Tunde Kelani: A Toast To Culture Custodian At 70

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The arts community is celebrating master storyteller and cinematographer, Tunde Kelani, who recently marked his his 70th birthday. Yinka Olatunbosun reports

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The outpouring of eulogies is expected. The man of the moment, Tunde Kelani, just turned the landmark age of 70 on Monday, February 26. As the CEO of Mainframe Films and Television Productions, he is revered as one of the industry’s best gifts to Nigerian cinema.

Among Kelani’s much-celebrated cinematic credits are Saworo Ide, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, Agogo Eewo, Thunderbolt, Ti Oluwa Nile, Oleku, Ko See Gbe, Maami, Yeepa, Dazzling Mirage and Sidi Ilujinle which is an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel. These productions are the eloquent testimonial of his one lifelong obsession, which is to revive the indigenous culture consciousness through the art of visual storytelling.

His works had groomed a new crop of audience for Nigerian cinema in the 90s. That was when the trend was to showcase the ostentatious lifestyle of Nigerians as a means of debunking or defusing negative stereotypes. For years, he shunned the use of the word, “Nollywood’’ to describe this new movement in cinematography in Nigeria because the term is really fashioned after the “Hollywood’’ and “Bollywood’’ derivatives.

Another culture that Kelani’s movies disbanded was the use of code-switching in the language of a movie. If subtitles could be made, then there would be no need to muddle up two or three languages for movie characters, he must have thought. His Opomulero movie productions made Yoruba actors speak authentic Yoruba language and portray the actual life of the African. His historical stories are bred on the soil of romance, thriller, suspense, comedy, action and drama.

For those wondering how Tunde Kelani, popularly called TK became such a culture advocate, a peek into his background may be helpful. Though Kelani was born in Lagos, at the age of five, he was sent to live with his grandparents at Abeokuta. He attended the Oke-Ona Primary School in Ikija and had his secondary school education at Abeokuta Grammar School, where the likes of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Professor Wole Soyinka had been educated.

Lustrous is his pedigree; his grandfather was a chief (the Balogun of Ijaiye Kukudi) and so he had a first hand experience of the rich Yoruba cultural heritage. He was introduced to Yoruba literature from an early stage in his life and had seen in performance most of the great Yoruba theatre classics including the Palmwine Drinkard, Oba Koso, Kurunmi and Ogunde plays.

His interest in photography was matched with his willingness to invest money and time to developing it. Later, he trained at the then Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) and proceeded to the London Film School.
In the 1970s, he had a stint as a journalist, working as a BBC TV and Reuters correspondent, covering historical moments such as Zimbabwe Independence.

Upon his return from the London Film School to Nigeria, he co-produced his first film with Adebayo Faleti called “The Dilemma of Rev. Father Michael” (Idaamu Paadi Minkailu).In 1990, Kelani was an assistant director and an actor in an American drama film, “Mister Johnson” shot in Nigeria. the film was based on a 1939 novel by Joyce Cary, the movie stars Pierce Brosnan and Marnard Eziashi.

Kelani’s affinity for indigenous literature has inspired his portfolio of works that are film adaptations of literary texts. He has studied the works of D. O. Fagunwa, Akinwunmi Ishola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Pa Amos Tutuola, Adebayo Faleti and made successful movie productions like “Koseegbe”, “Oleku”, “Thunderbold” (Magun), “The White Handkerchief”, “The Narrow Path”, “Maami” and recently “Dazzling Mirage”. He has also begun experimenting with theatre-to-film shot in studio which is minimalism at its best.

Not a lot of biographies on Kelani had put a spotlight on his fashion sense. Though, he wouldn’t call himself a fashion icon, his style is essentially afro-centric. From his cap to his foot wears, every detail speaks of his commitment to his culture. He doesn’t just promote it with films, he makes his every day attire a reminder of who he is. His T-shirts usually have slogans sourced from such African fabric as Adire and Ankara just as his formal wears are. He is easy to spot from the crowd what with the signature ethnic style.

