Happiness is Sometimes a Mad Dream.

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The loss of a parent is a common enough thing, but the loss of a child is an unimaginable grief. In Roti, Kunle Afolayan explores this trauma, against a backdrop of traditional religious belief. By casting his own son as Roti (around whom the entire story is centred), Afolayan intentionally – or perhaps not – adds an element of the personal, that takes this film beyond the realm of ‘good’ to ‘worthy of reflection’.

Kate Henshaw is cast as Diane – Roti’s mother, and has delivered an excellent, sometimes overbearing performance in this film. She is married to Kabir Shittu, played by Afolayan himself. After years of trying and failing, the couple eventually have Roti, who develops heart problems and dies at just five years old. Diane later meets and develops an unhealthy relationship with Juwon; who bears an uncanny resemblance to her deceased son.

Kunle Afolayan possesses the rare combination of vision, intelligence and ambition that eludes the Nigerian film industry. The industry has been plagued by many a film riddled with poor graphics and visuals, yet, Afolayan has shown little fear in embracing the more spiritual, sometimes diabolical elements of traditional Nigerian culture; despite the technical restraints that surely test the limits of such an endeavour.

Unnecessary plotlines and characters are stripped of mention in this film. For example, we have no idea whether Diane is truly religious, whether her parents lived or what societal expectations of a childless woman are. This is a story of her grief alone and it is a terrible thing to behold. Kabir’s poetic narration throughout the film helped focus the plot and distract from superfluous details. Despite this, the opening scenes were a let-down. The glaring absence of medical equipment when Roti begins flatlining on the EKG felt unrealistic and disappointing. It felt like there were no attempts made to revive him. I later wondered if this was a nod to the under-equipped and shambolic state of many a Nigerian hospital? If you listen hard, at this point, you can hear singing in the background echoing the pain of the now child-less couple. “…Oluroti … why wasn’t our love enough to make you stay…” This is perhaps Henshaw’s shining moment, because her pain here is palpable – tangible even, in the midst of such immediate and terrible pain. You are left helpless to the Shittus’ plight – watching, as can only be done in these situations,- until the scene passes.

One gets the distinct impression that that Afolayan is less interested in portraying false narratives than he is about telling a story. The Shittus are evidently a middle-class Nigerian family. Their home – small but sufficient, with its dilapidated walls, is well lived in, yet lacking that air of impoverishment. For all Afolayan’s good intentions however, I am struck by the fact that the Shittus are in the wrong decade. Middle class families of the sort Afolayan tries to portray here, may have been reflective of simpler times -the 1980s and 90s or perhaps very early 2000’s, but it seems disingenuous to portray them as middle-class families today. Nevertheless, we can respect the effort.

It is interesting that religion in itself, is a relatively unexplored theme in this film. Save for the fact that we are introduced to reincarnation through Kabir’s mother, who we are told is a Yoruba muslim, the other characters don’t seem very religious at all. The concept of reincarnation is not specific to Yoruba traditional belief, however. The Igbo people refer to it as ‘Ilo Uwa’ (also Ilouwa or Inouwa). [Note that reincarnation should be distinguished from what the Yoruba and Igbo speaking people refer to as ‘Abiku’ and ‘Ogbanje’ (children who come and go)].
The belief in reincarnation was partly an offshoot of answers purporting to explain ‘
what happens after life?’. It stemmed from the idea that people should be inspired to do well, in order to reap the fruits of their labour after their death. The flipside to this is that one who does evil, will come back to face punishment in whatever form, for their misdeeds. Now, neither in Igbo or Yoruba culture, have I come across a reincarnate born outside of its initial birth family. If anything, such a thing is suggestive of ‘doppelgängers’ – a concept more foreign to sub-Saharan Africa. Kabir’s mother reinforces my suspicion when she tells Diane that ‘we are all created in two identical beings’ – the very definition of a doppelgänger. It is, however, interesting to see Afolayan raising these questions and paying homage to uncertainty in a world inching closer to understanding previously esoteric phenomenon, with each decade of technological advancement.

Most importantly, Afolayan pushes back on the idea that marriage and children are an individual’s (read: a woman’s) greatest accomplishments.  He develops the idea that a childless marriage, by choice or circumstance, need not be a failed one. For this, I and many others with me, are grateful. The couple finds comfort in their love for each other; a comfort which over time, leads to a kind of contentment. As Kabir says: “Happiness is sometimes an unfinished picture; a song not perfectly melodious; a mad dream”. When Diane stumbles on Juwon, that dream ends, and we are faced with the tragedy of a mother’s heart breaking over again; the tendrils of false hope encroaching on a reality just being rebuilt. For his part, Kabir accommodates Diane’s departure from reality superbly. However, by this point, there is a growing sense of urgency that Diane needs help from one better suited to aid in untangling depression and the grips of a painful grieving process.  A particular scene, where Diane is unable to get Kabir’s mother’s words out of her head, is certainty of the unravelling state of her mental health.
Nigerians too often fail to ask difficult questions or tell the truth about grief, love or mental illness. We are still reluctant to evaluate our circumstances and the mistakes that we have made that have led us to where we are today. In essence, we cannot know who we are because we are reluctant to examine our identity. Ours pegs us as a people not very keen on tackling mental health. As a hyper-religious society, too many of our problems are relegated to that realm of things left for one god or the other to resolve. So, when Kabir’s friend suggests that Diane needs a psychiatrist, Kabir balks at the idea – incredulous, or else; in feigned denial of a truth he has already begun to seen. 

Afolayan ventures into psychological trauma with this film and he deserves credit for it. Yet, there was so much more that could’ve been done. The stigma surrounding mental health issues shrouds discourse that could otherwise prove helpful to many, and while there is some progression, it is painfully slow. We need Nigerians to understand that there is more to mental illnesses than ‘depression’ and we need people like Afolayan, to bring this to the fore of Nigerians’ consciousness; to de-stigmatise mental health issues and make them an appreciated part of our lived reality: – through art.

Despite the melancholic undertones in this film, I found humour in one scene. Diane goes to see a priest, who tells her that reincarnation is against his Christian belief. When she asks what evidence would change his mind, he wants her to explain why she has reincarnation on her mind and perhaps “… I might have something better to tell you”. Ironically, the entire exchange reminded me of fortune tellers and psychics, but this here was a crude cold-reading if I ever saw one.

Afolayan does a good job of capturing the build-up and eventual crash of Diane’s relationship with Juwon. We see the short-lived happiness of a person perfectly content existing outside of reality. It is quite easy to guess at what happens when any variable in that pseudo-reality changes – and it is a gripping thought for the viewer. The end comes in the form of Juwon’s apparently absentee father and when Diane falls back into misery at the loss of this new relationship, it is almost pathetic. Almost, because the audience is already primed to be sympathetic. Because the loss of a child is unbearable, and the lost hope of a replacement, is even more disturbing.

Sometimes, we forget when we grieve, that we aren’t the only ones affected by that loss. The trouble with grief is that it is so all-encompassing that we can’t help but become a sort of victim ourselves. We fall victim to our inability to look outside of ourselves, when others require – even deserve it of us. And when acute grief is revived and relived and becomes complicated; the trouble sometimes is, it can be a little too late to fix. The other thing about grief, coupled with mental instability is that rather than falling to pieces, the grieving party can become adept at hiding how broken they truly feel. Diane masterfully manipulates Kabir one day, and the following events are the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

In a haunting final scene, Diane, in a dream, finds herself drawn to sounds from the shed. She searches frantically for the source of the sounds. We don’t know if she finds it.
Diane awakens and then, the film ends.