Bob-Manuel Udokwu is a debonair Award-winning international actor, icon, role model, and motivator. A well trained and disciplined thespian, the iconic veteran in a chat with Onyinye Okonkwo gives his views on issues ranging from state of the nation, to the current state of the film industry and so many other relevant issues. Below are excerpts:
Good day sir, please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am Bob-Manuel Udokwu, born on the 18th of April in Coal Camp area of Enugu the capital of Enugu State. I received my primary education from Saint Peter’s Primary School Ogbete, Enugu (now Hillside Primary School), after which I went on to receive my secondary education from Oraukwu Grammar School, Oraukwu, in Anambra state.
I also hold a Certificate with Distinction as well as a Second Class Upper BA degree both in theatre Arts from the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers state.
How and when did you get into acting?
My first time appearing on stage as far as I can recall was in primary two, by primary four I participated in a full length play where I played the role of a king and from there the school began sending me to children’s debates and programmes on radio and television. Leaving secondary school, I went by myself to audition for roles on radio and television stations in Enugu before getting admission into the university. So I was already presenting programmes on radio and TV and was also into stage plays before getting university admission. Luckily for me, getting into the University of Port Harcourt, my Head of Department turned out to be one of the greatest plays wrights and theatre director this country has produced, the late Prof.Ola Rotimi who wrote “The Gods Are Not To Blame”. By my final year when my mates were still trying to figure out their next move, I was lucky enough to get a role in a soap opera “Checkmate” and by the time I was ending my youth service, I was invited to a production which turned out to be “Living In Bondage”! The rest like they say is history.
What were some of the challenges you accountered while starting out in your career as one of the pioneers of Nollywood?
Bob: Starting, there was no industry, don’t forget I was part of those who did “Living In Bondage” and that was what started the film industry in Nigeria that the world knows today as Nollywood. In my earlier years there was no industry and I was lucky to and again really suffered to be part of a soap opera Checkmate which the industry hasn’t been able to beat till date. It aired between April 1991 to about the same time in 1995. It was while doing Checkmate that I got invited for the production which turned out to be Living in Bondage which was shot in Igbo and the success of Living In Bondage gave rise to the Nigerian film industry. ( Nollywood).
Now, challenges that I faced; part of it was that there was no industry, you had at most a one off 30 minutes/1hour TV drama productions in NTA Lagos back then that was aired on what they called network telecast and so there were no bench marks, no stars or celebrities to look up to in the sense that we have today. There are have few references but there were really no role models so to speak. One was like charting a new course where there were no road maps. These were some of the challenges pioneers face. So today we have a template for those who are coming behind. So for challenges it is something that anybody who is starting newly where you don’t have any road map, no design, no template, so we were driven by passion and the desire to showcase that we had talent and for someone like me to show that I studied it under a renowned theatre generalissimo like the late Prof. Ola Rotimi who was my mentor. Beyond that, it is the burning desire, knowing that you have something that the world needs to see. That in itself is a challenge enough.
Amidst all the numerous challenges you faced at the beginning did you ever consider quitting? Considering the unfavourable conditions you’ve had to work in.
Bob: You are talking about the beginning but even today ,27 years after Living In Bondage, I often have reason to ask myself why I’m still get involved in show business! Why am I still in the entertainment industry? The working conditions conditions are not right up till today. As a matter of fact it has deteriorated seriously. When the excitement of Living In Bondage wore down and we got into the business of making films,the industry began to face real challenges. Unfortunately, the Nigerian film industry is not even up to 30 years and we are now looking at some of the early films as classics. What do you now say about films produced in Hollywood more than a 100 years ago? Hollywood is more than a 100 years for those who do not know, that’s why when some people compare our works to those of Hollywood I laugh because it’s out of ignorance. American film industry is more than 100 years old and we haven’t even clocked 30 years. So, on if I ever felt like quitting, I still ask myself why I am still acting. But the thing is as a true artiste your work is like an addiction, any professional who reads this interview will understand what I am talking about, it’s like an addiction, and you just keep going back to it. Look, even if I become, let’s say a governor or president tomorrow and I get a good script, I will act! It is only in Nigeria that you get to certain level and they get appointments and abandon theirGod given talent / professional practise. I was thrilled to watch the former U.S Secretary of State Condeleesa Rice play concert grade piano! Bill Clinton plays the sax, at his second inauguration he joined the band to play. Well, we had redemption here in former governor Donald Duke of Cross River State who also plays the saxophone! We need to always know that responsibilities and positions in life shouldn’t distract us from something we have a passion for. If you are a fine artist, if the likes of Ben Enwonwu didn’t create all those iconic works of sculpture,perhaps he wouldn’t have his place in history even outside this country. I think some of his works are gracing some international buildings like the United Nations but he’s from Onitsha in Anambra State.
