At 19, Samuel Abiola Robinson is a long way from home. The young actor, who has been a part of major productions back in Nigeria, is in Kerala currently, eagerly awaiting the release of his first Indian film – Sudani from Nigeria.
But how did Samuel land this role? The star speaks to TNM about Sudani, his love for porotta and his parents who stood by his decision to quit his studies and become an actor.
On landing a role in a Malayalam film
Samuel has acted in two films before Sudani from Nigeria. He’s also featured in several TV shows, including Desperate Housewives Africa.
Ask him how he ended up in Malappuram all the way from Nigeria and you realise how much the Internet has shrunk the world.
"In my country, I've been in a few films and TV shows, so I'm popular there. The producers of this film had had an audition for people from Ghana, some other African countries and some black Americans but they hadn't found the person that they wanted. So the director Zakariya was just googling for African actors, and he found an article about me and saw my picture. From there, he found a way to contact me and that's how I got this film," he says.
When Samuel received an email from Zakariya, he wasn't sure if it was genuine.
"But when he mentioned the other people involved, such as Soubin Shahir and Shyju Khalid, I did my research and I found that they were real people. I got interested. They were willing to pay and cover all my expenses, so I knew they were genuine because they wouldn't do that otherwise," he says.
On preparing for his role
Though many Nigerians follow football closely, Samuel isn't a committed fan. In Sudani from Nigeria, he acts as a Nigerian soccer player who joins a football club in Malappuram, Kerala.
"I went through very intensive training to learn football for this film. Actually, it's not that I'm not a football fan… I'm not against football. Sometimes I watch a game and I really enjoy it but it's not something I do every day. I've only played football as a child in school but I haven't really played it like this, at a professional level. You have to do the training to get the attitude and real skills of a football player," he says.
The training happened in the Hilite Mall in Calicut and a ground in Malappuram where sevens football is played.
On falling in love with Kerala – people and porotta
Asked if it was difficult for him to adapt to a new culture and language, Samuel says, "Actually no. When I came here, I had mixed feelings. It was my first time abroad. I'd worked all over Nigeria but I'd never gone out of the country. It was my first international flight, so I had a lot of mixed feelings. I didn't know what to expect. But when I came here, people were so nice to me. Sometimes, yes, the language… it can be a bit difficult to communicate. But most people I met here actually speak English, so that hasn't really been any problem," he says.
Adding that he found the people of Kerala to be very "kind and loving", Samuel says he loves the state's culture.
"There was a time on the set when strangers near where we were shooting came and invited everyone to dinner at their house. And all of us, Soubin, I… we all went and ate there. I wasn't used to that. Everybody was just so kind," he says.
Hindi films and Bollywood stars are popular in Nigeria, says Samuel. He has watched films like The Lunchbox, Paa, Lagaan and some others, but he hadn't watched any Malayalam films before he got the opportunity to act in one.
Commenting on Malayalam cinema, Samuel says, "People pay a lot of attention to detail. I think most people here do the work not for the money but for appreciation for the art of filmmaking – and that's not very common in Nigeria. So it was very refreshing to experience that. Making films for the pleasure of filmmaking and not for profit."
In the promos of the film, one can see Samuel jumping into a pond with the Malayalis and pretty much immersing himself in the local culture.
Ask him if he enjoyed that and he says, "Every role has its challenges. In this particular role, the biggest challenge was learning football. Other than that, it was very easy for me to adapt to Kerala culture. I really enjoyed my time...I enjoyed swimming in that pond. I enjoyed filming. I even enjoyed trying to speak some Malayalam!"
That's not all, Samuel is also a fan of Kerala food, including the porotta.
"I enjoyed eating porotta, dosa, appam, and all the curries. Kerala culture is very vibrant and wonderful. I'm very happy. I feel privileged to have come here and experienced this culture. Not all people have such an opportunity," he says.
On working with Soubin Shahir
Soubin Shahir shot to fame with his role as the PT master in Premam. Since then, he has gone on to play more comic roles, act as the villain and even direct a film! Sudani from Nigeria will see him play a lead role for the first time.
Commenting on his experience of working with Soubin, Samuel says, "Working with Soubin was amazing. He's a phenomenal actor. And he's not just a funny guy. Soubin has quite a lot to offer as a dramatic actor as well. He can be very intense. It was very easy to work with him. He was very professional."
When the camera was not rolling, Soubin would prank him.
"Sometimes the days could be very long and everyone would be tired and stressed out. He always provided relief… he'd do something and everyone would burst out laughing," he recalls.
On confronting racism
Samuel is the first African actor to play the lead role in an Indian film. Indian cinema has for long portrayed dark skin and the black identity in a derogatory way. This is, of course, reflective of the kind of racist attitudes we see in society.
Asked if he encountered any such unpleasant experiences, Samuel pauses to think for a bit. Then he says:
"Well, racism is a problem all around the world. I'd say that for the most part of my stay in Kerala, I've had a very pleasant experience. I haven't experienced any sort of direct racism. I felt very comfortable here. Nobody has treated me badly… no direct discrimination anyway. There may have been some subtle things. But nothing directly, in my face, for the most part. I don't want to dwell on that. I've had a wonderful experience in Kerala."
Encouraged by his experience of working in the Malayalam industry, Samuel says he's looking forward to working in other films too.
"Yes, I'm very open to it. I'd like very much to work in the Tamil industry or Telugu… or even Hindi. I love Shah Rukh Khan. So far I've only met some producers and directors. It's mostly been talks, pretty much in the pre-production stage, so I can't really talk about them. The scripts are just being written now, nothing concrete yet," he says.
It's a lot for a 19-year-old to take but Samuel has his feet on the ground.
"I come from a family of three. My parents have been very supportive of my career. They provided everything I needed. They allow me to have my independence. I have my own apartment though they take care of me, of course. I'm very happy to be their son," he adds, with a laugh. "They were very proud of me when I got this project. I'm very grateful for all their love and support."
Even as the young man is excited about his acting career taking off, he adds that he will be going back to university to study further when he can afford to take a break.