CHENNAI: Clad in a silk veshti and shirt, Nigerian-Canadian actor Zazu Oke finds his groove in kuthu and gleefully dances to Sony South Music’s latest song Vaada Raasa. Within minutes of sharing the video on his Instagram page, thousands of likes and views roll into his feed. Over the past few years, he has found a sweet place in the hearts of the Tamizh-speaking population from across the globe for his accurate and admirable renditions of scenes from namma cinema. The host of Whistle Adi — a show and brand that aims to take Tamizh cinema to the global audience while promoting and uplifting independent artists in the community — talks about his serendipitous entry into the Tamizh world.
How has your brush with the Tamizh language, pop culture and cinema changed your life?
It was an interesting time for me; I had just graduated from Dramatic Arts at Brock University, my wife and I were expecting our first child and I was exploring opportunities to pursue a career in acting. I saw a casting call for a YouTube host for a multicultural show and applied. I had a quick meeting with Rajeev Kugan (Founder of Whistle Adi Inc.) and his wife Pirabahinie, the talent manager. This initial meeting changed my life. Never did I think I would host a show and brand that empowered a culture and language outside of my own. I wanted to be as authentic as possible. I always made sure to make a trip down to the first-day-first-shows to watch every movie with the team. I wanted to be part of the whole experience — from celebrating before the show with fans, screaming at title cards and mass intros and giving my review right after the show. I love the language and I will continue to learn to keep doing my part in embracing the culture.
Do you remember the first Tamizh dialogue you had to dub or a scene you had to reproduce?
Tamizh and the world of Tamizh cinema were new to me so when I first met Rajeev and Pirabahinie, I was getting a geography and cinema crash course all at once. Rajeev being a Rajinikanth fan had asked me to lip dub a dialogue from the movie Sivaji. It was the famous, en pera ketta chumma athuruthilla dialogue and in all honesty, six years ago, I know I didn’t do justice to Thalaivar. I stared at Rajeev and his wife as if I heard the biggest tongue twister of my life. What they saw in me was my passion for art and acting which gave them the assurance I could be the face of their brand; they immediately gave me the position.
What challenges do you face while performing?
Not being able to understand the language is still the biggest challenge. I have to break down the emotion of the scene and dissect the speech patterns to try and recreate scenes for my Instagram Reels and TikTok videos. Luckily, with the support of my team, I am motivated to spend up to six hours per video to release one every day. I was even on stage a few times here in Toronto for different events and the crowd would cheer me on as I sang Neruppuda from Kabali.
When did you first receive recognition for your work?
When Kabali was released, we did so many videos to support the movie with Rajinikanth’s comeback leading up to our first-day-first-show experience. We had fireworks and celebrations, we were singing Neruppuda together outside with all the fans and on YouTube, we got over 2,00,000 views within the first week. After Kabali, I started to build a brand for myself, people called me African Kabali!
Share some of your most memorable moments.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet several amazing people throughout this journey. Never thought I would get an opportunity to meet AR Rahman and interview him in person. I’ve gone on CBC Radio in Canada to be interviewed. Being able to walk into a theatre full of Tamizh cinema lovers and have them cheer and support me still feels surreal.
In what ways have you embraced Tamizh culture?
Earlier this year, I was part of an initiative to help build awareness to bring a Tamizh Chair to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. I voiced my opinion on why it is important to embrace Tamizh culture and preserve the language. This helped me connect more with the Tamizh community and give back to help and support the organisation to raise funds; it was a successful campaign. The ability to be one with the people of the community and have meaningful conversations and create content to showcase the beauty of the culture gives me more reasons to keep doing it.
Has your perception of Tamizh movies changed over time?
I have realised that the culture is heavily embedded in the film industry. In Hollywood, there is no culture, just art — which makes the stories a little more believable. It is rare to see a romantic comedy Tamil film with a ‘real’ kissing scene. I understand why Tamil films stay away from anything that is not accepted at a normal household in the culture, but it limits the character and the potential of the movie. When I was younger, I used to watch Bollywood films with my sister and they also followed suit with their culture, however, the industry evolved and is now on par with Hollywood. This helped propel their movies globally. So I hope Tamil cinema takes that leap very soon, I know some directors are pushing boundaries but those movies are not widely accepted.
I love all the actors as they all bring something unique to the table. However, I love realism and appreciate the art behind actors taking on different roles so in that case, I would say two favourite actors are Vikram and Suriya. As for my favourite movie I watched at the theatres, I would say Vijay’s Mersal stood out to me because they were able to showcase the capitalisation of hospitals and the corruption of doctors in a mass entertainment way.
What are you currently working on?
As a platform, we are aiming to turn Whistle Adi into a programme that can assemble and promote upcoming talents globally. This is to address the emerging market of independent artists and talents that are not getting the opportunity to be seen. We are on a pilot project with a music streaming platform called Playmi which aims to bring independent South Asian artists to the forefront. As for myself, I hope to be on the big screens one day to express my love for the culture and eventually find success in my acting career in America and with that success, provide care for my wonderful wife, Renee and five beautiful kids.
“As someone of colour, I believe regardless of your status or followers, you should stand up for yourself and your people. Racism, colourism, classism exists in different shapes and forms around the world, I want to make sure through my content I showcase equality and illustrate that all skin colours, shapes, ethnic backgrounds should be embraced and accepted. Last year I wrote an open letter to my kids explaining the struggle people of colour have gone through and why they are the future who will be part of the bigger changes that are yet to come. I have a great team and we always stand for justice. We are here for the people and anything that goes against all human rights.”
For details, visit Instagram pages @Zazuoke , @WhistleAdiMedia