When Samuel Abiola Robinson flew back home from Kerala on March 29, he knew that he would miss the state and the friends that he had made there. “I miss the trees and the food, especially porotta. And the beautiful ladies, kind people and the peaceful atmosphere,” he says.
The Nigerian actor had been in the state to work in the Malayalam film, Sudani from Nigeria, and he had had a wonderful time while doing so. When the movie, which released on March 23, became an instant hit with audience and critics alike, Robinson was overjoyed. “I have been overwhelmed with love ever since the release. Hundreds of people message me daily saying very good things about it and sending well wishes to me,” he says.
The one thing that left a bitter taste in his mouth was the conviction that the payment he received for his work, $1,800, was far less than he deserved for a film in which he played one of the two leads. In a statement that he posted on Facebook, the actor wrote, “I believe that I was a victim of racial discrimination while in Kerala. It was nothing violent or directly in my face but for my role in Sudani from Nigeria, the producers offered me far less money than Indian actors, who are not half as popular or accomplished as I am, would normally earn. I only became better enlightened after meeting with several young actors and discussing payment with them.”
The statement unleashed a storm in the Kerala film industry. Many insiders are criticising Robinson for complaining after having agreed to a contract and being paid for it, while others are slamming him for giving a racist turn to the issue. The producers, Shyju Khalid and Sameer Thahir of Happy Hours Entertainments, responded with a statement that they had given Robinson a mutually agreed remuneration.
“We exerted no pressure on Samuel to cooperate with us, if he was not satisfied with the amount we offered,” they say. “Samuel’s allegations are prompted by what we consider as his misinterpretation of certain false information provided by some sources. It is unfortunate that a good friendship had to go through such an unfortunate state of affairs.”
Sudani from Nigeria, written and directed by Zakariya Mohammed, is set in the colourful Sevens Football culture of Kerala’s Malabar region. This local club football tradition is at least a couple of centuries old and has an almost fanatical following in the region. The monetary stakes are high and the clubs often recruit players from Africa, who are locally known as “Sudanis”. The movie follows the story of one such Sudani, played by Robinson, who was contacted by the producers for the role after they had tried to cast Nigerian actors through an online audition.
Robinson, by then, had already appeared in a number of projects in Nigeria, including the hit African production of Desperate Housewives. Unlike most of his compatriots, Robinson had never played football and as part of his preparation for his role, had to undergo two weeks of training in the sport.
Regardless of the current controversy — and while still waiting for the producers to reach out to him directly for a solution — Robinson remains keen to work in Indian films. “I was very familiar with Bollywood movies but had just
learned about the Malayalam industry (when approached for Sudani from Nigeria). When I got the role, I began
researching the Malayalam film industry and learned a lot,” he says, “I would like to explore the other film industries of India such as the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi industries.”