Abebe Balcha has become a household name through his popular character, named “Asnake”, in the soap opera “Se’w-le-Se’w”. A practicing lawyer, Abebe plays the hateful and deceptive character with all the more extraordinary talent. He seems to also be enjoying himself, though sometimes getting bothered by the heights of popularity. But, even Abebe himself is indifferent on whether to love or hate the character he plays. A similar feeling seems to exist amongst the viewership. In this interview with Biniyam Alemayhu, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Abebe shares his views about the character Asnake, the celebrity culture inEthiopiaand the film industry.
Abebe Balcha has become a household name through his popular character, named “Asnake”, in the soap opera “Se’w-le-Se’w”. A practicing lawyer, Abebe plays the hateful and deceptive character with all the more extraordinary talent. He seems to also be enjoying himself, though sometimes getting bothered by the heights of popularity. But, even Abebe himself is indifferent on whether to love or hate the character he plays. A similar feeling seems to exist amongst the viewership. In this interview with Binyam Alemayhu, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Abebe shares his views about the character ‘Asnake’, celebrity culture inEthiopia and the film industry. Excerpts:
Love Him Not, Hate Him Not
Fortune: How are you coping with your resurged popularity, after it subsided following the character “Othello”, which you played many years back?
Abebe Balcha: It has affected me in a pleasant way, I would say. The popularity I had at the time of “Othello” is different from the one I am getting out of Asnake in “Se’w-le-Se’w”, for two reasons. Othello was staged in a theatre hall and had limited outreach, compared to “Se’w-le-Se’w.” Back then, a small proportion of the population and, in fact, predominantly those who lived in Addis Abeba saw “Othello.” Now it is dramatically different. In today’sEthiopia, 60pc to 70pc of the people are under 35 years of age. They are more accustomed to viewing films. More people know me now. I have been coping with it.
Q: Celebrities have managers to cope with their fans’ intrusive attention elsewhere in the world. In the absence of such managers, how are you handling your popularity in a culture that is very different from Hollywood?
The film industry inEthiopia, if you can call it as such, is a very recent phenomenon. We now have 100 or up to 120 films produced a year. As we develop, the managers and everyone else will come. Until then, I am coping by myself, like several other actors do.
Q: For many people, it is difficult to make a distinction between the “Asnake” in the show, who is odious and deceptive, and the person you are. Do you actually enjoy being identified with Asnake?
I do not like it, but I do not hate it either. It is just a fact of life. As an actor, you have to deal with these situations and eventually you begin to get used to it. It actually does not bother me because I asked them to watch me. They have the right to name me whatever. It is not unusual for people to refer to you by your character’s name.
Q: May I say that you have a particular knack in playing such a character, considering that the first character to bring you to popularity three decades ago, “Othello”, has the same deceptive character?
I have to correct you there. The malicious one in that play is actually “Eiyago” and not “Othello”. Othello was a black, gallant and jealous army general. He killed his wife as he was pushed by “Eiyago”. They are paradoxically opposite characters.
The character “Asnake” in Se’w-le-Se’w is different. He is hateful and malicious. So do I always like to play as Asnake? The answer is a big no. I have no style to choose. Next time I perform a role, maybe they will give me a different character and I will play it. In fact, I do not think I am going to play the deceptive and hateful character next time. But, you know, some people ask me – “What are you trying to teach in this character?”
I cannot play it less because I like to do what I do and I do it best. My theory when it comes to acting is to play any character, but play it well. Do it to the best level, if you can do it at all.
Q: In most Ethiopian and even Western films, the continuity of the story depends on the plot. What would, in your opinion, have happened if you had died at the end of part one?
Where I agree with you is on the effect that some characters, such as “Asnake”, have. They play major roles. But, it does not mean that the film dies when they die. If Asnake had died, either of two things would have happened. One scenario is that the producers and the audience would have refused to accept it and the other is the exact opposite. When season two of Se’w-le-Se’w began, it was decided that the former scenario should prevail. It all depends on how well the audience accepts a scenario. Otherwise “Asnake” is not irreplaceable or anything like that. As far as I am concerned, it would not have made a difference on the continuation or otherwise of the show.
Q: I heard someone say that the character “Asnake” was first assigned to another actor and that it was because this other actor did not like it that you were chosen to play the role. Is that true?
No, it is not. In fact, the producers, Mesfin Getachew and Solomon Alemu, came to my office. Mesfin actually writes the scripts and plays a character in the film. During the discussion, they told me that there was a drama series to be aired on national television and that there was a character they wanted me to play. I agreed, but on the condition that I had the right to interpret the character. It is in this manner that we agreed to work.
Q: Which part of “Asnake’s” character actually exists in you?
We are both Ethiopians. We are both products of this society. I think that is all there is to it, nothing more! Every character stays as long as the duration of the story. Other than that, I do not know him. I played Othello, Asnake, Gebriye, Baleguday and others. All these characters are totally different from me in their attitudes, perspectives and behavior.
Q: Some people compare two parts in “Se’w-le-Se’w” where your performance is worlds apart. One is where you are in the nightlife; it was superb. The other is where you played it in the warehouse. The latter part was perceived as being awkward. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, some of my closest acquaintances have said that to me. I do not think these people have seen the whole part. It is not about playing this or that. It is about understanding the character. That is precisely how the character behaves under different circumstances. He is the one who behaves, not me. That is what these critics fail to see.
