by Adebayo Adegbite
The king of comedy is gone, off to the shores of the unseen. It’s difficult to imagine a personality who has had more influence on the Yoruba movie industry zeitgeist than Baba Suwe and the man who played him for so many years- Babatunde Omidina.
Babatunde Omidina was born on 22 August 1958, in Inabere Street in Lagos Island, where he grew up, but hailed from Ikorodu local government area of Lagos State, Southwestern Nigeria. Omidina had his primary education at Jamaitul Islamia Primary School in Lagos and Children Boarding School, Osogbo, before going to Adekanbi Commercial High School in Mile 12, Lagos state and then, Ifeoluwa Grammar School in Osogbo, where he was awarded his West African School Certificate. He came into the limelight after he featured in a movie titled, Omolasan, but became a fixture in the industry for his role in Iru Esin, produced by Olaiya Igwe in 1997.
It is difficult to pin the origin of the character called Baba Suwe, but what is not in doubt is the force of nature the character eventually grew into. Much like Johannes Drunk and Johannes Sober in Peter Abraham’s “Mine Boy,” Baba Suwe was presented as the alter ego of Babatunde Omidina in a way that wasn’t necessarily novel, but was superior to anything that had and has been done.
Baba Suwe, as a character bestrode three generations of Nollywood. His entrance into the industry marked the movement of the Yoruba movie industry from the traditional epic and theatre tradition of Hubert Ogunde and the tradition Alade Aromire into a modern urban setting. He was the king of the small screen; an ultimate urban comedian constantly spewing pop culture references while being a lovable nuisance armed with a fitting zinger. Whether he was a busybody gateman butting into a matter that was not his business, or a random dirty man trying to hit on women younger than him, Baba Suwe was sure to ham it up. Chewing the scenery was what he did best and Babatunde Omidina, who himself was a big man often towering over his castmates, somehow found a way to make the Baba Suwe persona even larger.
There was no situation he couldn’t make jokes about and no other character that he couldn’t interact with, no matter how “on the ball” the character was. In terms of comic ability, the only other character that matches up to Baba Suwe was perhaps Baba Sala, an enigma who came before him. But Baba Suwe was different. He was an exponent of a different kind of comedy. While Baba Sala had been famous for his slapstick comedy (like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean), Baba Suwe was more. He married different comedy types with seamless skill. His mix of cringe, insult, and improvisational comedy was the first of the kind in the industry. He was the “merc with a mouth” before the merc with a mouth became a thing. Baba Suwe continually pushed the envelope on comedy, and for that alone, he deserves all the tribute and respect, even though he’s unlikely to get it, as most Yoruba stars never do.
Baba Suwe would ironically become pushed to the wayside by the evolution of the movie industry that he helped birth. Primarily a showman and entertainer, he struggled to transition to a movie industry that was turning into high society and taking itself too seriously by regarding itself as art instead of entertainment. Unlike his counterparts like Taiwo Hassan and Yinka Quadri, who moved from being leading men to fatherly figures and sustained their relevance, Baba Suwe struggled to mutate. He became a victim of his success; his greatest strength became his biggest weakness.
But it was not only in front of the camera that the man had begun to struggle. Allegations soon emerged that Omidina had been repeatedly physically abusive to his wife of 14 years and constant screen rival: Monsurat “Moladun Kenkelewu” Omidina. There are claims, believed by many, that her death in 2009 came as a result of an episode of domestic violence in which he beat her severely. In a society that had started to take the war against domestic violence a lot more seriously; and one where the lives of celebrities had become open books to the public, the movie industry’s most loveable scamp had become a public enemy number 1. The credibility he had built over decades had taken a huge hit, one that he would not recover from.
But the worst was still yet to come. In 2011, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency arrested Omidina on allegations of cocaine trafficking. It was a scandal that rocked the movie industry and it lasted for many months. The actor would later claim that the way he was maltreated in custody set up a chain reaction of illnesses that he never recovered from, until his passing this week. It turns out even the self-praise, “Utaka, Attacker, Thuraya,” one of his lines from “Eja Osan,” a popular Yoruba movie back then, did have his limits.
Babatunde Omidina was far from perfect and he had his struggles as a man and an actor, but that cannot and should not detract from the fact that he was a one-of-a-kind genius. The argument for how possible it is to different the artist from his personality is one for another day, but let’s keep the focus on Omidina’s craft. With a filmography rumoured to be in the region of 400 films, Omidina was an actor that loved his job. It wasn’t just about the paycheck but also the passion for entertaining and bringing joy to many. The hope is that his flaws do not cloud his feats and that his ethnicity do not rob him of a rightful place as one of the fathers of the Nigerian Film Industry.
So rest well, Babatunde Omidina, consummate entertainer, a large man who managed to create an even larger-than-life persona. Thanks for giving us Baba Suwe, the man who thrilled three generations of Yoruba movie watchers; a character that opened our eyes to what was possible while leaving us with tears in our eyes and rolling in helpless laughter. May the light guide you home, Utaka, Attacker, Thuraya, Alani D’ebe d’ebe, omo Iko Nigboro, Okanlomo, Oluaye Marose. It was fun while it lasted