MY ROAD TO STARDOM WASN’T VERY STRAIGHT FORWARD, BUT DIVINELY GUIDED — BOB-MANNUEL
Bob-Mannuel Udokwu is one of the founding pillars of the Nigerian movie industry popularly known as Nollywood. A uniquely endowed actor, who has starred in not less than 150 films, Bob-Mannuel, as he is popularly known in the industry represents what should be read as a story of an infant prodigy, a narrative of a predestined actor given the prophetic circumstances that shaped his birth and calling.
In this first of its kind biographical interview facilitated by www.africanbookdoctors.com, the Anambra State-born actor takes us on a beautiful ride into the story of the making of a destined actor.
He spoke about his stardom and the thrills and frills of the movie industry with astonishing energy, brilliance and unrestrained truth. He spoke to McPhilips Nwachukwu.
Bob-Mannuel,everybody knows that you are a star in the movie industry. How did you come into stardom?
It goes back a very long way really. I think the road started long before I was born. Perhaps I am saying this for the first time. There was a prophecy concerning me according to my mother. When she was pregnant with me, a prophet told her.
Of course in the 60s' when I was born, there were no scans or at the most, Nigerians weren't used to scans, and so for a woman, in Enugu, capital of Enugu State, a petty trader struggling to help her husband, who is a lowly paid worker in the Ministry of Works to be told that the baby in her womb was a boy and a name was given and that this boy would be known all over; and would carry a lot of responsibilities, and would also make the parents known too, was not ordinary.
It became something of a wonder. And of course, I was born, and the woman looked and saw that I was a boy, the prophesized name was given to me. So, from the early stage, according to her, I started displaying character traits that put me in a different level from children of my peers.
But then, my own first recollection of public performance was in primary two.
At primary four, I had done a full length play, where the whole school from the Headmaster to the menial workers in school knew me. By primary six, the school was drafting me to school debates, children's television programs and children's radio program.
So, by the time I entered secondary school, I really didn't do much in terms of acting, but rather opted for debate, may be because of my intellectual bent. Right from when I was very young, I have always loved the intellectual angle of life.
The idea that you know things that other do not know; that you have a wide range of knowledge, even though you may not be an expert in all of them, but you at least contribute in every sphere.
I read my first full novel by James Hadly Chase in Primary Six. By secondary class three, I had finished all of Hadly Chase that I could lay my hands on, and had read bigger books that my mates could not have contemplated touching.
By that time, I had read from horror novels to philosophy to all sort of books. I don't know if you know of Lobsom Rampa?
Yes, I do.
Ok. I had read authors like that before class five. So some of these things that I read as a young pupil had an impressionable use in my teenage years; and helped to form the totality of my person now and my perception of life becomes deeper than the average person in the street.
In my field today as an actor, that is why I don't behave any how. I look at life more deeply and more sensibly than a whole lot of people, perhaps, who came into what we are doing because they want to be seen
For me, it is a calling, divinely inspired, and that is perhaps why I don't struggle to act. It comes.
Now, these things are coming back because I can look back. In the years I was growing up, the prophecies, even the ones I was given myself, different from the ones that my mother told me about. Mind you that at some point I was given prophecies too.
They all proved to me that God doesn't lie.
In the Bible, God says, “Instead of my words coming back to me unfulfilled, heaven and earth shall pass away.”
True that some of these prophecies are not fulfilled yet, but for the ones that are fulfilled, at a point I would tell myself that, yes, this I was told about.
And so, the road to stardom for me wasn't very straight forward. It was a road that was very pre-destined; and I will tell you why it was like that.
By the time I went to University of Port Harcourt to study Theatre Arts, I was already on stage doing productions in Enugu, where I was born. But am from Anambra State. I was doing television. I was a guest presenter at FRCN, Enugu; and I was also going for admission for Fine and Applied Arts because I also draw. Am a total art person.
Now, if I didn't get Fine and Applied Arts, I was going to probably do Mass Communication or Law because am not into sciences at all.
But I loved medicine, which I think is a love deriving from the humanitarian aspect of my life, which is concerned with helping people who are sick, knowing what to do for them to get well; but since I wasn't good in mathematics all that I had to concentrate in the areas that I had strong point.
And so, by the time I went to study Theatre Arts, a lot of people were running away from that discipline, and so many that remained behind, just remained because they just wanted to obtain a degree in something, so that they would be seen as graduates.
But people like myself, when I finally did all that at amateur level, when I got to University of Port Harcourt, which fortunately enough was the school where the late Professor Ola Rotimi, one of the best directors this country has produced was the Head of Dramatic Arts, I submitted myself wholly to his tutelage. And the man saw the raw talent in me and picked me up as raw as I was then, and grounded me through the mill.
