Justus Esiri: Sudden departure of a Nollywood patriarch
WE hadn’t seen for years. But news of Mr Justus Esiri recuperating in a London hospital troubled me to no end. For, we had a relationship – Justus Esiri, Gaby Okoye (Gabosky), Charles Igwe, Amaka Igwe, Mahmood Ali-Balogun and my humble self – all of them movie makers, with me working from the outside as a journalist.
The tiny group, very informal in nature, had one major goal: to make the country’s movie industry, later christened Nollywood to our protestation, self-sufficient and be able to pay practitioners like the real stars they are. With all the glamour, we knew Nollywood was hollow inside and we expended time trying to add some depth to the industry by giving it a character and direction that could attract the global community. We had to protect the industry from being perishable!
There was no gainsaying the fact that the industry could be bankable on the long run. After all Kenneth Nnebue had shown the way with Living in Bondage. And you couldn’t attend film and television programmes market across the world, attend various trade shows and wind up at the NAB in Las Vegas without knowing that there was big money to be made from the movie industry. The challenge, however, was that the industry was too informal and the practitioners were not tempered enough to look at the real business in this unfolding entertainment genre.
But Esiri was there trying to introduce some seriousness into the business. Among us we hosted some meetings in turn and those meetings were like little parties, some kind of fun amid fashioning out very serious business that would later become one of the country’s biggest exports. Sometimes pioneers can be like little paper towels that mean very little in the course of a great meal.
People knew Esiri for his role in The Village Headmaster and several other roles in the movies and may not be conversant with this small story as a real patriarch of the movie industry. He was one of the few elderly ones who absorbed needles insults for Nollywood to stand.
Back to the tiny group working for the growth of Nollywood; little strands of progress soon began to create little waves of confusion. Members of the group who had made very difficult financial sacrifices and expended unrewarded time were beginning to look at the end and not the journey to the end. Naturally distrust crept in like the biblical thief of the night and attacked the seams of a relationship like the bunch of broom sticks that together could not be broken.
I didn’t see Esiri for years. And Mahmood Ali-Balogun too. So when Mahmood told me he had lodged together with Esiri at the Hilton in Abuja, it was God provided opportunity to meet him and do some little flicks down memory lane.
There he was in his suite with the driver he had contracted to take him for two days while in the capital territory. The embrace was tight like that of the wrestlers in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I was overjoyed because of the strength I could feel through him after all I had read in the papers. He told me the story of his life, how a seeming innocuous health condition took him to the UK and how he had been told by one of the doctors that had he continued with a particular prescription drug could have harmed him irretrievably had he continued with it. The 30 minutes we spent together were nearly a good cover for all the years we had missed each other.
Esiri was a good man. He had enough dose of humour to douse any situation. He could get along with anybody no matter the age and material difference and would contribute his best with utmost humility.
He was a star but never carried the imprimatur on his forehead. He radiated light in the darkness that is the daily grind of the Nigerian life and spread joy to many homes across the country. His death on Wednesday has robbed the country of a great actor per excellence, a seasoned stardust in the real sense of it.
Yet all humans must subject themselves to the finality of death and the supremacy of the Almighty God, the father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As they put it in the movies: Roll Tape, Action and Cut. So, for Esiri, it is final curtain call, a glorious apotheosis to the realm of the celestial.
•Okoh Aihe writes from Abuja