Kelani has been instrumental to a number of film festivals in Nigeria. For instance, the Abuja International Film Festival was a watershed for Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory’s story in arts and entertainment. No wonder he was appointed by President Mohammadu Buhari as the Chairman, National Film and Video Censors Board, which was seen by some of his admirers as a rare bull’s eye.

He is also an educator. On May 16, 2016, he opened the Mainframe Film and Media Institute in Abeokuta to create an avenue for young film makers to acquire the required skill set in film and television production.
As a result of his contribution to African cinema, he has been nominated for African Movie Academy Award for Best Nigerian Film in 2009 and 2011 and African Movie Academy Award for Best Director in Haiti.
His 70th birthday was celebrated on February 26 with a showcase of some of his cinematic works in a programme designed, produced and hosted by Madame Silvana Moi Virchaux-led Liberation Arts Contemporain in collaboration with the Lagos-based Culture Advocates Caucus. The group will roll out a schedule of activities in honour of Kelani at 70.

One of them held on Thursday, March 8 at the Freedom Park, Lagos. It featured talk sessions and movie screenings.
At the eight-hour long Art Forum jointly organised by CORA and iRep documentary movie, and anchored by Jahman Anikulapo, some of Kelani’s documentary movies were screened while some scenes from his other feature-length movies were shown in snippets. One of them was “The White Handkerchief”, based on Bayo Adebowale’s “The Virgin”. It was an experimental project on the use of celluloid initiated by MNET. But Kelani approached it like a full-length movie, using all the essential dramatic elements.

Tributes poured in as many of his protégées and contemporaries arrived at Kongi’s Harvest inside Freedom Park. The celebrant was accompanied by the iconic football veteran, the “mathematical” Segun Odegbami and Dr. Tunde Adegbola. It was a story of impossible relationships. Odegbami is an international football and has no formal training in film. Adegbola was an engineer not an artist but his stint with broadcasting was the converging point between him and Kelani. The two friends had been very influential in Kelani’s work. For instance, Odegbami provided all the technical details on football for “Maami” while Adegbola perfected the sound for Kelani’s signature soundtracks.
Odegbami who had played supporting role otherwise referred to as “Waka Pass’’ in “The Campus Queen” was surprised that when the movie poster was designed, his face was not on it. His consolation is that Kelani promised him a lead role in his next movie.

The trio all lived together in Ibadan and remained friends till date. Odegbami recounted how Kelani would screen his yet to be released movie in his home privately and how he would tell him every story before the actual production. Adegbola also recounted how Kelani was unperturbed about lack of sufficient funds for movie production but would call him and subtly ask how he could get money for production.

A very emotional tribute to TK was paid by Jide Morounfolu who in tears narrated how he owes his entire career today to Kelani. As a young graduate, he was randomly seeking employment and went to Kelani’s studio. Kelani didn’t announce any vacancy so he told Jide to leave. Jide left but resumed near his studio every morning just to get his attention. Eventually, his golden moment arrived: AIT needed cameramen. Kelani trained Jide for free. Through Kelani, Jide got his shot in a breaking news at BBC. Jide’s brother invited him to relocate to the US but he decided to stay with Kelani and many other international assignments came along. So he has no regret at all.
The only man with regrets was Yemi Sodimu who left Mainframe Productions unceremoniously. He resigned and couldn’t tell Kelani to his face that he needed to pursue bigger dreams.

In his response, Kelani offered gratitude to all his friends who had been his pillar of support over the years.
“It’s been a long 70-year old journey. I think without you, there will be no TK. There will be a sequel to the Saworoide series In the land of Jogbo, the people wanted pounded yam. But the pounded yam didn’t turn out right because we cooked the wrong yam. So we decided to change the yam. That is the change we are working for,” Kelani said.

A special documentary movie on Tunde Kelani titled “Tunde Kelani: A Culture Connoisseur” by Kunle Afolayan was screened at the event and typically, Kelani didn’t sit to watch his own movies or one about him. Still, he was honoured by the presence of Prof Wole Soyinka, Olu Jacobs, Joke Silva, Bimbo Manuel, Femi Odugbemi, Wale Fani and Prince Eji Oyewole.

Also, later this month, the iRep International Documentary Film Festival will hold a special session in his honour at Freedom Park.