MOST OF THE PEOPLE I STARTED OUT WITH ARE DEAD, SAYS BUKKY-AJAYI
The camera was ready to roll and just before the movie director, who had been viewing the director of photography's frame through monitor could shout "action!", two camera shots fired on Bukky's face. Reacting to the spontaneous shots, she looked at the still photographer with comical, questionable frown, suggesting contempt. The crew roared in laughter and then she said,rather softly, "these photographs that we don't even get to see."
Apparently, the shooting of Tunji Bamisigbin's new soap opera, The Valley Between had been on Bukky-Ajayi's scenes for about twenty minutes before the still photographer showed up on location. Her presence had doused all the tension of production. If the elderly woman could endure all the takes and re-takes and the occasional setbacks often experienced in every production, only to pass occasional jocular comments and react playfully to the mischief of the director, why shouldn't a younger actor do better? They all laughed and joked. Thus, scene after scene, the job was done.
Would she want to talk to our correspondent? Zainab Bukky-Ajayi, veteran broadcaster and actress glanced at The Nation's complimentary card handed to her. She looked at the man standing before her , probably thinking, 'first he was a still photographer, next he's a journalist'. And then she said resignedly: "I don't need this publicity."
"This is not about you mummy. What other form of publicity do you need? This chat of about twenty minutes, as we intend it to be, with your permission, will benefit the younger ones coming up. Those aspiring actors and actresses who desire to study you like a book. On our own, we are only trying to create materials for them to study," The Nation correspondent said to her.
They were walking along the lounge to the expansive building where her next scene was about to happen. He carried her bag like one would for a mother returning from the market.
Time was short, in between studying her script and a little nap, the reporter reappeared like a stubborn child and she lowered her guard.
When and how did acting begin for this woman whose effort has traversed Nollywood to include a performance in an international flick entitled Critical Assignment?
It's a long time ago and she could not remember exactly when. "I am an old woman now and I really I'm not good at remembering those dates again. But I do know that I started off in the '60s and first as a broadcaster." she said.
Knowing what parental disposition was towards acting in those days, what was her experience like? "Up till today, no parents want their children to be an actor, except that today things are better off because of the money and publicity the profession has got to offer."
Talking about how long she has been in the acting business and if her contemporaries are still in the profession, Bukky-Ajayi looked up at the interviewer as if to say, what's this boy talking about? "Most of them are dead," she said, and then on a second thought, she asked, "Do you know how old I am?
"I was just going to ask you."
"I am not going to tell you. Never ask a lady how old she is".
"That brings us to Fella's Typical African Woman, isn't it?"
"Honestly, I am not going to tell you my age," she said. "All I am going to tell you is that I am a grandmother. And recently, I have added another one, a greatgrand mother".
Indeed, the product of her present maternal status is the recent marriage between her grand daughter, Omobolanle and hip-hop star, Muyiwa Olofin (a.k.a. Jazzman Olofin) at the Federal Marriage Registry, Ikoyi.
One should not necessarily judge a woman's age by the generation of children after her. To appreciate Bukky-Ajayi's age is not also by the teeming population of grey strands on her head, but as she revealed to The Nation, her first son is 52 years old.
The old lady who converted to Islam in the early eighties and chose the name 'Zainab' described herself as a real Lagosian. Apart from acting in the Guinness promotional/ sponsored movie, Critical Assignment, Zainab Bukky-Ajayi who said she has not featured in any other international movie, recalled that unlike how the Nigerian producers have always treated artistes, her experience on the set of Critical Assignment, featuring Michael Power, made a lot of difference.
"For once in my life, I felt like a star because I was treated like one. I went round the country. I saw how a star is treated. I had my own caravan with my name on it, my own car with a driver who doubles as my security man. And on days when I was not working the car was there to take me wherever I wanted to go. I had a lovely time, I enjoyed It," she said with nostalgia.
To mention but a few of the ill treatment that actors and actresses get from film producers, she recalled with bitterness, how a producer and his director refused to pay her for a job she did in February of the year.
