In concluding my 2016 review of Kunle Afolayan’s The CEO, I wrote that “Kunle Afolayan has delivered another major movie in The CEO but deep within the core of his continuing success as a Nigerian filmmaker lies a critical challenge because his next movie must pack a punch and distance itself from what is beginning to appear like a template.”
And by template I was referring to a strain that ran through three of his most successful movies – The Figurine, October 1 and The CEO. “The three movies are defined by a quest, a seeking-after something and there is always a culprit or killer hiding in plain sight. Kunle Afolayan also manages to throw in a dash of the supernatural, which begins, usually, almost as a practical joke but with deadly consequences; the figurine that keeps appearing, the X carved into the chest of the female victims in October 1 and the game of musical chairs which sees losers losing their lives in The CEO.”
Mokalik, his new movie bucks that trend and repudiates that strain even if not entirely. In Mokalik, Mr. Afolayan tells a simple a-day-in-the-life story deployed without artifice. But it is not only thematic divergence, there is also a technical one as the movie was shot with one camera in a ground breaking collaboration between Kunle Afolayan and Canon using the Canon EOS C300 Mark II camera with its stunning 4K quality.
The premise is simple, a young boy, Ponmile, from a middle class family is brought to a mechanic workshop to intern as a mechanic because as he says “I am not doing well in school.” His father, Ogidan hands him over to the chairman of the commune who then parcels him off to mechanics with expertise in different fields – engine, electrical/rewire, panel beating etc. The movie chronicles the full day he spends at the collective as a rite of passage. In showing us Ponmile’s day, Kunle Afolanya employs the journey motif trope in showing emotional growth.
For anyone who has visited one, a typical mechanic compound is a place of spectacle with human drama writ large. Afolayan and frequent collaborator, Tunde Babalola who expanded the initial idea into a screenplay, capture that drama which springs from human interaction at a visceral level with remarkable aplomb.
The film is gritty, earthy and eloquent in the language of the streets. There is neither finesse nor subtlety in the human interactions. Life is bare and unadorned but deep at the core of that earthiness are life lessons and nuggets of truth.
Kamoru is charged with taking Ponmile to his first duty post. Ponmile is curious because arriving in his father’s car he had seen Kamoru and Erukutu on the verge of fisticuffs as they hurled verbal missiles at each other. Kamoru is not educated but he would have been super if his street smarts had been refined by education. Imbued with a keenly observant mind, he gives his young charge a quick tutorial on flight patterns, telling him which plane would fly past at what time and in what formation.
Ponmile is amazed to find that Kamoru is right and when he tells others that Kamoru had memorized the flight patterns all of them pass the same comment – “Kamoru has too much time on his hands.”
Kamoru’s aviation fixation works on three levels. It speaks to his character; it provides us with quick laughs but most importantly in keeping with Afolayan’s amazingly organic plot and storyline, helps us track the passage of time.
Told over one day, the movie uses the arrival of different flights to tell the time and the moment we see KLM, we know, as Kamoru said, that the work day has come to an end.
In watching Mokalik, the word organic keeps coming to mind. The plot is seamless and the story it tells is not contrived which makes it seem as if the film is a documentary, tracing the doings of a rag-tag army of mechanics who spend so much time eating and shooting the breeze that one wonders when they find time to do any work.
Characterisation is critical for explicating a good story. Kunle Afolayan get its right from Kamoru to Erukutu, Chairman to NEPA, Ajentina to Tiri, and Otunba to Obama. The characters who do not rise to the occasion are Simi and Ponmile. Simi was clearly cast because she is a singer and her character has musical aspirations while Ponmile does not fully shed his “ajebo” bonafides to fully integrate despite eating amala with his fingers no less.
Ajentina tells Ponmile that a car engine is like the human body and that description is analogous to what a good film is; the parts must cohere because a film is as good as the sum of its disparate parts.
In Greek drama, there was always a Chorus and their remit was to comment on the play, to fill the pieces by providing back stories ooff stage events. In Mokalik, Ponmile functions as a sort of reverse chorus. In moving from place to place, he teases out stories, helping us gain a handle on back stories and even motive.
Tiri is the dunderhead, the kind of apprentice who will, like Chekov’s Trofimov, remain an eternal student but Obama is the standout character. He has all the best lines and half way through the movie the audience was fully cued in to his verbal tics – “Ignorant mehn, you are illiterate mehn.” When Ponmile asks why he is called Obama, he is told that Obama went to America while Obama was president and was deported when Trump came into power.
Mokalik is funny and not in a forced Nollywood slap-stick manner. The directorial control is evident and the only time, a character almost goes out of line is when Ponmile’s mum’s friend discovers him tinkering with a spare part and goes on a rant.
Charles Okocha’s cameo is what it is even though it would have worked better if he had spoken English instead of pidgin but his trademark dance brought on the laughs.
What is my beef with Ponmile? He comes in not smiling or engaged but comes alive when he hears and then sees Simi (Her character is also called Simi). He sticks to her like a puppy and peppers her with questions that leave no doubt about his infatuation. At one point, Simi looks at him and says –“Why are you asking, are we dating?” to which the 12 year old boy replies – “Not yet.”
The understated sexual dynamic and loaded banter between Simi and Ponmile mimic the attraction between Ms Fitzpaatrick, Jennifer Garner’s character in Garry Marshall’s delightful “Valentine’s Day” and her young student. When the boy brings her a Valentine ’s Day gift, she tells him that the gift may be better suited to a friend nearer his age before proceeding to school him on how liking a friend can turn into loving a friend. The boy is not convinced telling her that he has always been attracted to older women.
In Mokalik, when Simi comments on his age, Ponmile says “I am almost 12” to which Simi replies in one of the best lines I have heard in a Nigerian movie – “And I am almost in trouble with my mother.”
Yes, he joins in the dance at the end and even asks permission to “slide into Simi’s DM” but he never fully gets with the programme and so doesn’t fully show the full arc of the journey motif.
At the end, Ponmile meets with Chairman in a climactic scenes which shows that habits die hard. Kunle Afolayan returns to his old ways. There was a secret hiding all the while in plain sight and the mystery is resolved at the very end making nonsense of Kamoru’s tall tale about someone dropping half engine on people’s heads.
Finally, Kunle Afolayan’s Yoruba language movie, the second after Irapada, is a robust meditation on life and an excursion into primal storytelling. His deft handling and organic story telling is a delight but he will do well to work on the sub-titles before it goes to the cinema.