So, I owe a lot to the late Prof. It was not a coincidence. Remember the prophecy. But God has to lead you through the fire, for you to come out shining as a gold.
This is an interesting revelation! Would you just tell me when you began to take those prophecies seriously. At what point really?
Everything was happening almost simultaneously. I knew I had a burning desire to let the world see the things that are in me. Because these things were prophecized, I wasn't really thinking about them. I felt I had talents which I wanted the world to see.
I went for auditions and people would not get their parts right and the director or producer would at short notice ask me verbally to do it, and I would get it right and people would begin to clap. But for me I would wonder why they were clapping. For me that was a simple task I was I asked to do and I did it rightly so for me there was no need to clap.
Now, looking back I came to realize that perhaps the depth of my understanding of what I was supposed to do was deeper. And sometimes, the external expression I gave to those instructions became much more than required by my instructors than what the man that gave me the task had in mind.
So, with all that my pre-occupation was for the world to see the talent in me. It had nothing to do with prophecy. I wasn't thinking about prophecy but more to let the world see the talents. Actually my mind was to graduate as a Theatre Artist and travel abroad because we didn't have the industry here.
But I didn't know that God was preparing me to be one of the foundations upon which the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, would stand.
Because by the time I graduated, I got involved with Checkmate. It was still running; and I think it was in the second year, when Kenneth Nnebue of NEK Video Links invited me for a role in Living in Bondage. And when Living in Bondage debuted, that was when Nigerians screamed and asked so we can do films of our own? And the rest is history.
There is no doubting the fact that you are a scholar actor. A degree holder in Theatre Arts and a Master degree in International Relations. Intellectually, you have enough resources to make a standing statement about the industry in which you have played a very significant defining role. Tell me sincerely your views about the Nigerian film. Has it come of age?
Has the country come up with a film tradition that should be considered a genre to be properly undertaken with the same seriousness of intellectual mindedness?
Coming from the background of where we started from to where we are now, it is a mile stone. It is an achievement in its own by creating an industry out of nothing. In the whole of Africa, it is only Nigeria that has a brand name, Nollywood.
Is that enough for us to make merry and be happy? No.
The foundation is still shaky as far as am concerned. We have started off and made points that can tell stories. We have also impacted on other areas of the world like in Africans in the Diaspora, in Europe, America and in the Caribbean.
Our films are extremely popular with these people because they have their roots in Africa. And today, Africa has found her voice in the film industry through Nollywood because it is not like the stories foreigners tell about us but stories we tell ourselves.
But we have not come to a point that we can say that we are satisfied as far as am concerned, because I have always believed that if you aim at the moon, you jump the wall but if you aim at the wall you end up flying no where.
For some people, the sky is the limit, but for me as an individual, I believe that the sky should be a stepping stone because people have gone beyond the sky to the land of the moon. So, to answer your question, we shouldn't be happy that we have come this far, rather, we should be determined to work harder, to put stronger force to the foundation that is being laid. It hasn't been properly laid. It is being still worked upon.
In terms of national slang, the popular slang that makes the round about national cake, I feel very sad about that. Nigeria is just 48 years as an independent state and people are talking about sharing national cake, meanwhile America is over 200 years and is still baking her cake; and this is where I disagree with politicians and those that made that coinage.
Am not happy with them. What they should be talking about is baking Nigeria's cake and not sharing it or even if it is not cake, we should be baking our own chin chin or rather be frying our own chin chin, instead it is the chin chin that is frying us as you can see oil burning people every where. Something that should be a blessing has become a curse on the people.
Be that as it may, for the movie industry, we need to sit down and look at the areas that we are failing. We are not operating in a very ideal environment. The economy, as it affects every other aspects of the socio-political economy, also affects the movie industry.
It is when you have light that people would want to watch movies. If they don't have light to watch movies, they end up not buying movies.
If they end up not buying movies, you as the producers also end up not making money from the movie you make. And if you end up not making money from the movies you make, how do you finance other projects that you get involved in? And if you can not finance your projects, how then do you employ actors, actresses, producers, directors, people behind the camera?
But outside Civil Service, which is government, Nigeria's movie industry is the second highest employer of labour in the country today.
So, it is not something only practitioners like myself alone will bend our heads backward to think about. Government should also come in. Now that there is food crises, I hear that there are some waivers for people who are going to import food and essential commodities and all that. There should also be waivers for people who bring in equipment for movie making.
Government should come in more. You look at some movies from America for instance, the Hollywood collaborates with government. In a film like Air force One with Harrison Ford, at the end of the movie you see acknowledgment thanking the US government, US Marine, Navy etc.
