Lights, Camera, Odanga: Unraveling the quirky charm of Kenya's film legend

By Lauryn Gitau
As the sun begins its ascent over the sprawling USIU-Africa campus, my heart races with excitement, my anticipation bubbles like a simmering cauldron. I clutch tightly to my notebook as I board the university bus, our gateway to the pulsating heart of the Kenyan film industry. Today marks yet another special journey, not just of physical distance, but of aspirations and dreams converging. Bound for the set of the renowned “Pink Ladies” show on Startimes, under the guidance of Prof. Sheila Mulinya onto the mentorship of esteemed local Film and TV Director and Producer Reuben Odanga. My senses tingle with the promise of creativity and opportunity. The bus glides past the university gate traversing us to the cinematic odyssey, a chapter awaits to be written in the annals of our burgeoning film careers.

Maneuvering through the early Nairobi traffic, we arrive on the filming set and are welcomed by Reuben’s infectious laughter and penchant for adventure, he’s the kind of Director who’s just as likely to crack a joke as he is to yell “action!” From his humble beginnings in the bustling streets of Nairobi to his rise to fame on the international stage, Reuben Odanga's journey is as colorful and captivating as the films and TV series that he creates.

Starting the day on the set of Pink Ladies, a production shot by Reuben’s Multan Production in Karen, Nairobi, we are immediately thrown into our element. A chance of a lifetime to learn the techniques that the talented crew use to create some of the biggest shows in Kenya. Immediately Wanjera, the Assistant Director, yells ‘silence on set’, the chattering dies down and everyone is focused on their roles. She commands the set with vigor and they repeat the scenes until she is satisfied. The only time we get a chance to speak with her is during the short breaks as the lighting and cinematography crew set up for the upcoming scenes. I steal some seconds in between these breaks to engage Wanjera in an attempt to quell my curiosity to unpack the man and the craft and he effortlessly responds to my questions.

Student: What do you do when you can’t come to an agreement with an actor?
Wanjera: Do you want to be happy or right? You have to be the bigger person. Sometimes acting like you agree with them goes a long way, as long as you get the outcome you desire.

Lauryn: What are you looking forward to today?
You can see the relief on her face, when she replies, “finishing the scenes”, almost like she was fantasizing about it. They have been working late hours with the shoot from the previous day almost going until 11 pm. The pressure is on considering they are three scenes behind and there isn’t much time to dilly dally.

Before we can bombard her with all our questions, she has to go back on set. She commands the room effortlessly. Having understood everything, the Director needs from scene, she takes over, she yells “action” and soon enough the room immediately falls silent. The living room of the set has a pastel green and nude color palette. From the curtains to the ornaments and décor, everything matches this to perfection. We all watch in awe as the undoubtedly famous actors ranging from Azziad Nasenya and Shix Kapienga deliver their lines.

This particular episode of Pink Ladies is directed by Davis Nato, a household name in the Kenyan film industry. He graciously speaks to us sharing his techniques, some of which he happily shares that he borrowed from our lecturer, Prof. Sheila Mulinya, years back when he was an actor in Mtaani, a show that she directed for a local broadcaster.

Lauryn: How long does blocking typically take?
Davis: Typically, I’ll have a sit down with the cast while the crew sets up. I’ll let them know what I expect from a scene and we’ll have discussion on it. Sometimes I’ll have a vision but I can’t execute it. Because the actors have connected with their character’s personality, their feedback can trigger new ideas that ultimately make the show better.

Student: What drew you to this project?
Davis: I wanted something different. Salem is a drama, thriller, telenovela. This one is a dramedy and its light. It’s actually my first dramedy and because it airs five times a week, there’s a lot of pressure but I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Soon enough we get a chance to speak with John Wambua, the Director of Photography for Pink Ladies. His passion for film stems from childhood. He shares with us his journey into the industry and mentions that it all began with his first camera, a digital 8, and considering we are Gen Zs, most of us couldn’t fathom how long ago this was.

Lauryn: What’s been your best experience in this industry?
Wambua: The feeling you get when someone enjoys the picture of a project you’ve done is unexplainable. I’ve sat with friends, relaxing and watching TV when they mentioned how great the content looks and they don’t know that I did it.

Lauryn: How do you avoid burn out?
Wambua: Rejuvenating myself is key. During breaks on set, I walk around enjoying the scenery. Lucky for me, this location has a lot of trees and being close to them refreshes me.

To end our lovely day on a high note, we finally had a sit-down session with the legendary Director/ Producer Reuben Odanga. We sit in a circle under a canopy the trees in a beautiful garden in the compound. He declines his Director’s chair that has been set aside for him, opting to sit on the same chairs as us. Immediately he starts speaking, we feel more comfortable and freer to connect with him. He encourages us to have an open mind throughout the discussion and pushes even more for us to do our own research and learn as much as possible.

Lauryn: What makes you different from other Directors?
Odanga: As a collaborator and a leader, I’m able to create spaces for people to shine. “I’m Mourinho,” he chuckles. “I don’t necessarily know how to play but I can make that player score the best.” It’s all about knowing how to make your cast, crew and anyone in your space feel comfortable.

