In 1992, Kenneth Nnebue’s NEK Video Links released the English-subtitled Igbo movie, “Living in Bondage”, setting the stage for a movie industry even he could not have imagined at the time. Living in Bondage was quickly followed by a slew of English-subtitled Igbo movies, including Evil Passion, Circle of Doom, Taboo, Nneka the Pretty Serpent, and Deadly Affair.
And then, in a move that would change the Nigerian movie industry forever, Kenneth Nnebue, ever the trailblazer, released Glamour Girls, Nigeria’s first non-Igbo blockbuster, flinging the doors wide open to welcome new non-Igbo talent. Nollywood was officially born, and never lost momentum after that, with gifted and prolific filmmakers like Opa Williams, Zeb Ejiro, Chico Ejiro and Ruke Amata making their mark in the industry.
As Nigeria celebrates Nollywood at 20, we take a look at some of the actors who were there in the early days, and are still acting today.
Nollywood’s first actor in a leading role needs no introduction. Many will remember his Living in Bondage character, Andy Okeke, who offered his wife to be sacrificed in exchange for the wealth which had long eluded him, and suffered for it. He went on to star in several movies including the highly successful Osu caste system movie, Taboo, and is still a very active player in Nollywood today.
Living in Bondage’s Chief Omego, the cultist with three wives, was the member of Andy’s cult who encouraged him to sacrifice his wife; after all, he had sacrificed his own mother for wealth. Anayo Modestus Onyekwere, popularly known as Kanayo O. Kanayo (KOK), gave life to this character, continued to play diverse and compelling roles over the next two decades and is still a force to reckon with. In 2006 he won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Looking back to the Living in Bondage scene where the cult members took turns encouraging Andy Okeke to bring in his wife for sacrifice, we see Bob-Manuel Udokwu’s character, Mike, arms crossed over his chest, telling Andy of the best friend he sacrificed to gain riches. Bob-Manuel later went on to play several leading roles, and is still a favourite in Nollywood today, making him one of Nollywood’s actors with the longest careers.
Nollywood enthusiasts who saw Living in Bondage will remember how reluctant Andy Okeke had been to sacrifice his beloved wife Merit, and how, in a move that almost cost him his life, he picked up a prostitute and tried to pass her off as his wife. The prostitute, Tina, played by Rita Nzelu, messed things up for him by screaming “Jesus! I’m covered with the Blood of Jesus!” Of course this upset the entire ceremony (in typical Nollywood fashion), leading the high priest to probe further and discover that she wasn’t even his wife. Rita Nzelu has remained a strong supporting actress working beside many notable actors.
5. Ngozi Nwosu
Andy Okeke eventually sacrificed his wife and became wealthy, never mind that he was practically Living in Bondage with his wife’s ghost tormenting him at every turn. Naturally, women began to fight over him and he even had to remarry more than once. He married the gold-digging Ego, played by Ngozi Nwosu, who was even more devious in the subsequent Evil Passion where she played the role of the home-breaker, Ijeoma aka “Ije Kpoms”. Today she is an acclaimed actress with countless English and Yoruba movies under her belt, and she never fails to deliver a convincing performance.
In a brief triumph of evil over good, Evil Passion’s “Ije Kpoms” succeeded in breaking Jerry and Linda’s marriage and moving into their home. While Linda was temporarily out of her home, a potbellied moneybag tried to lure her into an affair with him. He didn’t succeed, but Amaechi Muonagor who played his character certainly did. He has starred in countless movies since then and is undoubtedly one of Nollywood’s most recognisable faces today, even among those who do not know his name.
After Living in Bondage, Kenneth Nnebue produced Taboo and Chinyere Wilfred played the third wife of the Igwe, who had been rendered impotent by his second wife and therefore always had to attend one governor’s meeting or the other instead of tending to the needs of his latest wife. Since then, Chinyere Wilfred has come a long way from wailing in Igbo, “Governor’s meeting, governor’s meeting!” and has been working steadily, playing varied roles.
How will the villagers know the secrets of the high and mighty if the village drunk (never mind how he finds out) doesn’t reveal them? Long before comedian Klint Da Drunk came on the scene and filled this role perfectly, Nkem Owoh was the quintessential village drunk, delivering a solid performance in Taboo. He would later go on to star in Ukwa, and then Osuofia in London, two movies out of his hundreds, which brought him fame across the continent. In 2008 he won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Actor in a leading role.
Back when Nollywood movies were still Igbo movies subtitled in English, producers needed a sensual young man to play Ikechukwu, the love interest of the cougar “Mama Isabella” in Deadly Affair. Emeka Ike got the role, and has not looked back since then. One of Nollywood’s most adored leading men, he starred beside every leading lady at the peak of his career, including Omotola Jalade, Rita Dominic, Chioma Chukwuka and of course, Genevieve Nnaji, with whom he acted in nearly a dozen movies.
10. Ngozi Ezeonu
Back then she was Ngozi Ikpelue, and her character Thelma notably quipped, “I’m a working class lady; if you depend on what they pay, you dry up in Lagos!” Yes, you read that right; before the delectable Ngozi Ezeonu became the distinguished older man’s wife and the powerful Igwe’s lolo, she was one of the Glamour Girls. She is growing older ever so gracefully, and can be found in every other movie playing someone’s devoted mother.
We celebrate Nollywood at 20, and look forward to greater heights!