When will government be so interested in movie project that when you finished watching any movie, you see special thanks to Nigerian Air Force, Navy and Marines? For giving you their plans and other logistic supports? Or even be allowed to shoot a movie in the National Assembly complex?
Because that house is not a mirage, it exists. CNN has the symbol of the senate building. You see it on CNN promo sometimes. It is not a mirage, it is a national monument and we should be able to do movie at the Villa.
Fine, security alright. Even if it is taking establishing shot. There is a section of the White House, that is open to the public. So, by the time government takes special interest, though am not rushing government into that because movie making in the way it is now as a business is a new innovation to Nigerians and people seem not to understand it.
In the early days when we started, a lot of us were locked up in Police stations because Police men on road blocks saw certain props we were using and could not understand. Some of us slept in Police stations because they didn't understand what we were doing with things that looked like guns.
They didn't understand that some microphones when put on boom could look like rifles. They didn't understand that you could use foam and carve a human head and it looks like a real person. But today things are changing.
The Military arm of our establishment should be able to come to the movie industry and say look, we want you to do a movie about the Nigerian Navy. Do film about the Air Force. Do film about the Army. Nigerian army and policy are among the best, when they go for mission jobs outside the country.
Why can't we do a movie about Nigerian contingence in Sudan? In all these troubled areas, where we have sacrificed the lives of some of our soldier's lives and police personnel's lives in the name of peace keeping?
But some bureaucrats will not agree. For goodness sake, my master degree is in International Relations and that is where I understand that there is an aspect of movie called agitational propaganda.
You use that as a veritable instrument of foreign policy. You intimidate people with what you show others in your movies. Why do you think that America has become so powerful in the eyes of the people? It is because of what they make us see. Several events that have happened in America in recent times will show you that they are not super human beings.
I think this conversation is engaging enough. I will still come back to the challenges facing the industry. But first, let us look at the milestone so far covered by the industry. Having at the back of our mind that movie as a genre, is also a medium of communication, do you think that the Nollywood tells the African story to the world?
To a large extent yes. To a large extent also, it may not necessarily be to our interest. Why do I say that? The forces behind the stories are purely mercantile. Nigeria is unlike Europe, America and South Africa, where they have functional film funding system. But here nobody funds your film. The entrepreneurs, who fund our films are there purely to make money.
So, you may have the idea of telling a story that represents the continent but somebody is paying the bill, somebody has commercial interest in it and somebody wants to make millions out of the story you are trying to tell and so he breathes down on your neck; and probably twist the story at some level to suit his commercial vision. That is why I said to some extent no.
What do we need to do? We need to have proper institutional frame work for recuperating funds for the interest of movie making, for the interest of the art and for the interest of our system, culture and for the interest of African story in totality.
I think that to some extent, censors board is trying to bring about a blue print to that effect, but how far it is going to succeed is not what I can say now because I am not a prophet.
Suffice it to say that another thing that we need at this point in time is co-productions. Productions, that I call cross Atlantic productions, where you have stories that cross between Europe and Africa or America and Africa, where interest parties can co-finance, co- produce so that again, these movies can come into internationally accepted standards without losing touch of their Africanness in the story.
Through co-productions, the African movie makers can then tell the world in a larger setting that this is who we are; and not what you are told, because what most people out there know about Africa is what they are told through the medium available to them.
I think that I have a problem with your suggestion of co-production if I understood you well. I premise my own disaffection on the fact of the undoing of African story by Heart of Darkness, that singular narrative by racist Ukrainian born turned English writer, Jozef Teodor Konrad, whose effort at cross Atlantic narrative sold to the Western world a negative story of Africa…
(Cuts in) Let me clarify on what I mean by cross Atlantic co-production. In my own context, I mean stories that are our stories, told by ourselves with technical input from outside. There are things that are universal to mankind: emotion, anger, happiness and pain are all universal. So also is love.
Even if you don't understand of a movie maker, even if the movie is done in Ukraine, the visuals employed in the production alone will tell people in faraway Nkwere in Igbo land, in Africa that the subject of a particular movie is love or pain or anguish.
The Western co-producers have the technical capabilities that we don't have. They have technologies that we don't have yet, and even if we can get them, we probably cannot afford them. So, under this production arrangement, if we come up with stories that are universally applicable to mankind, they can come up with technical support and finance.
All through the ages, they have been telling their own stories, using their technologies and all that; and these films come to us whether we like them or not. And they have been influencing generations after generations.
There was a time it was Cow Boys and Indians, today, the hip hop culture has subsumed our youths that they now make their videos wearing Trench coats with hood under 90 degrees African sun, whereas the videos from which they copied this costuming pattern from are made in temperate region where sometimes the temperature is -1 degree freezing point.
