Tunde Kelani who is widely referred to as TK is that Nigerian ace cinematographer. If the story of the Nigerian movie industry or Nollywood is told or written, it would without doubt be incomplete without the inclusion of prolific cinematography, Tunde Kelani, writes SBF
Tunde Kelani who is widely referred to as TK is that Nigerian ace cinematographer that has brought smiles to many homes with flicks like ‘Saworo Ide’ and ‘Oleku’ through his Mainframe Films and Television Productions.
He is a filmmaker, storyteller, director, photographer, and a producer as well. At an early age, he was sent to Abeokuta to live with his grandfather. The rich Yoruba culture and tradition he experienced in his early years, coupled with the experience he garnered at the London Film School where he studied the art of film making, prepared him for what he is doing today.
His background shaped his idea of things in life and this include his love for arts, stage plays and eventual incursion into the world of make believe. “I was born in Lagos but at age five, I was sent to live with my grandparents in Abeokuta. I attended the Oke-Ona Primary School in Ikija, Abeokuta. I had my secondary school education at Abeokuta Grammar School. I was separated from my mother and sent to live in Abeokuta.
My grandfather was the Balogun of Ijaiye Kukudi and I witnessed several aspects of Yoruba ways of life, the Yoruba religion, Yoruba literature, Yoruba philosophy, environments and world view in arts at close quarters. Of course, I got introduced to Yoruba literature from an early stage in life.
Theatre also played an important part because we had a very strong traveling theatre tradition at that time. When I was in secondary school, I had the privilege of seeing most of the great Yoruba theatre classics like the Palmwine Drunkard, Oba Koso, Kurunmi, Ogunde plays and all that.”
With all these exposure as a youngster, TK became interested in photography and knew by the time he left school that any work he did would be photography- related. He was employed as a trainee cameraman by the Western Nigeria Television and attended the London Film School in 1976 to learn technical aspects of filmmaking. “I got interested in photography from primary school.
Throughout my secondary school education, I was actively investing money and taking my time to learn photography. So, inevitably, I became an apprentice photographer after I finished secondary school. Later, I trained at the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV) and later I attended the London Film School.”
These days, the cinema culture is being revived with the erection of ultra modern cinemas around the country. But it would be interesting to note that TK was one of the few cinematographers behind the revival because he makes his films for the cinema first before considering it for home video, making him distinct from the Nollywood filmmakers who have few cinema aspirations.
“Many years ago in Nigeria, we had neighbourhood cinemas. Around me, I had about six cinemas and I had preferences. American films made an impression on me and we had Indian films and Chinese films, so it was question of your preference. Until we lost all cinema infrastructure and Nigerians as a result of military dictatorship and insecurity preferred to be entertained in their own homes.
Of course, it has also affected the film industry. Because of economic factors, all the cinemas closed down in the 80s and that gave birth to the popular Nollywood because films are distributed generally on CDs, DVDs for home entertainment. But things are changing because cinemas are springing up in Lagos, five of them. More are being built.
With that, the cinema culture will be revived. Ambitious films are now first screened in cinemas and the number is growing. It is a silent revolution and it is going to happen.”
With flicks like ‘Ti Oluwa Nile,’ ‘Oleku,’ ‘Saworo Ide,’ ‘The Narrow Path,’ ‘Arugba,’ amidst others, TK’s biggest film remains his 2000 release, ‘Thunderbolt.’ With budgets of between $60,000 and $75,000, TK has consistently distinguished his works and himself.
However, he sees the Nigerian movie industry from a different angle. Also, he decries piracy. “People criticise the Nigerian film industry but they forget that it is a very young industry. But the interesting part of it is its rich cultural heritage. We have vast literary resources. We have people who are talented and very hardworking.
We have the technology on our side and so I think Nigeria is close to a breakthrough. Within the next few years, you will see another breed of the Nigerian films. The major problem I think we have and needs to be tackled is piracy. I mean these guys reap bountifully from the sweat and labour of these hardworking Nigerians in the entertainment world.”
Though his father had wanted him to be a pharmacist, he remains one of his greatest supporters because his father literarily took him to where he began apprenticeship in photography. “My father was a wonderful man when he was alive and when I said I wanted to become an apprentice without a salary, my father agreed and we went to see Chief Dotun Okubanjo who I had approached. They had a chat and my father confirmed to him I was mad about photography. So, it was an open family secret that I was just a photographer.
“My father wanted me to be a pharmacist but my own plans were far away from pharmacy. I just wanted to be a photographer and really, it was as simple as that. I just don’t want to be anything else, it was just madness and I was so proud of it. Even at that time, my friends went to the university but I just wanted to be a photographer.
In my journey, there was a girlfriend who dumped me because she told me she wanted to study Medicine and she could not introduce me to her friends as a photographer and we parted. I was just happy to see a camera around me and if you look at the table there, you will see a camera there.
Camera has always been around me because it is just a wonderful tool to document some aspects of life that will disappear in 20 years time. I want to do more and more and more. I wish I had the capacity and the financial backing to continue to work every day because there is so much to document.
There is so much to do before we lose our culture. To me, it’s a lost battle that if care is not taken, our culture and language will disappear. It is disappearing from challenges of other cultures in what we call globalisation.”