TUNDE KELANI: The Man, His Moment and Magic

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No remarkable physical features. No flamboyant lifestyle. No dull moments. He is the lord of the klieg light. He is the master of behind-the-scene exploits. He holds all the aces in Nigeria’s filmmaking; a living legend with the Midas touch. He spins the yarn of stories with dexterity. World-renowned Tunde Kelani is the showpiece and masterpiece of Nigeria’s film industry. He transcends Nollywood. He runs a different universe of film production. At 71, life keeps getting lighter and brighter for him: First, he witnessed the birth of his granddaughter. Then a book about Nollywood was published in his honour. Wait for it: he was invited to be a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka the Oscars. Vanessa Obioha in an encounter explores the moments, magic and the man fondly called TK

There seemed to be someone waiting to grab his attention: a doting fan pleading for a selfie or autograph, a young protégé with a burning question on his craft, or an exuberant colleague with a bouquet of appreciation or advice as the case may be. Anywhere you turn, there is always a TK here, TK there. The chants seemed endless.
“Where would we have this interview?” he asked amidst the thronging crowd at Kongi Hall of Freedom Park, his eyes roaming around the vast space. The park’s terrace was bustling with activities.

No remarkable physical features. No flamboyant lifestyle. No dull moments. He is the lord of the klieg light. He is the master of behind-the-scene exploits. He holds all the aces in Nigeria’s filmmaking; a living legend with the Midas touch. He spins the yarn of stories with dexterity. World-renowned Tunde Kelani is the showpiece and masterpiece of Nigeria’s film industry. He transcends Nollywood. He runs a different universe of film production. At 71, life keeps getting lighter and brighter for him: First, he witnessed the birth of his granddaughter. Then a book about Nollywood was published in his honour. Wait for it: he was invited to be a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka the Oscars.

It is easy to assume that the veteran filmmaker Tunde Kelani has always been called by his initials, TK, from birth –far from it. The moniker came during his time in London Film School. His foreign contemporaries had trouble pronouncing his full name so they settled for his initials instead. Since then, it has clung to him like a second skin. Everybody calls him TK; young and old, friend or foe –even his children.

The decorated filmmaker explained: “The idea of being called daddy never fascinated me, because I didn’t force the children to call me TK. They started calling me TK by themselves. They heard the elders calling me TK and picked it up and I never discouraged them. Sometimes when you try to correct the children, they end up arguing which is correct. To call me Baba or TK? Sometimes, it’s amusing. But it really doesn’t matter so it’s better everyone calls me TK.”

He expressed a similar disposition in his work environment.
TK said, “When I’m making a project because I direct as well, my role is to provide a channel of communication so that people can contribute their expertise. Don’t call me director or uncle or anything else. Just call me TK. When you do that, your employees have buy-in; they know that they have access to you. When you put a formality block in front of them, then they fear you. They will be scared to approach you if anything should go wrong.

“But if you have buy-in, people will find it easy to come to you. No matter how stupid their suggestion maybe you can politely tell them why it is not necessary rather than angrily rebuke them or insult them. What it does is to provide this atmosphere where everyone is free to talk and work with you. The project is more important to me. I don’t care what you call me.”

And he certainly doesn’t care about material things either. At 71, TK who is highly regarded as one of the profound pioneers of the film industry in Nigeria has found little pleasure in riches. He is not by his standard a rich man or as high-heeled as most of the filmmakers of this era. This is partly due to his resolve to place conscience over commerce in his works. This uncanny trait of his is peculiar to filmmakers of his era and was the focus of a book, “Camera, Commerce, and Conscience: Afrowood and the Crisis of Purpose’ written recently in his honour by 12 professional scholars and edited by four authors.

He explained: “I know why they have written it (the book) because some aspects of my work are conscience-driven. One can easily classify my works. They are ‘Ko se Gbe’, ‘Arugba’, and some other titles. These talk about corruption and governance that is the conscience part of filmmaking. People have recognized that I have a camera with a conscience but they now added a camera, commerce, and conscience. I know that most of the filmmakers and artists of my generation who are pioneers in a sense were passionate about conscience filmmaking. We didn’t care about commerce.

