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Moses Olaiya’s “Mosebolatan” Heralded an Age for Comedy in the Nigerian Film Industry

Moses Olaiya’s “Mosebolatan” Heralded an Age for Comedy in the Nigerian Film Industry

Mosebolatan by Moses Olaiya - Afrocritik

Films act as a visual record, and Mosebolatan is a visual archive of the pioneers of filmmaking in Nigeria, and by extension, Nigeria’s history…

By Seyi Lasisi

When Moses Olaiya produced Mosebolatan in 1985, Nigeria was gradually easing off from Western influence and domination, and enjoying this independence. It was during this post-independence period that the pioneering theatre practitioner, Hubert Ogunde, created the popular travelling theatre, the Alarinjo theatre. He staged theatrical productions around the country, with plays centred around the cultural and metaphysical beliefs of the Yoruba people. Gradually, a transitory phase ensued, and in place of theatre production, TV and film production began to gain traction. It was amidst this transition phase that Olaiya’s Mosebolatan was made. The film carried with it relics from the travelling theatre,  with its large ensemble of cast and commentary on social issues. It follows closely after the purported first Yoruba film, Ajani Ogun (1977) by the pioneer filmmaker, Ola Balogun. Thirty-eight years after its cinema distribution, I had a rare chance to watch the Adeyemi “Adelove” Afolayan-directed Mosebolatan, courtesy of a generous special screening at the Ibadan International Film Festival (IIFF). 

Mosebolatan follows the story of two men, the eponymous Mosebolatan (Kareem Adepoju) and Baba Sala (Moses Olaiya), whose lives overlap. As portrayed, both men are noticeably affluential and clearly distinguished as thriving businessmen. Mosebolatan has a warehouse that Baba Sala relies on to get goods for stocking his appliance store. Interestingly, the film focuses more on Baba Sala, with Mosebolatan’s story captured in fragments. And as the plot reveals, Baba Sala grows in popularity and wealth. Also noticeable is his attraction to women and his penchant for humour even in serious moments, which gives the film its comic appeal. Though hazy at first, the film slowly builds the connection between Mosebolatan and Baba Sala through its subplot. Sala, Baba Sala’s daughter, is in a secret relationship with Jide. Towards the film’s ending, the film reveals that Jide is Mosebolatan’s child. 

Before the film’s screening at IIFF, there was a mini history lesson about it.  During its cinema run, the film made 65 thousand naira in box office return. By Nigeria’s current economic metrics, that was a huge return for its time. Its commercial success aside, Mosebolatan and other similar titles, such as Aare Agbaye (1983), and Agba Man (1992) ushered in the age of comedy into the Nigerian film industry.  Olaiya heralded this comic age with his portrayal of Baba Sala in Mosebolatan, and the moniker “Baba Sala” followed him throughout his career. 

Special Screen at the IIFF - Mosebolatan - Baba Sala - Afrocritik

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For its time, the setting of Mosebolatan is very modern, with the characters attuned to the socio-cultural realities of the times.  One of such realities is the political and social undertones littered throughout the film. Baba Sala is portrayed as irresponsible, but when his son brings home his fiance, he is quick to reject her. The reason is simple: the rich should marry the rich and the poor should do likewise. As casual as this reaction is, it echoes how marriages from time immemorial, strengthen financial and economic ties. Another comical scene that subtly comments on a social contention is a scene, where Baba Sala’s son steals his money. Baba Sala, pulling off one of his bizarre deeds, ties his children to the stake; ready to shoot them if they don’t confess who stole the money. This scene, in hindsight, calls to mind, the public execution of armed robbers. Prominent in the ’90s, the killing of robbers was a familiar sight at Bar Beach, Lagos. Swift judgment was usually passed for convicted robbers to be shot by a firing squad, and as horrific as this act was, it attracted spectators. 

The characters’ costumes and props also reflected their social standing in society.  The flowing Agbada of the wealthy characters and the demure clothing of the working-class characters suggest their distinct social class. The costumes and props also suggest the influences of foreign elements in Nigerian society, assimilating parts of other cultures into films. For example, Jide and Sala’s constant rendering of love duets to express their affection is a nod to the influence of Bollywood. The carefully choreographed Kung-fu fight scene in the film also suggests influence from Chinese culture. Although these foreign motifs exist, the film is well entrenched in Nigerian realities. The party scenes are imbued with Nigerian reality, such as scenes featuring musicians performing live on stage and being sprayed with money, and dialogues that capture the everyday conversation of Nigerians. 

Moses Olaiya - Afrocritik
Moses Olaiya

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Film and literature are trustworthy repositories of a country’s history. History that preceded readers’ birth can be gotten by flipping through pages, and with film, a country’s past reveals itself. Films act as a visual record, and Mosebolatan is a visual archive of the pioneers of filmmaking in Nigeria, and by extension, Nigeria’s history. The film captures actors, who are now veterans, at the crux of their careers.  Actors such as Charles Olumo, Kareem Adepoju, Jide Kosoko, and Adebayo Salami, and directors, Tunde Kelani and Adeyemi “Adelove” Afolayan,  who play varying roles in the film, then at the beginning of their career, are names now etched in the minds of Nigerian film lovers. The cinematography, too,( by Tunde Kelani) and special effects,  in Mosebolatan, hint at the great upheaval that has shrouded the Nigerian film industry. 

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As this film kept eliciting heart-warming laughter from audiences during its screening, one question came to my mind: where are the other works of Olaiya? Who will introduce the current generation of Nigerian cinephiles to the works of Olaiya, Ogunde, and Balogun?   In an age where retrospective documentation and archiving are becoming fashionable, how do we introduce films from the pioneers to new audiences?  There is little to no documentation of this era in  Nigerian film history,  with scanty information available even in online spaces. Special screenings of this nature, held in honour of the late veteran, accompanied by reviews such as this, are needed to not compel audiences on a nostalgic voyage but to introduce a new audience to Nigerian film history. 

Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex.

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