He may not know it, but Kunle Afolayan has been in need of artistic redemption since he followed up the disappointing clutter of his last truly ambitious film The CEO, with a trio of smaller imagined efforts for cable tv behemoth, Africa Magic. After a spell working as a director for hire, Afolayan attempts a return to his cinematic voice with the moderately scaled Mokalik.
Hearkening back to his roots in Yoruba language cinema- Afolayan’s father, the late Ade Love is an icon of the sub-genre plus earlier Afolayan efforts like Irapada were in the language- Afolayan takes a look at a subculture that isn’t always represented on film. Mokalik (which comes from a corruption of the word, mechanic) is a mildly interesting but far from holistic look at the artisans with whom we spend a chunk of our Saturdays. In Afolayan’s adaptation, a young chap, Ponmile (Tooni Afolayan) who shows an early fascination for machines, is encouraged by his father (Femi Adebayo) to spend a day in the mechanic workshop to get a front row seat to the action.
The older man has his own motivations for taking Ponmile on this journey as is revealed later on and the tidy, convenient ending which Tunde Babalola’s screenplay arrives at is emblematic of Afolayan’s mid-career lethargy. Mokalik is neither dull nor exciting, instead it exists in a middle plane that merely ticks the box until Afolayan is ready to do ambitious film making again as opposed to this, no doubt, profitable content curating phase of his career.
And that is what Mokalik feels like for most of its running time despite some solid behind the scenes work from regular Afolayan collaborators, Pat Nebo and Adekunle ‘Nodash’ Adejuyigbe in art direction and cinematography departments respectively. Like the barely there story, Mokalik is merely an excuse to do the kind of moralizing cum social advocacy work that non-profits, slush with donor funding, would usually commission. Stay in school kids, get a degree. Or pick up a skill if so inclined, but stay in school long enough, just in case.
None of this is wrong of course and if the man once dubbed as “a Scorsese in Lagos” by the New York Times wants to spend the present iteration of his career going all Jimi Solanke, then he is well within his rights. Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón went from the epic virtuosity of Gravity to the intimate sweep of Roma but the switch in gears was no excuse to skimp on storytelling or technical brilliance.
The problem with Afolayan is that while he tries harder than most, he still has little or no eye for the detailed processing that comes with polishing a story to its sharpest form. Afolayan has always been more of a showrunner with proficiency in assembling brilliant teams than a director in tune with a vision. The ambitious size of his productions make it easy for these flaws to be overlooked but working at scale like he does on Mokalik only makes it pretty obvious that there has always been a skills gap that no amount of lavish production design can cover up.
It could be argued that the mechanic workshop is a microcosm of the Nigerian society and it is no wonder that Afolayan finds it a fertile ground for the blossoming of several stories. Mokalik presents the workshop as a functional organization run by various heads of departments with different skill sets and Ponmile’s rotations while serving his one- day internship is the lead in to meeting these characters and their stories. Damilola Ogunsi (The Tribunal) who plays Obama, a deportee from the United States, Kamoru (Hamzat Sheriffdeen), Ponmile’s principal minder and chairman (Ayo Ogunshina) are some of the more interesting characters.
Mokalik shows only the faintest of genuine interest in their stories considering there is a considerable number of people but these arcs are infinitely more interesting than that of the lead Ponmile who is merely a stand in for the audience, and window into this interesting world.
Afolayan continues with a tradition of working with child actors related to him and if he has done any work on Tooni Afolayan, it doesn’t show up on screen as the boy functions essentially as a human sponge with little personality or acting ability.
The opening sequence of Mokalik is quite promising, featuring music supplied by Kentoxygen Egunjobi and the decision to use Yoruba language for the film’s entirety gives it a gravitas and sense of place that would be missing otherwise. With an eye on box office takings, Afolayan finds room in his cast to accommodate internet sensation Charles Okocha, reality tv star Tobi Bakre and pop singer, Simi.
Mokalik isn’t quite a return to form for the man who sent thousands of hearts pounding ten years ago with The Figurine (Araromire) but perhaps it is a minor course correction. He’s done worse. He’s also done much better.