“But today’s generation is more about commerce. In my own case, I would have thought that I didn’t acquire more. Some will often say or write that TK with all his knowledge has never been successful to take a loan from a bank. And yes I agree because I didn’t have the patience to go through the rigours of applying for a bank loan. I wasn’t really focused on that. Because first of all, I take something and I tell myself I have to do it now. And I just take all the resources I can. I deny my family, the children and everybody from extravagance and tell the story now.

“And when you start out with a story like that, like my recent documentary ‘Yoruba without Borders’, we didn’t sit down to think of the profits or how to distribute it or when we can recoup our money. There was no time for that; we just went along with it. That is camera and conscience. If we start taking into consideration all the financial constraints, we will never make a film. There will be no basis about it because we will be caught in logistics and all that. Some people are so calculating that if I don’t make these people or that, there will be no point making it. Now it is all about entrepreneurship and business. It is left to the individual to make a decision on what he is going to do about the project. I don’t care about anything. That was the risk we took. I can’t advise anyone to take such now.”
It was a terrible risk for the cinematographer as it left him with no retirement plans or pension funds. Like he puts it, “when you drop, you drop.”
But all has not been hazy for TK. What he lacked in monetary terms he gained in the appreciation that the public has shown to him over the years.

Last year, he was the recipient of the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards’ Industry Merit Award. And more recently, he was invited to join the voting pool of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, popularly known as the Oscars. His career spans across filmmaking, directing, cinematography, and photography. He is mostly revered as a custodian of the Nigerian arts and culture.

“God has been merciful to me. I could have done the little that have done would not have been appreciated by the Nigerian audience and public. But they recognize the importance of my work. People meet me, take pictures with me every day despite the fact that I’m not a star,” he laughed. “Which of the Nollywood star would sit down like this? How many of them have you seen at this festival, it is not glamorous enough? People have told me bluntly that I don’t have money.”

So far, he has little or no regrets about his pecuniary state. He is convinced that God specifically led him to his career. Backed by his early exposure to the Yoruba culture, TK considers himself lucky to have been bestowed the gift of sharing indigenous cultural expressions through films.

“I think God puts me there in that particular time and space for a reason. He gives you a language, culture, and a blessing. I read a lot and I come across unbelievable stories and I can’t be telling people all the time, they will be bored. So I chose the medium of cinema to share that experience. Filmmaking is knowledge-based so till you die, you keep learning.

“Filmmaking gave me a legitimate excuse to learn forever. God has given each and every one of us something to be proud of. That’s why we see the Chinese, the Spanish promoting their languages but Africans are abandoning theirs and chasing after others,” he said, bemoaning the American values entrenched in Nollywood films today.
“Culture is not really in Nollywood. Nollywood is just copying America and Hollywood. It is strange and sad and they are making a lot of money supposedly but are not auditing what they are losing in the process which is a disaster.”

However, TK would not dispute the fact that technology has helped Nollywood grow. He acknowledged that it is what has brought Nollywood from the days of analogue to digital format. He is very keen on learning new and evolving ways of telling stories through films which explained why he took on the rigorous training to learn how to shoot a film with smartphones. The docu-film ‘Yoruba without Borders’ was premiered at this year’s iREP International Documentary Film Festival.
TK had a pleasant visit. His daughter Tomi in the company of other family members brought his first grandchild to him. He couldn’t hide his joy. A wide grin spread across his face as they approached us.

“I never thought this day would come. I had my first child at the age of 40. If someone had told me I will see my grandchild, I wouldn’t have believed,” he said in an emotion-laden voice.
On setting eyes on his grandchild, his face lit up. He gently carried her in his arms and stared at her for a long time as if he was trying to memorize every feature on her face.

“You know, I told them to bring her here because I wanted to present this book to her. It is dedicated to her. When she grows up, she will be told that TK gave the book to her. And if she asked her mother if she also called me TK, she would answer in the affirmative. And I also expect her to call me TK,” he said.