Is love really enough?
Unwrapping the truth in, Òlekù, a classic 1977 Nigerian romance saga unleashes a new sight on love particularly within Yoruba culture. ‘O-le-ku’ translates as unbreakable or indestructible in Yoruba, and the film expresses the strength of deception, family values, impatience and love through rich traditional landscapes and poetic dialogue. Director Tunde Kelani is like Shakespeare, but instead of hearing words, we see and feel them on the screen instead. The real wordsmith however, is Prof. Akinwunmi Ishola whose novel of the same name was adapted to make this film. Revisiting Òlekù stirs up a new curiosity: is this film a cinematic poem where true love conquers all?
This story’s pulse points heats up the discovery of fresh love, until it festers into something different, complex and bittersweet. Our main character Ajani (played by veteran actor Yomi Shodimu) is courting his first love, and yet he is playing the field – a necessary evil that may paint him as a dishonest man or lost soul. What is certain is that he is a suave romantic, in search of something or someone special. His first love, Asake, will happily go on dates with him but will not give into his carnal advances even though they have talked about marriage. His second prospect is a university student, Lola, who’s beauty crowns her as the starlet on campus. We walk with Ajani from lecture to lecture, lunch with friends, visits to his worried mother, then back to his university accommodation. Although a busy man, his wandering eyes soon scramble his romantic dilemmas and ironically his health. The creeping theme of deception where characters are flaunting their hearts whilst hiding behind the truth is misleading, creating a spirit of doom.
“The two faces of the talking drum bring out only one voice.”
Kelani’s stories buried in the culture of Nigeria proudly celebrate the Yoruba dialect with only a selection of his films subtitled in English. This is a powerful theme because Yoruba is such an intricate tongue with different meanings to a word, achieved by a simple accent or inflection. Subtitles alone may not grasp the purity of the language meaning that Tunde’s stories could have several interpretations depending on who is watching or listening. This poetic DNA is explored in a poem that is read 30 minutes into the film – when Ajani voices his affections for Asake as eternal, their bond unbreakable (Òlekù) like a bird attached to its beak. He symbolises their love as a drum with two faces yet still one object. This could have several meanings: the hide of the drums may come from the same cow hence their fated union, however this could also suggest misunderstandings causing an ill-fated union.
Shot on location at the university of Ibadan, the film’s traditional presence stands out due to the natural shrubbery of Ibadan, presenting a calm botanical garden feel to this chaotic story. Rich contrasts and a faded green canvas brush the shots by day showcasing Kelani’s focus on natural lighting to convey a singular mood. Similarly, the night scenes or single shot monologues where Ajani reads out his poetry in near darkness, provide clarity of his hope, the only natural light source coming from a candle or lantern. For a moment we only hear the Yoruba he speaks—until we see and wear his thoughts, a beautiful way to convey language and emotion visually.
The universal affection of a strict father protecting his daughter, jeopardises Asake’s romantic pursuit, twisting our couples fate into limbo. Is love fuelled solely by romance, companionship, or destiny? One of these missing links could explain why their relationship ran its course. Yet time is the true healer that reveals all, and although Ajani’s quest for love reaches hopelessness, a third young woman named Shade soon gravitates into the frame, shading in a gloomy picture with lightness and verve. Shade, coy and beautiful, is enthralled by Ajani’s generosity and enlists his help for her English language classes. It is Shade’s innocent and tender tactics that helps spin a friendship with Ajani and eventually something more. This further clarifies how true love isn’t solely stemmed in passion but instead a gradual building of intimacy, friendship, trust and companionship.
The films moral resolution finally ties into destiny and how love births itself without any controlling emotions or desires. I left the story pained after an emotional wheelbarrow of drama, not unrealistic in the slightest, because real scenarios regarding love, family, and relationships were explored. Although slightly dated are the cultural notions of dating and marriage, the message remains stubborn: our choice to love is often interwoven with everyone and everything around us. Life can be devilishly poetic too. And when Ajani makes his final choice, it’s not exactly of his own conscious volition, further reiterating that love finds us and not vice versa. So maybe love does conquer all, but in the process, we may suffer a bruise or two.