by Adebayo Adegbite
In conversations about Nollywood, it’s important to always remember certain individuals who have shaped our perceptions and realities about the industry, whether in front of the camera or behind it. One of those belonging to this hallowed category is the late Bukky Ajayi, the outstanding performer and quintessential Nollywood mother, aunt and grandmother.
Born on the 2nd of February 1934 in Surulere, Lagos state, Nigeria, Bukky Ajayi’s formative years were at a time when the cinema was starting to develop as a regular feature of Lagos social life of the 1930s and 1940s. Cinemas like the Rex Cinemas, Royal Cinemas and Regal cinemas were springing up to cater to a newly emerging elite. Going to the cinema with her father during this period sparked young Bukky’s interest in cinema and theatre. For a while, the young girl even fancied herself a filmmaker. In one of her interviews, she talked about how one of her favourite memories of her childhood was drawing paper characters and creating movies out of them for her classmates to watch while charging them half a penny each for the privilege.
Shortly after Bukky Ajayi finished secondary school, she got a Federal Government scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, where she was until 1965. However, when she returned to Nigeria, the 31-year-old did not immediately turn to theatre or film. Instead she turned to television, starting as a presentation assistant at the Nigerian Television Authority in 1966 and presenting a bunch of programs for the station. It was not until the 1970s that she was finally able to get into acting with a role in the popular NTA television series “The Village Headmaster.” She would also go on to feature in Amaka Igwe’s “Checkmate” (1991-1994) as well as in films such as “Hostages” (1997), Tade Ogidan’s “Diamond Ring” (1998) Tunde Kelani’s Olumide Ojojolu’s epic “Oduduwa” (2000), Tunde Kelani’s “Thunderbolt” (2001) among many others. Her final film role as Mama Ayo in Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” (2013) was perhaps a fitting send-off to the illustrious career of a woman who was every bit a human in her prolonged mastery of the craft.
To understand just how much of an impact Bukky Ajayi had on modern Nollywood, one needs to remember that most of the actors as well as the movie producers and directors, who are regarded as household names in Nollywood today, were young men and women in their twenties and thirties at the time she came onto the scene. She was therefore one of the earliest actresses to embody the role of “Nollywood educated mother” and perhaps one of the people who set the standard of how that particular role should be played.
For many Nigerians who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s it is hard for them to imagine the character of “Nollywood mother”, “Nollywood Aunt” or (much later) “Nollywood grandma” without imagining Bukky Ajayi. For many actors, being typecast that way would have meant a short-lived career, but Bukky Ajayi had the acting range to keep reinventing the role. Fluent in both English and Yoruba, Bukky Ajayi’s slow, deliberate enunciation style, and her polished articulation, regardless of language or context, developed over years spent in the UK in television, made her a delight to watch. She was one of the very first actors to make the successful transition from English Nollywood to Yoruba Nollywood, and one of the very few who continued to juggle both industries until her passing. And even better, she is recognized as an icon in both, a rare feat for a Nigerian actor, and a testament to her mastery. Perhaps, because of her style of speaking, there remains this erroneous belief that she was only limited to playing serious uptight roles, but in the Babatunde Omidina comedy, “Ojabo ko fo (2003)”, Bukky Ajayi shows that she is capable of being as comedic and irreverent as the rest of them.
Bukky Ajayi’s influence also extended beyond the front of the camera. As an accomplished woman who was already in her fifties at the time Nollywood was a fledgling industry, she automatically became everyone’s mother on any set that she is on. She was the rallying point, the person that cast and crew members alike went for advice, guidance and encouragement, much like her character in the aforementioned Diamond Ring. When one also considers that at that period in Nollywood history, it was rare to see a female graduate, not to talk of one who had studied abroad, on movie sets, one would start to realize that Ajayi was way more than just an older head on set; she was a role model for many female actors, a symbol of excellence and achievement that they looked up to.
It would be a grave injustice to limit the late Bukky Ajayi’s influence to the industry. She shone farther and wider, polishing the industry in the process and correcting false conceptions that people had about working in the industry. The likes of Bukky Ajayi were the senior figures who brought credibility into the industry at a time when a lot of Nigerians considered acting to be the profession of school dropouts, truants, and drifters with no purpose in life. One can say without fear of contradiction that the professionalism and nous that high achievers like Bukky Ajayi brought into Nollywood set it on the path to become the multi-million-dollar industry that it has become today. Thus, in presenting her with Industry Merit Award at the African Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards in 2016, Nollywood was not just recognizing an actress who had paid her dues for the better part of fifty years, they were recognizing a woman who remains one of the giants on whose shoulders Nollywood stood to become what it is today.
Sadly, Bukky Ajayi passed away on July 6th 2016, a few months after her 82nd anniversary. Her passing was mourned by her fellow industry professionals, many of whom she mentored and mothered. Her indelible mark as one of the giants of Nollywood will never be forgotten