Top Nigerian fashion icon and the Chief Executive Officer of Arabel, Alhaja Shareefah Abiola Andu, in this interview explains why she delved into movie production as she is set to release her debut movie ‘The Two Aishas’.
Arabel is known for fashion. Why did you delve into movie production starting with ‘the two Aishas’?
I find it very interesting when people describe Arabel as a fashion business. Arabel is much more than a fashion business because it sells everything from clothing to books, to decoration and lots more. Because people love fashion and we have been very active in that, they now think we are just into fashion but we are into other things. We are actually into publishing. We have a publishing house; we have published, ‘Living in the Light of Allah’, ‘For His Rahama’ and so on. So, it is an all-encompassing outfit.
Now, to your question, how did I delve into movie production? I see Arabel as a sunflower. A sunflower has a cup and it has some petals. So, the call for me is Islam and those petals could be anything that would just enhance Islam. If it is writing, it is okay for me. If it is fashion, publishing, selling, event planning or media. So, it has a lot of branches. It is just an extension of what we do.
For a long time, I have been into Arabel. It would be 25 years in November In Sha Allah. We are not in the media space as I would like us to be, especially in the movie industry. So, I thought it was high time we got into that space. A lot of times, people tell our stories for us. They tell us who we are but we know who we are and so we should start telling our stories and that is why I threw my hat into the ring.
Since I have a background in journalism (my first job was in Tribune) and along the line, I have done a lot of TV productions for Arabel, I have a TV license – Alif TV, I have some experience in TV production, then I just felt since they have Nollywood, Kannywood, Ghallywood in Ghana and Bollywood, why can’t we have Molliwood for the Muslims. And I thought let me just start something.
Is ‘the Two Aishas’ your first movie?
Yes, this is the first ever. You know production for TV is unlike a movie. This is the first movie. I always like to stretch the boundary. I know this is not my forte, it is not something for the faint-hearted. But I think if you have to do it, then you should do it. I think it is a passion to tell the Muslim stories. It is not just to tell the Muslim stories but to tell it the right way because a lot of times, I see people having a semblance of a Muslim movie or Muslim inclination in movies, like having a session where maybe somebody is praying and the person is wearing Hijab in a funny way. I didn’t want to do that. I believe it should be well depicted. I know I have the capacity, with my background and exposure to do that.
Why exactly do we need to tell the Muslim stories, especially when we have Muslims in the industry who sometimes represent the religion; so why do we need to have a faith-based Islamic movie?
Some time ago, I went to a film festival and one of the topics was faith-based movies. It was supposed to be a panel discussion but, on that panel, it was only a Christian representing the faith-based movie industry and I looked around and asked, ‘Where are the Muslims in this space’ and the person talked about it so well. He is somebody that I have always admired, Mike Bamiloye. I remember we watched his movies in the 80s, 90s, I was very impressed and said, ‘Okay we have to be in this space’. This was a national conference and they were saying faith-based, there should have been a Muslim also representing the Muslims in the industry. That just woke up something inside me and I said I had to do something.
I got a couple of people together and told them the idea that I have. I didn’t trust my own writing because I have never done a movie writing before but I know I have stories to tell. I told the lady what I wanted and so on and so forth. Then she came back with a story totally different from who we are. This is not what I want. I want glamour. She said, ‘Okay, we have to rewrite’. So, she started again and I had to collaborate with her before she understood what I wanted and where I was coming from. I wanted it to be so glamorous because I believe that is who we are.
So, it is not about somebody’s life or just a fiction?
It is 100 percent fiction. People who have seen a little bit of it asked if it was not a personal life story, I said, ‘No, it is not personal.’ It is just fiction well written. I tell people I am a day-dreamer. I just sit and I dream and fantasize. Maybe that also helped to make the movie as rich as it is.
After writing, I showed it to some people for their opinion and a lot of them chipped in something before it became what it is. It is actually a magnificent work.