Can she mention names? Cutting the reporter short, she said: "I don't mind. Afam Okereke and Sunny Collins. And you can quote me."
In February, Zainab Bukky-Ajayi was invited to take part in the shooting of Fine Things in Abuja. The movie was produced and directed by Enugu-based Afam Okereke and Sunny Collins respectively. The movie which also featured artistes like Eucharia Anunobi-Ekwu, Desmond Elliot and Nkiru Sylvanus saw the old actress paying her flight tickets to and from the Abuja location. She later accused them of deceiving her that payment had been credited to her account.
"Afam Okereke and Sunny Collins think that because they are in Enugu no body can touch them. But they forget that God can touch any body where ever they are. If what any body could think of doing to a woman of my age is to '419', then let God be the judge. But I would like someone to help me ask them what I have done to them to deserve such ill treatment. I paid my flight ticket to Abuja and back, it is sad indeed but I give thanks to God because at least I am still alive."
This very eloquent woman, who obviously has her reservations about the standard of Nigerian movies, when asked to mention any Nigerian film she could give thumbs up to, was quick to mention Dickson Iruegbu's Women's Cot.
She said what makes this movie tick are the great cast, costume and the 'Nigerianess' of the script.
Tunde Kelani's Thunderbolt (Magun) was perceived by many as another great movie she'd done, why wouldn't she list that? Bukky smiled and said that the movie couldn't be regarded as a Nigerian movie. "It is an international standard movie even though it was shot by a Nigerian who knows what he is doing." That settles it.
Now, talking about professionalism, has she thought of doing her own film? Her answer was a big No! According to her, she does not have the kind of money that would do a good movie. "I don't want to say I am a perfectionist but I am near it and I cannot do anything short of standard."
Our reporter thinks that this may be the problem of other Nigerian directors who could not do quality movies because of finance, but the old actress differs saying "this is the kind of project that two or three production houses can come together to do. They know these things but they just would not do them."
Her movie roles are often laced with humour. Could this mean that the producers identify this traits and often seize the advantage to bring comic relief to the movies? This may not be far from it, but as far as this woman is concerned, you can't survive acting in this country without being humorous. One would just die. She passed this remark against the backdrop of location stress, without being unmindful of the fact that such humour must be befitting of the character she's playing.
In Thunderbolt (Magun), we saw that sarcastic inference she made about the libido potential of Guinness Stout. Soon after that movie, Bukky-Ajayi was in the Guinness sponsored/promotional movie, Critical Assignment, is this a coincidence or an extension of her ambassadorial role for the brand? Looking up at the interviewer again, she said, "do you know that until now that you are mentioning it, I have never thought of the two having a seeming look. I'm sure the producers didn't see it like that too. It's purely coincidence".
What's her experience with fans on the streets of Lagos like? "I dare not walk on the streets of Lagos unless I want to be mobbed. Most of the time, I don't do my shopping myself. I send people to do it for me."
In spite of odds, does she see herself doing something else other than the movies? "At what age and time again?" she retorted. "I love what I am doing and that's what I'm going to do till I die."
Her love for the theatre started when she was a young girl. Then, her father used to take her to the cinemas and she often told him (her father) how much she wanted to be like the actresses. Unfortunately, he never lived to see her become an actress.
She later travelled to study in England where she was for six years a Federal Government scholar.
Returning to Nigeria after her education in 1965, she worked with the Nigerian Television as a presentation assistant in 1966 under the leadership of Dr. Christopher Kolade.
Afterwards, she became a presenter and then a news reader. She presented a couple of children's programmes and 'Nigerian's Sketches', a programme which was all about Nigerian culture and produced by the late Diran Ajijedidun. She was transferred to Port Harcourt and later back to Lagos, and it was at that time she started her acting career.
Zainab Bukky-Ajayi has got to her credit television dramas and movies like: The Village Headmaster, Checkmate, Women's Cot, Thunderbolt, My Best Friend, Worst Marriage, Bridgestone, Dead End, Indecent Girls, Final Whistle, Oduduwa, andThe Kingmaker, among others.