Tunde Kelani, arguably Nigeria’s greatest auteur, recently ticked off an item from his bucket list: he adapted a Wole Soyinka play into film.
Known for his culturally rich and thematically expansive films, a huge chunk of Kelani’s oeuvre are adaptations of literary works firmly grounded in the Yoruba experience. He has spent a generous part of the last 20 years making film adaptations of plays and novels by the now departed duo of Adebayo Faleti and Akinwunmi Ishola. he also adapted Okinba Launko’s Maami.
So, undertaking a Soyinka project was only a matter of time for Kelani.
Kelani, in his own defence, at the recently concluded Light, Camera and Action Film Festival, said he chose a less complex work of Soyinka to adapt. Initially his decision roved between Camwoods on Leaves and The Lion and Jewel but eventually his gaze rested on the latter and he brought his own signature politics and aesthetics into the beat.
Under his watch, the enduring comedy The Lion and The Jewel becomes Sidi Ilujinle, done entirely in Yoruba but it will travel well with the aid of its English sub-title.
Sidi Ilujinle is faithful to The Lion and the Jewel play. Key characters are retained: Sidi (played by Aisha Onitiri) is the village belle who becomes popular when she makes the cover of the African Pulse magazine. Her pictures are taken by the sun-burned white man whose artistic instincts were first mistaken for native voyeuristic pleasures at the film’s beginning.
Lakunle (elegantly portrayed by Ibrahim Chatta) is the short-tie and sneakers wearing half-baked idealist whose poetic reminisces about Lagos makes the film worthwhile.
Baroka, the Lion or Village Baale, (played by Adebayo Salami) is the virile septuagenarian whose cunning ways set up the film’s conflict. And Sadiku (played by Lanre Hassan) is Baroka’s most senior wife who is useful to his ploy at getting Sidi, the jewel.
There are minor characters like the palace guards who Lakunle attempts to incite against Baroka towards whom he habours an age-long and bitter hatred; Sidi’s friends who are placeholders for jest-driven dialogue. Meaningful interludes like pupils debating about corporal punishment in Lakunle’s class before he hurriedly dismisses the class on sighting Sidi.
Like Yeepa, Kelani’s previous film, the setting for Sidi Ilujinle is unadorned and maintains fidelity with the stage. The beauty of restoring Soyinka’s dialogue to Yoruba is the most outstanding achievement of this film. There are no unnecessary skirmishes and those familiar with Kelani’s shtick will observe how he deflects potentially vulgar scenes with agile choreography from Segun Adefila’s Crown Troupe.
In the end, the simple love triangle story or love conquest between the half-baked and iconoclastic African elite and the cunning and deep-seated age-long tradition goes in that familiar direction. The film could have been updated to reflect upon current themes about agency and feminism, but it rather balks at contemporariness and sits comfortably within the well-worn setting of an old period piece.
Sidi Ilujinle is nowhere near any of Tunde Kelani’s classic films.