Bob-Manuel Udokwu may be a household name in the local movie industry, but he can't forget his first break.
The actor named Emmanuel Obidinma Udokwu at birth told Saturday Sun that he would ever remain grateful to the producer of a1990 soap – Checkmate. Amaka Igwe (nee Eneh), he said, gave him the first chance to make his face recognizable in the crowd.
Now, he does not only see himself as actor but an activist, diplomat and societal mirror.
The first shot
Udokwu, from Ogidi in Anambra State, came into national limelight as Ritchie of Checkmate – a national soap opera. Before then he had been involved in other productions as voice-over artiste, Kata Egwua, and FRCN Musical talk show and in one or two episodes of Basi and Company.
This Theatre Arts graduate from the University of Port Harcourt promised himself not to be another unknown face in the crowd. “I didn't want to graduate and still be just a face in the nation. I wanted to be distinct – where people can see me and without asking say, that's Bob-Manuel”.
Bob-Manuel who was auditioned for Checkmate in 1990 while a student is full of gratitude to producer of the soap, Amaka Eneh (now Amaka Igwe) for giving him the break early in his acting life. He recalls that few moments before this award-winning soap opera was unleashed on the nation in April, 1991 was his longest wait in life.
“I cannot describe the feeling. In fact, the five minutes before eight o'clock on that Thursday in April that Checkmate aired the first episode was the longest five minutes of my life. What I was looking for was national recognition in terms of being an actor and I had been working and struggling quietly towards that, struggling between my academics and acting. So here was it. NTA Port Harcourt joined Lagos for a new programme – Checkmate. I had told my uncle, everybody sat around his parlour and we were waiting. On the dot of 8, the opening montage started. They showed, Ego Boyo (then Ego Nnamani), Francis Agu, and behold! There I was with my name boldly written and I said glory be to God. That was the beginning of the realization of a dream. Thank God for Checkmate – it removed my name from the crowd”.
Fourth child in a family of six, turned out to be a child of prophesy. His mother had given birth to a boy and later two girls before him. It wasn't a good story then and now in Igbo land where a male child is highly regarded. But a prophet had foretold that he would be a boy; also would be very prominent. So as a form of thank you to the prophet and in fulfilment of what he had said he was named Emmanuel.
When Udokwu wanted to study Theatre Arts, there wasn't much resistance. Before then, he had already started work with the NTA (Enugu), after leaving secondary school. He was also handling a musical talk show, Kata Egwa at FRCN, aside a few stage drama. So, his maternal uncle – Emet Mbelu – simply encouraged him to go and read Theatre Arts. “Again, by that time my parents had seen that I belonged there and I would stay up late and watch drama and films. Then NTA would finish their regular programmes and slot in a foreign film that would run to close down by 12 or 1am. It caused quarrel between me and my father. The man would wake in the night to see that the TV was still on and I would be watching. He didn't understand it. I didn't understand it, either. But there was something compelling about what I was doing. There was something that was drawing me to that tube. I was addicted to television. One day my father came back from work, I greeted him and faced my television. I didn't know he was there watching. After some time, he said 'I have seen that your whole mind is on this thing (TV). I turned and looked at him and said 'yes'; so he left. That was the end”
Most challenging role
Udokwu has been involved in more than 100 movies but he picks his role in Checkmate as the most challenging. As somebody who had never been to America then, he found himself playing the role of a returnee from America in the formative age of his career.
“Every role I play turns out challenging. I have also produced and directed two films and acted in them as lead (Matters of the Heart and Wedding Bells). But Checkmate was very challenging for me because by then I hadn't gone outside the shores of Nigeria but I was playing a returnee from America. So I had to draw from the experiences of things I had seen on television mostly in all those foreign films that I watched. It was also easy for me to do because I took elective courses in Linguistics especially phonetics and phonology.
“If you want to move very far in this entertainment thing you just have to speak well. You just have to have a correct diction so that you don't have the affectations of the place you came from”.
Actor as mirror
He says an artiste is a diplomat, an activist, a social critic who knows and understands the everyday problems of the masses and he is able to inculcate same in his works. Consequently, an artiste must be seen as partner in governance.
“I try to speak out my mind in the films I do. There are times I criticize governments and establishments in the films. I mean, we are social critics. I see myself as an actor – diplomat. We need to use our acts to make changes. The government may not be alive to its responsibilities all the time. We draw their attention to these things. It's like partnering with government. Some people may not like it. Sometimes I get some strange calls, 'it looks like you talk too much, you have to stop criticizing'. On February 14, 2005, somebody shot me in this office. This cowardly attempt on my life cannot stop me. We have to be the eyes and ears of government. We have to be part of government. I believe that the artiste must make a change positively for the society. We are like the mirrors. We live with the people. Government is removed from the people. The president lives in a fortress, governors in government houses, even local government chairmen. You can hardly have access to them. Even when they drive, the windows are tinted; how will they access what the masses are seeing?”
He regretted that government only listens to sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. “Government should feel the pulse of the people through the artistes and through the works that we do. Which Nigeria films do you see that don't have the theme of pain and suffering and agony in them? No artiste performs his work outside his environment. Listen to our musicians what are they singing, the same terrible situations. But listen to American musicians, none of them sings about pain and suffering, bitterness and hunger. They have food, they sing about love and sex”.
Bob – Manuel says celebrity has put him in a straitjacket. His life is constantly run by external forces.
“The negative side of celebrity is that you lose your privacy. Your life is more or less run by external forces in the sense that you are ever conscious of what you are doing. You become a role-model. In Nigeria, it becomes even worse because the society sets a double standard for the artiste. It is normal for faceless people, for instance, to beat the traffic light. But if I beat that traffic light it becomes something else.
Bob – Manuel would want his fellow artistes to remain conscious of the fact that they are role-models especially in the things they wear.
“You don't have to dress outrageously or outlandishly. Personally, I have a style. I love being corporate and when I am not corporate, I like wearing decent things. You don't have to wear ragged and dirty stuff because you are an artiste. There's a lot of misconception among some who claim to be practitioners of the arts that you must look weird and ragged for people to say 'Oh! He is an actor or actress'. An artiste is somebody who lives his own normal life but at a time steps out of himself (or herself) to be another person. When you finish being that person even if that person was mad, come back to yourself. That is the beauty”.