How D’Banj Brought Out The Best In Me – Funke Akindele

Nigerian performing art has a history that dates back to the 50s and 60s, decades before the emergence of the Nigerian movie industry fondly known as Nollywood. Arguably, one of the precursors of Nollywood era of the 90s is the Yoruba Theatre Travelling Troupe. It was an era when notable film veterans, like Ojo Ladipo, Hubert Ogunde, Eddy Ugboma, Ola Balogun, Adeyemi Afolayan (aka Ade Love), Moses Adejumo (aka Baba Sala) and others, travelled to different states to showcase their excellent theatrical skills on stage and in the open field.
In the contemporary Nollywood industry, Funke Akindele has creatively carved a unique career pathway that has earned her a huge commercial success. Her fame in the Nollywood industry spread like wild fire across Nigeria, African countries and the diaspora. Before then, however, she had braved the recurring string of denials from the mainstream Nollywood producers who constantly considered her as surplus to requirement. No doubt, her astronomic rise in the Nigerian movie industry is puzzling and intriguing to movie buffs.
funke 1Her self-discovery effort in her quest for self-expression fuelled her passion in her early years. According to her, the Nollywood Era of 1998 gave wings to her artistic flight. Early exposure and influences from Yoruba movie makers, like the late Muyideen Aromire, popularly called Alade, and Ishola Ogunsola, awed her. Going down memory lane, she narrates that “I got into Ogun State Polytechnic in 1995. I studied Mass Communication and had an Ordinary National Diploma (OND). Later, I went for my industrial training. After the OND, I became passionate about acting. I would tell my mum back then how much I loved to act. I would frequently wear some costumes and stand in front of the mirror to dance and take pictures with them.”
In the mid-90s, the TV series tagged I Need to Know, which was an awareness campaign on teenage sexuality and HIV/AIDS, announced her to the Nigerian audience. Before then, she recalls her dilemma. “My mum consented to my passion for acting but Daddy objected to it, preferring that I studied Law. I accepted to follow my dad’s wish to have me study Law, and got into the University of Lagos. But I’m yet to go to the Law School. My mum also took me to some Nollywood auditions where I would act so well.”
While recalling her journey to stardom, she remarked: “Way back, when I was doing my IT, I attended auditions at Charly Boy Studio. Unfortunately, I got resounding ‘NOs’ – that I cannot act. Later, someone introduced me to Swift Studios where I met Lloyd Bibers, the producer of “I Need to Know”. I attended the auditions and was given the role. I did “I Need to Know” which was the big break. Lloyd exposed me to a lot of things about TV productions. That was when I took productions seriously and my curious mind made me to ask questions about the technicalities of film productions. After the big break I got in I Need to Know, I thought to myself that ‘Nollywood would accept me now.’ However, I got turned down again. I felt discouraged but my mum urged me on saying that I had a God-given talent in acting. I cried and was seriously worried because I didn’t get the break.”
funke akindeleAfter meeting brick walls in the mainstream Nollywood industry, her resilience and innovative mind proved decisive in illuminating the darkness in the dungeon of her acting career. “It was Ayo Adesanya that advised me to move to the Yoruba genre. But I also met brick walls there. Then I told my mum that I had had enough of rejection from people and wanted to produce my own movie. So, she invested a million naira on my first movie called Ojo ketala. I produced this movie which came out so well that I got that the break I had always wanted. The first major role was in my movie as a producer. I also produced Egun, Ole, Agbefo, and others. Although, I was known in the movie industry, my artistic fame was just within the Yoruba genre of movie.”
But a big break would finally come for Funke’s who never gave up on her quest for success in her career. “Along the line, my younger sister, who went to the University of Lagos (UNILAG), narrated a true life story about the adventures of some university undergraduates who were into prostitution. I thought deeply about how to tell this story differently from I need to know. Then I thought about creating the character of a village girl who while making viewers laugh would not obscure the message intended. The movie, Jenifa, wasfunkereinforced by the memory I had of an Igbo girl in UNILAG. She had a fake English accent and lifestyle. So, I decided to infuse this character into ‘Jenifa,’ a Yoruba character whose real name is Suliyah. The intention was to make people laugh but pass on a very strong message for parents and female undergraduates.”
For Funke, conceiving a good movie was one thing but executing it was another thing, as she had to scale a huge financial hurdle in doing so. “It was so difficult to get the funds I needed to produce the Jenifa movie. Jenifa was shot in 2007 and released in 2009. It cost six million naira. I spoke with Alhaji Hakeem Balogun, the executive producer, Olasco Films, about the project. After much persuasion, he agreed. So, I called for an audition. Initially, I didn’t want to play Jenifa; I had wanted to work behind the scene. I oversaw every department of the production, because I wanted a top-notch movie. For three days, I could not get anyone to play the Jenifa role. I was so worried, but my younger sister encouraged me to play the role. I had to travel as far as Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ilorin to learn how to speak the typical Yoruba dialect. I went to local cafeterias to learn their mannerisms and distinct Yoruba accent. I had to research deeply into the various nuances of the language before coming back to Lagos to start shooting. We finished working on Jenifa and my younger brother edited it twice, before I could be satisfied with the entire production.”
Like the ‘big bang’ theory of human evolution, Funke never thought that Jenifa would be a huge commercial hit. “I never knew that Jenifa would be an instant success. I just wanted to do what was right by passing the message across to people. Finally, I got the big break that I had always wanted. Every one accepted me eventually because of the Jenifa success. The awards kept coming on and on, from home and abroad. I was celebrated.”
The success was replicated in a similar cast of Jenifa in Tunde Kelani’s Maami. It was a big deal for her. “I feel so privileged to be a part of Tunde Kelani Production. When we were starting out, TK told me that I was the only one that could play the character; I felt so motivated and flattered at the same time. When I read the script, I saw my mum in the character because my mum would do anything for her children to succeed in life. I researched the ‘Maami’ character with the help of a friend of mine who introduced me to a certain woman that washes clothes for a living. I interviewed her about her struggles and activities as a washerwoman and how she managed to eke out a living with her two children. She got so emotional while narrating her story. I fused her experience and my mum’s and stepped into the Maami role. I digested the Maami character to a fault so much so that even two weeks after the film, I was still behaving like that. I love what I do and I’m so passionate about it.”
•Funke-AkindeleIncidentally, while Funke was still basking in the euphoria of Jenifa’s success, Nigeria’s Afro-hip-hop star, D’Banj, had other ideas about the consummate Jenifa brand. “When I did Jenifa 1&2, the motivation was not money. In fact, I and my executive producer put together Jenifa 1, but The Return of Jenifa was my idea. The brand Jenifa is mine. After the success of Jenifa 1, D’Banj remarked that Jenifa has become a big brand and should not die. He advised that I could make good money from it. D’Banj actually made me go back to Jenifa. Then, I sat down and wrote The Return of Jenifa. I must say that we made good money from that second project on Jenifa. As for piracy, we are working hard with bodies like African Magic who have recently come out with a Box Office service where you can watch a movie and pay for it. At the Box Office, The Return of Jenifa is number 1, and I am working on a project which centres on celebrities living with HIV&AIDS.”
Looking ahead, Funke Akindele hopes to reinvent her brand in Nollywood. “I have been able to cross over and I thank God for the feat. I am known world-wide because I have featured in a lot of English movies recently. In July, I will also be producing my own English movie. I am a versatile actress, because I have played lots of characters and well respected for the success in each of them. I have to keep playing different characters because that is expected of me.”