Highly respected within and beyond the yoruba section of Nollywood, Ibrahim Chatta is a bundle of talents who has been around for a while. In this interview with Adeda yo Odulaja, he dwells on how he became an actor, future goals and plans to retire from acting upon turning 50.
Despite approaching the golden age, you boast of a very youthful look? Is there anything deliberate you have done for that like exercise?
I’ve never been to the gym all my life. I think the secret is God. It’s the gift of God. Another thing is that I’m always conscious about my health. I drink a lot of water, the first thing I do in the morning is ask for hot water and while still sitting on the bed with my feet on the floor, I have a drink of hot water before going to make my prayers. I’m not a fanatic, I’m a Muslim but I believe in the potency of ablution water. The Qur’an describes it as An-Nur ‘ala Nur (Light upon light), it brightens one’s face. Then water in itself performs lots of wonders in the body and I drink lots of water. Before my father died, he had my kind of physique but I still believe it’s a gift because my younger sister is not as slim.
How did the love for theatre begin for you?
I had the opportunity. I was born in a town called Bacita in Kwara State, that town has the biggest sugar manufacturing company in West Africa, government- owned. So, I had the opportunity to go to school with Indian kids, Hausa, Benue, mixed languages. This is why a lot of actors come to our town then, I had the opportunity to meet our veterans. I saw late Duro Ladipo on stage, I also saw Iya Mero Sabitiyu then but I was inspired by Muka’s father (Eyinwunmi Ray). When I saw him then, I wanted to be like him, I didn’t even know that one could earn money or that theatre had different departments, that you could be a director, make-up artiste, light man etc; I just wanted to act like him. So, each time I watched him on stage, we’d gather our wrappers to make curtains and redo the play. My love for the profession was since that tender age and I never deviated because I knew this is what I wanted to do, I never had any doubt. Now, I talk about my retirement and my people will say no you cannot retire at 50, you’re still very young but I’ve spent all my life acting.
How close were you to your father before he passed on?
Yes, we were very very close. Though he died when I was still very young, we got along so well. I was a difficult child growing up, he wanted me to go to school, study and become a man of substance but I didn’t because I fell in love with what I’m doing today early in life. I was in form 3 when I dropped out of school but now I’m doing some small studying by the side.
Having dropped out of school so early, how did you develop this impressive command of English?
I taught myself simple and correct English. If you take notice of me, you’ll realise that I pick my words carefully and consciously even when I speak Yoruba. Apart from when I read lines out of a book or script and render it like we do on the screen. Even when we have to improvise, I’d form my lines in my head before saying them. All of these are different from having a conversation like I’m doing with you now, then I’m always conscious of my words and tenses. And we mostly only think about speaking English wrongly, we don’t consider the wrong Yoruba we speak sometimes. It’s very possible to commit blunders in Yoruba or any other language so I pick my words calmly and carefully.
When you act in English movies, do you sometimes feel a bit inferior among other members of cast?
It’s not even about the language! It’s about the God-given talent in you. Let me cite the example of a director, a very prominent director in the world named John Woo. When he started, he wanted to be an actor but then in China, they were looking for actors that were sixfeet tall and above but he’s not that tall and he didn’t look that appealing on the screen but he was a very good actor. He would go for auditions and at a particular audition, the director said to him: “You’d be better behind the camera than in front of it” and he was unhappy, his heart was full of sadness when the man told him that. Little did he know that the director just carved a niche for him, something he’d live on for the rest of his life. Later, the director invited him to play a role but that was an indirect way of teaching him what he needed to do in his life.
John Woo directed a movie where two of his lead actors won Oscars. All of his movies are very powerful today. When he relocated from China to America, he couldn’t speak English, the only sentence he knew how to make was: “I just want to make good movie,” that was the only thing he knew how to say in English. But the talent God gave him, you can’t take that away from him. I don’t have to understand your language, as far as I can read and render whatever you want me to.
Naturally, I don’t feel inferior before anybody but if I see a professional that I like so much, my heart skips a beat. As an actor, if I want to act with you and I get nervous, I’ll capitalise on that nervousness and do my best. Of course I have younger actors that I hold in high regard, Gabriel Afolayan is one, Abdullateef Adedimeji is another person, Bukunmi Oluwashina, they are young ones that I know will go places in future.
Since you have such understanding and are faring well, what prompted your going back to school?
Because it’s the most important thing in life after knowing God. In fact, you can’t know God without education. So education is the most important thing in life. I taught myself a lot of things; I’m a collector of books and I read very widely. When I was young, I cultivated the habit of reading.
If I bought puff puff on the roadside, I’d read the paper it was wrapped with. I read a lot, I’ve learnt that the major lessons in the world are written in books so I love reading. If anyone comes to me today that he or she wants to start acting, I’d ask him how much he has studied and what school he or she is attending. It will get to a point in life when there will be no opportunity for the uneducated, so education is paramount. Education and knowledge are two different terms, an educated person may still lack knowledge.
When you act scenes that you need to cry in, what do you think about?
I don’t think about anything, I just follow the scripts. That’s what I say to the younger ones, some will be asked to think about the day they lost their virginity, when their fathers died, no! In movies, we cry for different reasons. For example, if the story goes that I am impoverished all my life and I win a prize of two hundred million dollars and the script says I should shed tears of joy, tears of joy and that of grief come differently so we need to follow the script. If I lose a child in a movie and I become childless, that is grief.