Q: Many fans of the soap opera say that the writer is deliberately keeping “Asnake” alive. Should he die or be arrested now or much later?
I should make one thing perfectly clear. Asnake should not and could not outshine others to the point of becoming decisive. He is, just like Mahlet, Biruk or the police investigator, part of society. He is arrogant and chauvinist. But he is not a criminal per se. I mean, there is nothing so far to back up the claim that he is one. He is smart enough to provide cover. Should he die or get arrested? He could be arrested only when evidence is in place.
Q: What has the resurgence of your popularity told you about your career as a film actor, which you have not practiced for many years? Do you have plans to go along with acting in more films and shows now that you have won such exceptional popularity?
You know what? This is not something you get all the time. I am a lawyer. That is how I get my bread and butter. Currently, as we speak, the film industry has not given me any kind of financial independence. I do not live on it. However, I enjoy it. It is what we call the pleasure of pure acting. It is something beyond words. The whole thing revolves around the ability to perform. How do I feel about it? I feel good. I will do it as much as I can. I am not a young man to pass through such an industry. But, if they have a space and a role for me, I would be delighted to perform. Of course, I have the good fortune of being able to accept or refuse. That is because I do not live on it.
Q: Why aren’t you frequently appearing in advertisements? Could it be because you want to rate yourself high or you don’t like to commercialise yourself?
Roughly 30 or 40 scripts have been forwarded to me, but they are all one and the same kind of character. They were, of course, performed by others. I am not in them because I do not want to be in them. It is also because I could not see myself in them. But, of course, there has to be a standard payment. Otherwise why should I do commercials if they do not pay me well? I am just asking my share.
Q: The only commercials so far where you have performed are for St. George Beer and Amber. Why is that?
That is because I like them well. I like Amber Beer and I enjoyed performing in the commercials. The whole point is – do I want to do an array of things or a small niche, which I do well? I choose the latter. I do not want to spread myself across a whole lot of products. It has to be what I like and what I can perform with enthusiasm. And it has to pay me well.
It is not about being expensive or anything. And, in fact, what is expensive? How can you measure an actor’s or a product’s worth? Why do they come to me? It is because they have to sell. They come to me at this point in time when I am nearest to the audience. They have to pay me well.
Q: Do you get bothered when people scramble to get a picture with you?
It bothers me. But it is the public’s right to scramble, to bother, to hover around me and that sort of thing. What is of overriding concern here is how the film industry could grow and improve people’s enjoyment of films. Otherwise, this popularity will certainly fade. Three or four months after the end of the Se’w-le-Se’w show, it will all be gone. People then start looking for another celebrity. And, you know, that is part of life.
Does it bother me? Oh, yes! It does sometimes. But it is compensated by the feeling that we have created on the viewers. I have got tremendous gratitude for the fans. I am content with it.
Q: You played a totally different and benign character in the “Askerenu” film, produced by Tamru Birhanu, a few years ago. How do you compare your popularity at that time with what you have won now?
Oh, it is totally different. It is incomparable. Back then, it was just a film that stayed for a certain amount of time. But, I do not have any measurement to what is happening now.
It is so powerful. The public always sought entertainment. And, when Se’w-le-Se’w came, it gave the public what it needed. It is very popular because it is not complicated, unlike several other soap operas. It is simple and understandable. Every Wednesday, this show is being viewed by a minimum of 30 million to 40 million people. I do not have the accurate statistics, but the volume of viewers is huge.
Q: What do you suggest needs to be done to help the film industry in Ethiopia thrive?
Credit needs to be given to this generation. My generation wanted and attempted to do it. But, honestly speaking, except for some stage performances, we never came up with a viable working industry like this generation has. Currently, the production of a film costs a minimum of half a million Birr. In some cases 70 to 80 people are involved in a film. Investment in the cinema halls is also involved here. We have got very strong and talented young actors and actresses coming to the scene. They are directing, managing, producing it and writing good scripts.
These people sweat day and night to do the shooting. They spend long hours to shoot a 30-minute-long episode. They also face hurdles when they want to use certain spots for shooting. That is because they do not have a studio to perform all these things, like is done so in other countries. This needs to be supported and encouraged.
Q: Last words?
I wish everybody a happy New Year. I am so grateful to the audience and Ethiopian Television for airing this show. I am also indebted to the producers and directors. They are really putting a lot of effort into it. Above everyone else, however, I am grateful to Abate Mekuria, for the kind of actor he has shaped me to become.
Ever since it was first aired on national television, two years ago, millions of people, both young and old, are glued to their television sets every Wednesday evening to watch the soap opera series “Se’w-le-Se’w”.
It was given the title “Se’w-le-Se’w”, literally meaning person to person, to show how one man can destroy the life of another and, conversely, how one man becomes a panacea to the ills of another.
The suspense, which leaves the audience always begging for the next episode, is the showdown between maliciousness and benignity. This is in addition to the admirable talents by well-known veteran and young actors, which have helped it to surge in the film industry.
With 99 episodes already aired on Wednesdays and reruns on Saturdays, “Se’w-le-Se’w” is the first ever soap opera series to run for this long. The first 10 scripts of the “Se’w-le-Se’w” series were written by Tamru Birhanu. The remaining have been written by Mesfin Getachew and Solomon Alemu, who also play characters in the film.
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