What do you think of the current state of nollywood?
I mentioned earlier that it is declining and there’s a reason for that. The current administration hasn’t done anything for the entertainment industry! If they read this they will probably come out swinging. Their media aides will come and attack me because we hear grandiose plans and we see them in the news but that’s where it ends. Nothing concrete has been done. As a matter of fact the film and entertainment industry like most industries in Nigeria has been on steady decline since Buhari came to office. And let me tell you,when he was supposedly elected in the first tenure, most of us in the entertainment industry, I for one wasn’t comfortable because this is a man who after he was kicked out of office that he forcefully took, nothing was heard about him for about 30 years! You can’t say now that this is the artiste that Buhari likes even if the person is like an Islamic artiste, you wouldn’t say that this is the kind of music that the president likes even if it’s an Islamic music, you wouldn’t say that this is what he does in terms of entertainment to relax even it is from the Islamic world. These things are not rocket science. With that kind of person as a president, who has so much aversion for the arts, what do you think he will think of those in the creative industry? He will think of them as a bunch of unserious fellows and never-do-wells. Meanwhile, outside this country whether anyone likes it or not the entertainment industry practitioners are the positive ambassadors/image of this country. President Jonathan was and still remains the only president that Nigeria has produced who saw the need that the creative industry should be encouraged and he did practical things but they have reversed all those things. Mark my words,they will come and challenge what I have said but I want us to come to the table to discuss. During the Jonathan administration the Nigerian bureau of statistics revealed that outside the government, which is the civil service, the Nigerian entertainment industry, Nollywood was the second highest employer of labour. Where has all that gone today? Millions of youths are roaming the streets, jobless. Which banks in Nigeria will give you a loan for a creative idea? And creativity abounds in this country. If we can start an industry where there were no foundations or structures and today we are the highest number of film releasing country in the world and number three in terms of ranking, don’t you think that government should take this industry seriously? But no! They keep looking at oil. What relief or benefit has being an oil producing nation brought to the masses of Nigeria? Nothing but suffering, pains and monumental misery! The United States of America earns a lot of money from its entertainment industry. The annual budget of the state of California, the host state of Hollywood is as big as that of about five African countries put together. Where is the large chunk of that their generated revenue coming from? It’s from the entertainment industry. The entire movie making companies have their headquarters in Los Angeles. So our own industry is in decline, not because of the practioners or lack of creativity or zeal, but you labour and see nothing for your labour and it is seriously demoralising. If anyone wants to call my bluff, why is it that most times when our practioners get sick what you see is our association going to the social media to beg for money! Beg for money! If someone contracts you here to compere an event and you charge a million naira they will scream blue murder. But convert a million naira to US dollars,how much does it amount to? It’s not up to the amount an A list actor in the U.S puts in his pocket to buy drinks when hanging out with friends or even to visit a good coffee shop. So in terms of production quality there has been great improvement. For example Living In Bondage was shot on Super VHS but today we shoot with state-of-the art equipments and the best technology. We may not have it all but the best that Nigerians can afford we buy them.
What do you think can be done to support and improve the entertainment industry?
