speak English only. It’s not all about Nigeria, but globally, what strange ideas are we importing. For instance, click your phone, and type’ how can I kill somebody, and the internet will show you. There is a course on becoming a witch even on the internet. So we have to take out time and look inwards into the homes.
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When I was young we were very curious, my friend and I went to a Babalawo. We told Babalawo that we wanted to make money. We asked him to help us with any ritual to make money, and he obliged, but the Babalawo said that we wouldn’t know how to spend the money, and we told the Babalawo that we were ready. When the Babalawo saw that we were neck bent on it, he asked us to buy a coffin and told us to tie the coffin and bring it.
As a child, it became a big challenge for us: how can we go and buy a coffin when there is no death in our family. Then carrying the coffin in broad daylight was another challenge, but that didn’t deter us either. What discouraged us was that Babalawo said that after bringing the coffin, he would sing a song which we shall chorus while dragging our coffin towards ourselves, and we got scared and declined.
If our children are properly brought up in our culture, all the norms and morals and come across that situation when they are an adult, they look back and say, ‘no, I can’t do this, because of my Family name.’
P.T.: How do we combat the menace?
Kelani: We have to start a reorientation because social media popularises rituals. So, we have to be conscious of using social media, which is good. Then we discard rubbish.
P.T.: You don’t look a day older than 74. What is your secret?
Kelani: I think it is a product of the mind. I am happy, I thank God, relatively I am healthy, and I am fit. You know my work helps me a lot because it is very physical, not just physical but spiritual.
P.T.: If you weren’t a filmmaker, what career path would you have towed?
Kelani: I think I am attracted to computer technology. When I left secondary school, the first thing I did was learn how to type. Then when the personal computer was introduced. I got fascinated, it’s the same typewriter’s keyboard, but it comes with a unique function key. I got a phone before I got married, I had a fax machine, and in the 80s, I paid someone to teach me two preparatory courses, including database. So if I did not become a filmmaker, I would be in ICT.
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