Twenty-three years after the release of Saworoide, one of Tunde Kelani's best works, a lot of the themes explored in the classic still remain prevalent in today’s society.
Many regards the 90s, the period when plays began to move from the theatres to digital outlets, as the golden era of Nollywood. Living in Bondage (1992), Karishika(1996), that decade produced several timeless works of art and classics that not only set the tone but also laid the blueprint for what the Nigerian film industry is today.
During this period, Tunde Kelani, also famously known as TK, ruled the screen with classics like Ti Oluwa Nile, Oleku, Agogo Eewo, Kosegbe, and a handful of other brilliant movies. These films were primarily tailored to promote the Yoruba culture and also capture the zeitgeist of the society at the time. Despite the lack of flamboyant aesthetics, these classics managed to convey the genuine realities of Nigerian life. Between 1993 and 2004, Tunde Kelani directed over 14 films but Saworoide, a 1999 masterpiece written by renowned playwright, the late Akinwunmi Isola, is regarded by many as his magnum opus. Twenty-three years after the production of Saworoide, the film stays relevant not only to Nigeria’s political realities but also to our film industry as it has been used as a reference in countless films, paper projects, and has also been somewhat instrumental in the general growth of the industry.
Set in the fictional kingdom of Jogbo, Saworoide majorly explores themes of politics, greed, and bad governance. Jogbo had just lost its king and the king-elect Lapite, (played by Kola Oyewo) had no genuine interest in serving the people; he simply wanted to be a rich and powerful king and was willing to do anything to achieve his aim. He consolidated power by assassinating his opponents and detractors, arresting his critics, and laundering money, with the encouragement of his chiefs, who received a cut from his illegal activities.
The village youth ultimately grew frustrated with Lapite’s leadership, and they stole his crown. Lapite, desperate to regain his crown, sought the help of his military commander, Lagata (played by Kunle Bamtefa) to retrieve the crown. Lagata managed to retrieve Lapite’s crown but seized it for himself, killing Lapite, becoming an even worse tyrant. The story ends with Lagatta's death and the installation of Arese, the rightful heir to the throne.
The story of Jogbo in Saworoide is similar to that of modern-day Nigeria. Its thematic focus is drawn from the traditional Yoruba practice of oath-taking as a symbol of accountability and good governance, an important necessity that Jogbo lacked. It also highlights the consequences of a military coup and the destabilization that it brings to the society
The phrase ‘Saworoide’ in Yoruba means ‘Brass Bell’. It is a collection of tiny bells woven around a talking drum which gives the drum a peculiar sound when beaten. “The Saworoide” does not operate alone, there is also the ‘Ade Ide’ (Brass Crown) which shares some mystical affinity with the Saworoide. The Saworoide serves its utmost best when the Ade Ide is worn by whoever is rightfully bestowed with such a privilege to wear it. The Ade Ide must be on the rightful owner or the wearer dies of headache. There is a ritual to be carried out that binds the throne, the King, and the Ade Ide together.
This background is what served as a major inspiration for Saworoide. Kelani draws from rich Yoruba folklore, creating and narrating a brilliant story that not only depicted the Nigerian political reality at the time but one that also foretells the future, lacing it with subtle anecdotal inferences from history, mythology, and real life. The effective storyline of this great flick showcases the strength of the African narrative over the years and the influence that our culture and society have on the kind of stories that filmmakers tell in Nollywood.
As a filmmaker, one of the best ways to ensure that you are being heard is to identify your audience and tell stories that are perfectly tailored to this audience and this is what Tunde Kelani does brilliantly with Saworoide. The classic depicts the stark political realities of the society at the time, making it immensely relatable and relevant. Although Saworoide was predominantly made in Yoruba, its impact has been felt outside the shores of Nollywood and still stands as a major referencing point for Nollywood’s storytelling over the years.
Saworoide also recognizes the power of the youth and it’s vividly depicted in the plot. When the youths of Jogbo had had enough of the oppressive regime, they took up arms and frustrated the loggers and their government backers, depicting them as the catalyst necessary for change in society.
In terms of influence in Nigerian cinema, Saworoide’s impact cannot be overemphasized. For many years, its storyline has influenced several movies and been used as one of the many benchmarks to define the quality of storytelling in Nigeria. It has also influenced a lot of storytellers to tell more local stories in local dialects. More importantly, Saworoide has helped to elevate African stories across the shores of Africa, and for people looking to study the evolution of Nollywood from different parts of the world, Saworide serves as a huge resource today till date.
Much more than Saworoide’s political commentary of the 90s, it's a timeless work of art that remains relevant even to this day. Twenty-three years after it was made, a lot of the themes explored in the film remain prevalent in today’s society and this goes to highlight not only the power-scuffle, greed, and false prophets still present in today’s government but also the ageless nature of Kelani’s work. Delivering on promises and caring for the people is more important than simply promising change. In the end, leadership is service, and Tunde Kelani saw the future in Saworoide.