If I need to shed tears of joy and I start to think about days of grief, it won’t come out well, the audience won’t feel it; it has to come from the inside to connect with your audience. The first thing to do is believe that thing you’re playing, you have to believe it.
For example, you shoot me in a film, I feel pain even though we use toy guns, if you poison me, I’d feel pain, that is believing in the role you’re playing. That way, the flow will come naturally. This is me in front of you now, the ones you see in movies are not me, those are the characters I was asked to play.
Once I’m in front of the camera, I’m no longer the same person, whoever you see is the character, sometimes beating a lady, crying over a lady, jilting or being jilted, that’s not me, that’s the character I’m playing. So, if I meet an actor on set from the English sector, it doesn’t mean anything, we’re all humans. It doesn’t change anything and doesn’t make me a stupid person. How serious are you with the plan to retire in two years? Yes, I’m serious. Very, very serious.
Do you think you’ve achieved enough and are fulfilled as an actor to retire as such?
I will not be quitting movie making. I’ll still be grooming the younger generation and be making films. One thing you can’t do alongside another is acting. You can be a producer and still do other things. There are a couple of things that I still wish to do, like going to film school, though I did some crash courses on film but I want to go into the school itself and study, somewhere like New York Film Academy or MET (Film School) in Germany or going for music lessons or classes; I also wish to go to the gym, at least once in my lifetime.
I saw a man on CNN, a 95-year-old Chinese, the man has biceps and six packs! The man is a model. There are opportunities for you when you have a good figure. There are are things I wish to do that acting won’t allow me time for, acting won’t even let you have a social life when you’re too much into it.
So, I’m really considering it even though some people are saying I should be a little older. I’ll still be a filmmaker and there’s this professional acting school I want to invest in. A lot of people call me, “I want to be an actor”, what kind of actor do you want to be? You know, stardom is very different from professionalism.
A stupid idiot can become a star if God wants it to be so. When I told my colleague, Muyiwa Ademola and Odunlade Adekola, Odun said: “Egbon, God will judge you, have you seen anyone with your kind of gifts?” It’s not possible for a person to have my gifts but I can imbibe my culture into other people to learn my ways.
How do you cope with generally unfavourable stories in the media about you, some of which you have spoken about?
I feel very bad. It made me cry a lot of times until I told myself to leave everything to God. People say God’s judgment is delayed but I’ll still wait on the judgment of God. I work every day and I hope to get better in what I do. Everything I’ve done in my life is for acting, keeping beards, shaving my head, I did everything for acting. Naturally, as a Muslim, what I really want to do his to practice the Sunnah but for the job I do. The person people see on the screen is different from who I am.
I always look forward to my birthdays to read what my colleagues write about me and the young actors; those are the people that know who I really am. I’m not trying to praise myself but they look up to me. I don’t drink or socialise that much, I was at a location on my last birthday, I took time out in the midnight to pray and thank God for another year.
By the time I woke up in the morning a lot of people had called me and left me text messages, Oga Bello, Yinka Quadri and a host of others. I was reading their messages and I was crying. I love my colleagues a lot but there are some that I wish I was their real fathers, like Femi Adebayo and Abdullateef Adedimeji, you know they are both Abdullateef, I love them. People wrote a lot of wonderful things on my birthday on Instagram, as texts, these messages are usually very overwhelming and awesome.
The people that wrote negative things, don’t they see these things? If I’m such a bad person, it’s not possible for all of my colleagues to love me and write good things about me. Sometimes, I feel like the things they call me are beyond me because I feel I’m not that good. When I turned down City People’s award, I turned it down because it wasn’t credible.
They nominate people for awards without inviting you and someone will just tell you later that there was an award ceremony and your name is there, why would my name be there? Some people said it’s because Lateef is in the same category, no! It’s possible to have Oga Bello, Yinka Quadri, Muyiwa Adekola, Lateef Adedimeji, myself and Niyi Johnson in the same category and have Lateef win. Getting the award doesn’t show superiority, it’s possible that the act in a particular movie is just on point. There’s no boss in the movie industry, it’s just like language, it widens by the day.
You just have to continue practicing everyday of your life. So when I read the things people write about me, it saddens me. There was a time Ijebu won a City People award and I felt he deserved it then I was told that I was nominated in the same category. I felt they didn’t know what they were doing? I’m a straight actor, Ijebu is a comedian, how can we be in the same category when there is Sanyeri? Another thing is, why don’t they use professionals as judges?
There are professionals that will judge without charging them. Call people like Tunde Kelani of Mainframe, Tade Ogidan and Jimi Odumosu, if people like that tell me that I’ve not done well, I’ll accept their judgment as professionals in the job. But someone that writes or blogs in the corner of his room can’t just come out and judge my acting. What do such people know about acting? I can tell you how many veins will pop up on your head when you’re crying, I can tell you how many will appear when you’re laughing.
It’s something I’ve done all my life and I’m almost 50 now. I’ve experimented a lot of things for acting, I’m not an Ifa priest but I’ve learnt the Oju Odu merindinlogun. I’ve learnt the Qur’an and studied the Bible. I studied all for acting, I didn’t go to school but I made sure my pronunciation and diction comes out well, all for acting.
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