Behind the scene | 27 May 2007 15:03 CET


Chika Okpala (Chief Zebrudiah) of the “New Masquerade” fame Nigeria's popular sitcom, has revealed the running battle he had with his father 35 years ago, after he told the 'old man' that he wanted to be a professional actor.

In an exclusive chat with Sunday Sun at the lobby of the Le Meridien Hotel, Abuja, Okpala recalled the challenges he went through and his father's fears and apprehension, after he told him that he was cut out for the silver screen.

“He was disappointed! He told me that it was only drop-outs that do drama, people who are non-achievers in life. My father said 'my son, go and do medicine. If you can't do medicine because you have a commercial background, give me accountancy. These are the only two courses I will approve for you.'”

According to The Royal Palmwine Powerless, all attempts to make the older Okpala see reason hit a brick wall: “I said dad, it looks like I have a talent for drama,' but he said 'No! People who act drama don't get anywhere. They can't marry and if they do, it would not be on time. They won't ever build a house or drive a car. My son, what do you want to be?'”
“I decided to take it as a challenge and I told my dad. I said that though entertainers in the country are yet to receive recognition and fame that would make them millionaires, their faces are worth millions. I told him I would succeed as an artiste. My dad could not understand.”
Thirty-five years after, Okpala, alias 4:30, has established himself as a household name and proved his father wrong.

“Eventually I proved him wrong. I got married. My children are in the university. He never helped me to train any of them. I built a house and my family is leaving under my roof. I got a car for myself and even got another for my wife. I am accepted in society. Before he died two years ago, whenever he moved around, he was proud to say 'I am the father of Chief Zebrudiah you see on TV.”
In retrospect, he said: “Drama has done everything for me. It was a challenge from my father and I thank God for him.”

For a man with his antecedents, he has been conspicuously missing in Nollywood. Okpala said the reason was that practitioners failed to carry him along.
“The home video people said that they did not want me. If they wanted me, they could have come to me. Maybe, they feel that my face will not sell their films so I left them alone. If you are rejected, would you also refuse yourself? You would stay in your house until the day Chineke God brings someone to you.”

State of Nollywood
From the veteran, it's hard knocks for Nollywood: “I have said that home video people are not towing the right track. We are the pioneers of this industry and we are saying that we can use this home video to sell our country and ourselves positively. Let us not wash our dirty linen in public. Let us play down on personal quarrels. You will find out that what they put in videos are personal quarrels. If somebody quarrels with his wife, it comes on air. If someone quarrels with his girl friend, it becomes a movie. If one family quarrels with the other family because of land, they make a three-part movie out of it. They are not moving us forward! They should begin to think of how project to Nigeria in fresh perspective to attract investment to the country and give thus us credibility. Anywhere we go, people would root for us rather than see us as 'juju people who want to kill! Again, they keep recycling artistes when there are so many. It should not be so because we have lots of talent.”
However, he said that if called upon, he would be willing to serve: “I am waiting for them to call me. Sanity is beginning to come into the profession. Many people have reechoed my views. The problem was the marketers who dictated story lines according to their own personal experiences. That is why we do not win awards because they do not give us good image.”

The Masquerade
One man he would not forget soon is Jegede Shokoya of blessed memory. With nostalgia, he told Sunday Sun how much he missed his bossom friend.
“I am missing him a lot. I miss his company. I am missing his particular gimmicks in production. Everybody has a style and I loved his style. When I was producing “The Masquerades,” I made sure that he lived in the same flat with me, in the same duplex with me, so that we could share and always be together in order to bring him up to the level he was before he died. He had the potential but he did not know how to go about it but when he worked with me, those things came out. Sometimes I threw lines at him that made him react in particular ways. He was a good friend of mine.”

“Christy Essien, his TV wife, himself and I all worked together. We all tried to mould each other. I tried to give her a place that reflected the kind of a woman she was to Jegede. We worked hand-in-hand and were good to each other.”

Abacha contract
“I had no relationship with Abacha as such. The job he would have given us to do was for Samanja, Papiluwe and myself. There was something that was wrong in the society then, I can't remember precisely what but he did not give us the job before he died. We came so close, had meetings with Al Mustapha. It was to be a project to reorient Nigerians on certain aspects of public conduct. They wanted the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa versions. That was our relationship.”
He denied ever campaigning for a past government: “Which campaign? I never campaigned for any government. All I said was that people should come out and vote. Is that a campaign? I did not say go and vote for this man and vote that man. I only said in my campaign that let us go and exercise our legitimate rights. That does not mean that I was supporting any politician. All I did was to support democracy.”
He ended in his characteristic style, “Ayu wa, Forward march, fire!”

Happiest moment
“The success and emergence of Nollywood is my happiest. It's quite memorable. People picked up what I started. People are making millions from it. It is earning the country foreign exchange. Why shouldn't I be happy? I proved my father wrong. People are becoming stars. I am happy about it. The only thing I don't like is washing dirty linen in public. They should play up positive themes.”
On how he coins the expressions, which have characterized his style of acting: “It comes naturally. I tune myself to the language and it starts flowing.”

Current project
According to Chief Zebrudiah, these days, he stays at home and looks for food: “They gave me 'MON' but there is no 'EY.' I am very hungry-o! If you see work, give me. However, I am into advertising. I am producing a new show that should be on network. I am laying the sound track now. I have tried to get sponsors. I am very positive. Very soon, you would see me on air for 52 weeks.

Other sites The Nigerian Voice