When I talk about this administration not being interested in the entertainment industry they will say we have given them land for film village and all that. Why not encourage private entrepreneurs especially seeing as it is private investors that have been sustaining the industry from inception till date because it is when they make profit that they can put it back in the industry so why not encourage them? So I am calling for restructuring as it will benefit everyone involved. Crime is on the rise in our country and we know the people committing these crimes are young people mainly due to idleness and what you do in situations like this is to engage young people’s intellect, energy and creativity, and the best way to engage these young people is to keep them busy. Those that have interest in the creative industry, avail them that opportunity, train them and create an environment where they can be hired in productions and paid little money with which to sustain themselves. I have never revealed this before but I was paid less than 5,000 naira (five thousand Naira)in 1992 for my role in Living In Bondage part 1 and I was happy to earn that money and the money even came after the work had been released. I suffered all that long before getting paid but when the work came out it created so many other opportunities for me. So if you engage people to be busy, it may not necessarily be about the amount they earn, just the fact that they are busy and have something to do will help them and the society. Now one of the practical ways to encourage them is to give incentive to production houses that if you are producing a television soap opera for instance we will give you tax incentive. Whatever annual tax your company is supposed to pay to government will be drastically reduced because you are employing people. Government can for instance give 50% tax rebate to production companies in the creative industry. I can tell you that if this is done you will see an increase in productions and even organising of musical concerts thereby more young people will be gainfully employed. But they wouldn’t do that, because this government doesn’t consider it necessary. Meanwhile we have,by our example taught other African countries how to tell their own stories as they deem fit in films.
Do you think social media as a means of publicity for movies is the best?
Social media can be used to create awareness yes but let’s not forget that it is still not mainstream media. Social media advertisements are like fast food, it never really satisfies, it’s a stop gap. Even Hollywood today with the advent of social media still makes use of traditional media for adverts for movies. Time was here in Nigeria, and it saddens me to say this but if a movie was to be released, there was press conference, billboards at least in Lagos and one or two other cities but now you don’t even get that anymore. Now what you have is like an illegal business where people smuggle in their movies into the market and go to social media to make noise about it. Social media is actually still a new phenomenon and even in the communications it is still being studied and not totally understood. That’s why as you can see it’s a medium for all sorts fly-by-night, moonshiners and all kinds shady characters occupying the space. Which is why fake news is on the rise all over the world especially in Nigeria because mischief makers seem to be more on social media and they use it to spread fake stories? So social media adverts for upcoming productions has no real solid foundation, it is not representative of what the industry should be.
Would you say social media has affected the quality of talent in the industry?
Talent is innate, so I don’t think social media has affected the quality of talent, but it has affected the quality of production. If you contract me to do a job for you no matter how small you pay me, I won’t give you half performance. But today you see filmmakers going after people who are popular on social media and I think that is a survivalist strategy and those who they think have high social media followership are not necessarily good. So you find out that for the film maker to survive, he/she tries to experiment. Whether that experiment is working or not is another question. Truth is quality is quality, if you call for a production now and it has at least five or ten A listers from my time you will see that the whole country will eagerly await the release of that movie and that’s because people know quality when they see one. By the way those who you claim have high social media following, who are the viewers that they have? It’s still mostly young people, many of whom cannot afford 1.,000 naira for a bottle of soft drink in an exclusive lounge or 10,000 for a bottle of champagne and take one carton with their friends. So quality remains unchangeable but quantity you can roll out as much as you want.
How have you been able to remain relevant in Nollywood seeing as you are one of the pioneers of the industry?
For me I think its providence, I believe that my being in the industry is a calling. It is my own altar and pulpit of evangelism through which I touch lives all over the world. I have been able to sustain my stay here through discipline, hard work, sincerity of purpose and knowing that there is a higher power who gave me this talent which people should enjoy and for His edification. Also I keep training and retraining myself. If you listen to me speak you won’t believe that I grew up in Coal Camp in Enugu. As a matter of fact when some people when we were in uniport didn’t believe that I was an Igbo person because of how I spoke and it was part of my motivation in doing Living In Bondage which was done in Igbo and also part of the reason when I speak I drop one or two Igbo lines in the apt places because onye amu lu amu bu n’ani ka amudo lu ya. ( everyone has their own roots ) . For each script I take, I study to know the depth of my character,what I’m going to film, try to get the director’s and if possible the writer’s interpretation of my character and then with my own interpretation of my character l blend it all together like a good cook making soup and bringing out the best. So when you hear Bob-Manuell is in a production, you’ll have to expect the best. I just finished shooting a 26 episode production for African magic and perhaps Netflix. , People will see a different Bob and whatever I do I try to bring in some freshness. I will give you an example, I was not the first person who anchored Gulder ultimate Search, in fact I was the third and was brought in at a time when they were considering scrapping the show, I was not just given the show to anchor. I was auditioned along with 9 other people, we were ten in total. After I got the job I was worried about how to put my own stamp on the show and bring something different on board and by the grace of God out of the ten years the show ran I was the host for five years and the rest they say is history. I don’t look back to rest on my oars but to show that with any new challenge I bring in something new such that even if you don’t like me you can say I don’t like that Bob-Manuel as a person but you see his work? He good at it ! I’m happy with that because there is no point in everyone liking me but at the end of the day they’ll say ” forget that guy he is no longer as good as he used to be he has lost it”. That won’t be nice.