Pictures are very powerful. They are imageries that stick for a very long time; especially in the mind of young people.
The African can never be whiter than the white man. If they have never accepted Michael Jackson in spite of everything he did, to the extent of making himself white and still, he continues to get knocks all over the places, then there is no hope for any other such dreamer.
Whose fault is it? I mean the costuming pattern. Is it the fault of the producer or the actor or the director?
One thing that I don't do is fault finding. What I do is to look for remedies because it is a systemic thing; and when something becomes a systematic problem, you don't pin the fault on one person.
Again, the perception of the young man, whose album you are preparing counts. He feels that he must be like Tupac.
He feels that he must be like Biggy. He feels that he must be like Usher.
But he forgets that these guys live in New York. It is the image which America has suffused our world with that they pick up.
Now, a young man made a video, which I saw in Imo State and the concept is very good. Good love story, you know. By the time I met him, he was trying to re-shoot some shots because he felt the people in Lagos wouldn't want to buy the video simply because everything was traditionally done but I told him no.
Beautiful story, and I told him no. But then it a matter of choice.
The Nigerian movie industry is seen in many quarters as an all comers profession. Every Tom, Dick and Harry wants to become an actor or actress no matter the field of their studies.
But you are a professional, having been trained and groomed in theatre tradition. What are your views in this regard?
It is not something that you have a very hard and fast way of dealing with because it has to do with talent and creativity. And you know creativity and creative work is not subject to the hard and fast rules of scientific application. In other words one plus one must give two.
But in the Arts, one plus one can give you hundred so long as you are able to justify how you got your hundred. That is why in creative field, we have what we call artistic licence. And so, because you don't put ceiling to creative works, it becomes difficult to restrict people.
But you can put certain restrictions. For instance, one must have certain kind of training in the theatre either formally or informally. For instance, if you have been working with an established theatre group for a length of time you would be able to learn a number of things.
Even as a technical person or a stage hand, I think you should have acquired some training. These trainings would probably serve as a resume if you want to say, join the Actors Guild of Nigeria or Producers Guild or Directors.
Another thing is that because there are really no regulatory bodies like that, and there is no central source of funding, somebody, who has some money to spend can call up anybody and ask him if he has a good story that he can invest into it.
Let us pin down this conversation on you. You have acted in not less than 150 titles. Where is your energy deriving from?
(Laughs) Well it is divine you know. I can say divine inspiration. You see the need, the urge to help in creating a better society is part of my motivation.
I am interesting in giving the message through my performances and when I do that I am giving back that which is coming from within, tapping from the original source of creation, which is God and then giving it out.
And I tell you one thing: I derive my energy from God, and when I finish any production, I go back and I tell God see you gave me these things to give out and like a vessel I have poured out what you deposited in me, fill me again Lord.
Can you tell me a particular film you have acted in, that you will not hesitate to go back to take the same role?
I will not hesitate to mention my role in the novel titled Concubine written by Elechi Amadi. This novel was published in 1966 and has been translated into eight international languages.
It is like Things Fall Apart. It is read in both colleges and universities.
We shot it into a movie, though it has not been released because it is not the kind of things you release like that.
The challenges of playing a lead role in that very movie, the role of the lead character Ekwueme, was such that tasked that which makes me an actor.
You see, am grateful to the producers because I was in London, where I went to receive the Afro Nollywood Award for Outstanding Performance, when they called for me and my wife told them that I was out of the country. They asked for my number and my wife called me to confirm if she could give my number out and I told her to give them.
And they called me in London and asked when I was coming back. I asked them why asking and they said that there was a project, a movie, not just any movie but a novel, which they wanted me to play a lead role.
I told them when I was coming back and they said they were going to wait and I said ok. When I returned and joined them I found out that there were other top contenders, who knew about the movie plan before me and were contesting for the same role.
Despite the number of people, who contested for that role, the producers knew who would give them the depth of satisfaction in the role they were looking for in that production.
Therefore, when people lobbied for the role, they said, no the person we want who can deliver this role is Bob-Mannuel and they began to look for me.
Of course, Captain Elechi Amadi, who wrote the novel is still alive and he is the consultant. And I learnt that when they took a couple of the movies of the contenders to him and when he saw my face, I was told he said that's my Ekwueme.
And I didn't disappoint. By the time we finished that movie after two months, I almost ended up in hospital because of exhaustion.
We did the shooting in a remote village in Enugu, where once you leave Enugu town as you approached that place all networks would cease.
So, you are caught off from civilisation. The movie is set in the time before the white man came and so you don't see any Zinc house, you don't see block built house nor clothes. It was an awesome experience.