What informed the choice of the lead characters – Rahama Sadau and Maryam Booth, being that they are also coming from one section of the industry, why not mix it up?
When I started, I wanted Muslims to act 100 percent wherever they are coming from, whether the North or South. I was asking people, who are the Muslims in this industry? I know a lot of them do Yoruba movies but this is not a Yoruba film. So, who are the Yoruba Muslims in the English part of Nollywood? I was looking for them, but I couldn’t find them, maybe because most of them don’t bear Sherifat, Abdulrasheed or Sulaiman. So I don’t know them and the few that I know, it was so difficult to get them.
So, my god-daughter, Dija, came to see me and suggested Maryam and Rahama, she spoke to them, I saw their works and they fit perfectly into the two roles. I spoke to them and they were so enthusiastic about it, they didn’t give me any issue. It now shows the beauty of diversity that it is not just a Southern Muslim thing or a Kannywood thing, so it is a mixture.
While we were looking for more men, we even got a non-Muslim to be part of the men because I couldn’t get a Muslim from the South. So, I said, ‘Anybody that would do this very well for me, it’s fine’. More so for the crew, that was also a bit difficult, I was looking for a Muslim director but I got a non-Muslim director from the East, and he was the one that was ready to work at that time. I was looking for that for almost four months, asking people, calling them, they were telling me they were very busy, they were going to call me back. And I am not asking them to do it free or pro-bono but they were not forthcoming. So, I just used what I got. I said this is a faith-based Islamic movie, are you ready for it, he said, it’s business if I can explain things to him, he would flow with it and he actually did.
We also got another producer who is not a Muslim. It was after I finished that I started seeing a lot of Muslims.
Give us a brief insight into the movie?
The two of them were friends from childhood, later got married and along the line, something caused them to have a rift. So, they became enemies and rivals, and that threatened their faith as Muslims but at the end of the day, they got back to the real essence of Islam. You would see forgiveness, empathy, understanding, love and tolerance. So, it is not just a ‘feel good’, it is actually a lesson-filled film because what is the point of going to the cinema and spending an hour and half just to laugh. It is good to laugh but then if you are laughing, you must still gain something out of it.
Allah has created us with limited time, even if you are spending 90 years, it is still limited and then you want to waste that time? I don’t want people to waste their time, I want them to enjoy themselves. I want them to watch something that would impact them. You would take something away even for the children. There are children in the film and it also teaches some basics of Islam.
Why did you choose Aisha and not another name?
While I was growing up, I loved reading comics and there was a comic that had four Marys. They were in a boarding school. So, about 11 years ago I wanted to go into comics, and I started writing. I wrote a few episodes and got a graphic artist to depict it and I said, ‘Okay, I can’t do four, I can just do Two Aishas.’ Since I couldn’t publish this, when the time for the movie came, I said why can’t I just do two Aishas. I spoke to people who advised that the comics are for children and it would not have longevity. Why not do something much more embracing and adult-like? It is just a creative thing and it sounds appealing and catchy.
Where can people go to watch the film?
The film will be in cinemas from April 24th and it will be there hopefully for 10 weeks and I implore people to go and watch it. If it is sustained, it would be for more than that period and it would not just be in Lagos, but all over the country. When I was doing it, I wanted it to be a family-based thing so it is not going to exclude anybody. Father and mother can go with their children to watch. It is a family thing because everybody would find something to learn.
Also, the timing is very great. Maybe it was for a purpose for it to be shown at the end of Ramadan. It is time to celebrate. After Ramadan, people were looking for something to do, they have done a lot of spiritual activities and they want to relax and enjoy themselves and in enjoying, we want them to enjoy in Halal way.
What is your projection in terms of acceptability?
I am very optimistic because I don’t think we have a movie like this. Maybe there have been but I have not heard about it. It is a movie that a lot of people would want to watch. The projection for me is actually very positive.
Having delved into this, what more should we expect?
A lot and doing it takes a lot of learning to see how the space works. There will be more productions, In Sha Allah.