On to a different area, are now fully involved in politics or you are just working as a political appointee?
First of all I think it’s a good thing that many of us who started out in the entertainment industry are now being found worthy to be part of the administrative system in Nigeria and I believe we have earned it. After all those that are running this country aground some have no certificates but for some of us even before being appointed politically, people knew our pedigree. If we say that we went to school our class mates can come out and collaborate it unlike some people that are running the affair of the country. I have an MSc in political science with emphasis on International Relations from the University of Lagis. So if that means that I have interest in politics so be it. And I believe we should all have interest in politics especially the young people who complain about the state of the nation but are not getting involved in the process. If you look back at our history, people like Anthony Enahoro, Ojukwu and the rest were all young people when they got involved in the affairs of the country mostly in their late 20’s and early 30’s but look at what we have today, we have young people in their late 20’s still being spoon fed by their parents.
I believe that the entertainment person is the best person to run the affairs of this country. This is because we are not separated from the reality of what the masses are going through because our position makes us have a relationship with people in different strata of the society. Unlike normal politicians beginning from the councillor who are mostly removed from the people they are ruling so they cannot adequately understand the concerns of the people they govern. I as a person can go from a ramshackle neighbourhood to a best highbrow area and as such can feel the pulse of the people.
In 2015 I contested for Anambra State House of Assembly ticket for Idemili North constituency butI didn’t get my party ticket. That should show you that I’m definitely interested in politics and I may still contest again for something bigger.
Finally what is your advice and word of encouragement for young aspiring actors out there?
My advice is for them to be disciplined. Discipline is key. Take the work seriously. Some of them come in and want to play lead roles immediately. There is nothing wrong with that but experience is important, so that small role you get at the beginning, play it as though your life depends on it. If you do your best and always try to improve in your craft then be rest assured that the rewards will come. I tell young people that talent is like sports. It cannot be hidden and it’s not by man-know-man. People come to me and say take me to where they will put me in a film. Meanwhile they have no training, didn’t go to film school, have no acting experience,nothing. It doesn’t always work like that. It’s not office work where you can hide your mediocrity. If you put in the work and pay your dues you will get your rewards but most young people are only concerned about fame and the glamour forgetting that there is a price to pay before you get to that level. So for those aspiring to grow in the industry, work has to come first. There are two philosophies I subscibe to. One is from the bible which says that “the husbandman that labours is the first partaker of the fruits of the labour”. Notice it mentions labour before fruit. The second one is in Igbo and it says “ebe onye na’luu ka osi e li” : which means (where one works is where one eats). Again it mentions labour before enjoyment. I always tell young people that anything given free of charge is not worth rushing for because it doesn’t last and is hardly of any value so work hard and earn it. When you work hard you earn the respect and love of the people.
Finally my personal philosophy is, work hard, believe in yourself and trust God.
What do you do to relax?
I like to watch a lot of documentaries that are educative.I read novels a lot, read my first novel in primary 6 and it was a James Hadley Chase novel titled A coffin from Hongkong, I enjoy swimming in very big pools of at least 15feet, I’m not a club person but I hang out occasionally. I love to draw, I was actually going to study Fine and Applied Arts but I ended up with Theatre Arts. I like to relax with things that challenge my mind, things that can serve to improve my intellect. I do not like dull moments or routine because I like doing things differently from time to time. It helps me set high standards for others to aspire to.