After his secondary school education, Tunde Kelani was just a photographers apprentice, learning the ropes in the hopes of one day becoming a great photographer himself. But that was not the course his life would take. He would eventually create some of the greatest films Nigeria has ever seen and totally change the way films are made in Nigeria. So how did he go from that photographer’s apprentice to a Nollywood icon whose films are revered decades later?
Though he was born in Lagos on February 26, 1948, Tunde Kelani didn’t grow up in Lagos. At the age of 5, he was sent to live with his grandparents in the ancient city of Abeokuta. His grandfather was the ‘Balogun of Ijaiye Kukudi’, which meant Tunde had access to the different sides of Yoruba culture and worldview. This would later reflect in his most celebrated works. He attended the Oke-Ona Primary School, Ikija, Abeokuta, then the Abeokuta Grammar school for his secondary education.
After training as a photographer, Tunde Kelani went on to train as a cameraman at the first TV station in Nigeria, Western Nigeria Television. The quest for knowledge of moviemaking didn’t end there as he also completed a diploma in the Art and Technique of Filmmaking at the London Film School. While in London, Tunde worked for the BBC and Reuters, covering the Ethiopian drought and travelling to Zimbabwe thrice to cover the nation’s independence.
Tunde Kelani returned to Nigeria after locking down his London Film School diploma and co-produced his first movie, ‘The Dilemma of Reverend Father Michael’ with Adebayo Faleti, also a Nollywood icon and the first ever Yoruba news anchor in Nigeria. The screenplay for the film was done by Lola Fani-Kayode, the TV producer known for creating the classic TV series, Mirror in the Sun.
What followed was a series of cinematography gigs on some 16mm feature films including: Anikura; Ogun Ajaye; Iya Ni Wura; Taxi Driver; Iwa and Fopomoyo. By 1990, Tunde Kelani was the assistant director and also acted in the first American movie to be shot in Nigeria titled ‘Mister Johnson’ – an adaptation of the 1939 novel by Joyce Cary. Pierce Brosnan and Maynard Eziashi starred in the film. At this point, his reputation was growing fast but his best work was yet to come.
In 1992 he founded the iconic Mainframe Film and Television Productions company to promote the Nigerian culture and beliefs through high-quality movies. He wanted to produce his own films instead of just providing technical support for others. Tunde also had a soft spot for both English and Yoruba literature and his adaptations of books and plays for film are the core of Kelani’s filmmaking practice. Through Mainframe, he has produced movies such as Ti Oluwa Nile, Ayo Ni Mo Fe, Koseegbe, Oleku, Thunderbolt (Magun), Saworoide, Agogo Eewo, The Campus Queen, Abeni, Narrow Path, Arugba and Maami. A couple of these films are classic Nigerian films as well as fantastic film adaptations of various books.
These movies would go on to define the highest standards of quality for Nigerian films. At the time, filmmakers weren’t making well-scripted, high quality movies and film production was very rudimentary. Tunde Kelani (and others like Tade Ogidan) insisted on making films with better direction and better stories, going on to influence works like Irapada (2006), The Amazing Grace (2006) and The Figurine (2009) by producer and director Kunle Afolayan. The latter is the break out movie that started the current, cinema-debuting Nollywood era.
These days, Tunde Kelani doubles as a fellow at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State. In 2019, he was elected by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (aka The Oscars) to vote in the Directors Category at future awards. He has won multiple awards and mentored several producers and directors in the Nigeria film industry. He is married with three children.
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