Like clockwork, I remember the warm reception that we were graced with when arrived at Multan Productions. We indeed are at home. I conclude that this is the reason that the cast and crew on his sets are able to thrive in his productions because of this space and feeling he creates for all his projects.

Student: Is Directing something that can be taught or does it need to be an innate skill?
Odanga: It can be taught, it really adds a lot and those are some of the things that we missed. We never had forums like this. At that time, there was only Bob Nyanja, and as much as we all looked up to him, there was a desperate need for more.

Having that different eye, which is more so a skill rather than something that can be taught, will set you apart. However, this is something you can develop along the way. Knowing and understanding the craft, is very important. School elevates the craft from mere talent to a professional level.

Student: You create a home for your actors and inevitably, you get close, how do you handle loss and grief?
Odanga: During and after a show, our relationships keep going on. Working with actors requires a lot of empathy and understanding especially in this part of the world because we are all facing the same financial issues. What that means is that it takes a lot for an actor to be vulnerable in a certain space, which is necessary for them to effectively play a role. More often than not, often for method actors, most of them can’t come out of that space immediately. Because it is a very sensitive thing. I try to create an environment where my actors can trust me and be vulnerable. I am a huge crusader of actors’ welfare so I try to use and create ways that make them feel more comfortable, for example having medical insurance for all of them.

Having a one-on-one with them allows me to know more about their personal life, without being intrusive of course. Showing care goes a long way and as their Director, I will be able to easily notice when something is off at an early stage.

In Selina, after the untimely death of Kone, we took a few days off. One morning, we had a session where we all sat and talked about life, we talked about Kone, what he meant to us and how his demise impacted us. As much as we were a group, we all had our own special connection with him, just a family.

Odanga goes on to reiterate that at Multan he occasionally brings in professionals to talk and educate everyone on various aspects of life, be it financial, spiritual or general welfare. I am learning that having more professionals coming in to cater to the team’s needs is necessary. Currently, the company is paying for an actor’s therapy which of course is coming out of our own pockets. There is no rule book on how to deal with such situations but creating time, showing empathy and sensitivity is essential.

Student: How do you handle difficult actors?
Odanga: We came up with a formula. Our contracts are well detailed and very clear, we have a code of ethics and a job description which is something that traditionally has only been done in corporate settings. These three clearly stipulate what I expect from them, even to the nitty gritty details and their deliverables. We hired a HR person to create all of this. In their job description, it is clearly outlined that they should always have their lines. It is not my responsibility to teach you your lines. You must read the script ahead of time and come prepared. From the code of ethics, they know, cussing is not allowed on my set. My argument for that is simple, if you can’t speak it in your mother tongue, then it’s a foreign thing and there’s no reason to be saying it. All my actors receive this contract before anything begins. When they sign the contract, we go through it together, and the following day they will receive an email detailing the minutes of the meeting. Therefore, if I have an altercation with them, I have a point of reference. A breach of contract will lead to a discussion which will be documented, just like the typical corporate way.

Student: With method acting, is it common practice to involve a psychologist to help in de-rolling? Should this be pushed in the industry?
Odanga: It is not but it is definitely something that should be encouraged. Directing is something that must be sensitive. Our last shoot will be tomorrow and next week we will be meeting all the girls just to de-roll. While acting, they can end up digging into past experiences to bring their character to life. Actors’ welfare is complex but I think it’s purely driven by empathy. You have to care for your actors’ lives beyond the pay check.

Student: You have directed some of the biggest shows in Kenya, when doubt creeps in, how do you deal with it?
Odanga: I am a collaborator. I bounce what I had in mind with the people around me and this usually brings in new ideas. The feedback can unlock your block or trigger a new idea. It happens, and it can also happen during editing, but the best way to handle it or at least reduce it, is during pre-production. Being very meticulous in pre-production such that when you’re at production stage or post-production stage, you’re not second guessing anything. It is very clear why and how the necessary steps need to occur.

Soon June, the other Director of the TV show joins us. Reuben in his gentlemanly gesture rises from his seat and offers her a place to sit as he waits for his seat to be replaced.

Prof. Sheila: Is it true that there is no small person on the set?
June: Absolutely, film is a collaborative process. The role of a set runner is just as important as the producer’s. We are Africans and religion is also deeply instilled within us. We will always share and respect each other.

Odanga: For a film, you need an army to execute, and the most important people in your army are the foot soldiers. I need my coffee, black, two sugars, Americano single, from Java. When you evaluate, you realize that if the set runner wasn’t there to play this role, I wouldn’t have my coffee and I would be struggling which would affect the shoot for the day. The boom operator needs to hold up the mic for hours, for the sound to be clear and good. Even the set cleaner, when the actors arrive they’ll find a clean space, when they go for lunch, they’ll clean up again. They’ll make sure there’s water in the dispenser, there’s coffee ready. Each role is important and is detrimental to a successful job.

The hours roll by faster than we expected and soon the bus is back to pick us. Spending the day with industry professionals and especially the whole team at Multan Productions was an enlightening experience. Their words of encouragement impacted us and we all felt empowered by the end of the day. ‘Shoot, be fearless, make mistakes, hold your work close to your heart.’

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