Nigerian Superstar Zainab Balogun gets candid about her upcoming release The Royal Hibiscus Hotel and tells us why Nollywood is the next big film fraternity.
It was at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival where I was first able to meet Nigerian actress and superstar Zainab Balogun. She attended the world premiere of The Wedding Party, a film she starred in and one which was featured alongside other Nollywood films – as TIFF shed a spotlight on Lagos, Nigeria for its festival season.
Zainab was striking. She was poised, well-spoken, her calm and elegant energy – intoxicating!
As usual, I stood by the red carpet to interview her and was blown away by the sheer excitement and passion she obsessed for her culture, world cinema, and her craft as an actress. But while Balogun may be a lesser known entity to us in North America, she is a well-established actress around the world.
Scouted by Premier Models Management in the UK where she was born and raised, Zainab transitioned into acting after a few years, featuring in TV programs like BBC One drama Material Girl and Channel 4’s The Charlatons before landing a small role in the Bollywood movie Cocktail. A chance to be on set with acclaimed director Christopher Nolan and appear in the highly successful film The Dark Knight Rises was a pivotal moment in Zainab’s foray into acting.
Zainab then worked in Nigeria, where in a few short years, she has racked up an impressive record with lead roles in acclaimed films, TV series, and web shows, along with production credits on successful shows.
In a nutshell, Balogun is a pretty big deal.
Fast forward to 2017, and I had the pleasure to rub shoulders with the Nigerian beauty once again. This time at TIFF 2017 for the premiere of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel, the ONLY Nigerian film to make it to the slate at this year’s festival.
Balogun plays the role of Ope, a struggling chef in London who dreams of opening her own Afro-fusion restaurant. Unsure of what to do next, she heads home to Lagos to reinvigorate the palates of the guests at her family’s hotel. Little does she know, her parents (played by Nollywood icons Jide Kosoko and Rachel Oniga) are planning on selling the establishment. The plot takes another tasty twist when the buyer turns out to be none other than the eye-catching Deji (former Mr. Nigeria himself Kenneth Okolie). Sound like a rom-com to you? It definitely is.
Sound like a rom-com to you? It definitely is.
While The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is an entertaining mix of romance, food, culture, and fun, what does Balogun think about attending the festival a second time, coming back with the sole Nigerian release? “I prepped so hard but you can never be prepared for the wave of the festival. I was anxious as to how our movie would be received but the moment the credits rolled and the audience cheered, I knew we had a winner!”
Those of us who swoon for a good love story have a lot to look forward to, especially as the film brings cuisine into the forefront of its storyline. In fact, while watching the film I could not help but salivate with the beautiful imagery of food on screen. The last time I felt this way was while watching The Lunchbox, and that too ironically at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Food is Ope’s passion and it’s the vehicle that drives the romance in the movie,” says Balogun. But given its unique backdrop and cultural landscape – what does it communicate about Nigerian culture at large given that most of the audience at TIFF, including myself, are non-Nigerian film lovers.
“The culture aspect is that added spice that allows the movie to win the audience. It’s also a great strategy for non-Nigerians who are curious about Nigeria to discover a bit about it, and for Nigerians, both home and abroad, to feel like they’re watching themselves or someone they know when they watch the movie,” says Balogun.
“We’re giving the global audience an alternative to the norm, which is why our movies keep popping up at film festivals. It’s surely just the beginning of a beautiful romance.” And at the core of The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is just that, romance.
But more than that, the film plays on themes that are not normally seen in Nigerian cinema. Risky decision? Yes, but definitely a smart one that will unite audiences together, and get more Nigerian films to the forefront of mainstream palettes and appetites. “We need to, as an industry, try new things and explore genres in different ways,” proclaims Balogun.
Having Nigeria take such prominence at the festival two years in a row really does shed light on world cinema, especially for those of us who live under the mammoth rocks of Hollywood and Bollywood cinema. The former rakes in about 2.5 billion viewers a year, and the latter enthralls a whopping 5 billion – that is 1 billion short of the entire world. But world cinemagoers will argue that Nollywood is a close third with its tight scripts, talent, and carefully crafted storylines. Ask Balogun and she beams with pride.
“Nollywood is one of the biggest film industries in the world. We have managed to build an industry from the heart of Africa, with tight resources and a structure that is unlike our more advanced counterparts, which has expanded across the globe. You can be in the Caribbean or London and find Nollywood lovers everywhere. I believe our unique stories, storytelling style and our ability to quickly churn out movies, especially in the early days, made the industry what it is today,” says Balogun.
“Being selected as a hidden gem and the only Nigerian movie at the festival speaks volumes to the excellence and infectious Nigerian film industry. We’ve created a movie that touches on universal feelings but from an African perspective.”