How Netflix’s Rom-Com “Namaste Wahala” Breaks New Ground

By Bernard Dayo

Namaste Wahala has now arrived – but you might not realize how it breaks new ground.

Nigeria and India have always shared interesting parallels. Both were colonised by Britain and geopolitically, they are each other’s biggest trading partner. During the ‘90s video boom in Nigeria’s Nollywood, the industry’s brush with horror borrowed serpentine motifs from iconic ‘70s Indian horror Nagin, deploying them in films like Nneka the Pretty Serpent and Sakobi the Snake Girl.

Many years later, Nigerian cable companies and enterprising comedians would slant India’s Bollywood films towards local audiences by dubbing them with native languages. Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria’s south west, was especially popular. This precedent makes Namaste Wahala, Netflix’s first Nollywood-Bollywood movie not so surprising, but still exhilarating.

Heralded by a social media buzz and its cinema release disrupted by the pandemic, the romantic comedy projects itself as the nexus of Nigeria-India relations, cross-pollinating the cultural codes from both countries and examining how they interact.

Shot in Nigeria, Raj (Ruslaan Mumtaz) and Didi (Ini-Dima Okojie) are jogging along the beach from opposite ends in workout clothes, when they bump into each other. The dramatic pause between them is the typically soapy boy-meets-girl origin story, from which romance quickly brews.

In Namaste Wahala, their budding romance goes for the familiar staple and aesthetics of Raj’s Indian roots, winking at movies from his homeland where men and women court each other by singing and dancing. Didi blends in wearing a sari, Raj leads in a tunic. Didi is Nigerian after all, the sensibility for drama and tomfoolery intact, leading to a successful cross-cultural experiment in their minds.

But culture is hardly just about two people in love, especially when marriage could be on the horizon. With the families of Didi and Raj now in the picture, culture ceases to be a unifier but a reason they should be apart. “You bring me an Indian?” Didi’s father Ernest (Richard Mofe-Damijo) blurts out when Didi introduces Raj to her parents, as if he’s just been served the wrong order in a gilded restaurant.

Ernest’s xenophobia, although sontaneous, is more about keeping his legacy around running an elite law firm ‘pure’. It’s also for this reason that Didi’s father chooses not to recognise her as a worthy successor despite her being a smart, competent lawyer, his sexism pushing her to the periphery.

It is not strange to see this occur in modern Nigerian homes. Hoping to engineer a union between Didi and Somto (Ibrahim Suleiman), a well-mannered lawyer working in her father’s firm, the movie becomes a study about the politics of gender and marriage as a site that fosters the erasure of women.

Like Raj, Didi suffers the same xenophobic treatment from his mother, who makes Indian recipes for Raj to highlight Didi’s incapability in that regard. But all this is done lightheartedly, poking fun at the cultural fabric.

Namaste Wahala is as much a candy-colored, feel-good rom-com as it is an interrogation of domestic and sexual violence against women. Didi offers free legal services to an NGO helping women navigate these vices, which her father mildly thinks of as a transgression. Her next client would be a woman who was physically abused, but a complication arises: the abuser is the son of her father’s friend whom he’s courting to get a business deal.

Not only does the Namaste Wahala address violence against women as a serious issue, it looks at the complicity of structures and institutions that allows gendered violence to be maintained. It’s worth mentioning that Didi’s client’s case happened in Nigeria, where the justice system protects abusers and perpetrators for their immoral acts rather than aiding the victims.

It also highlights the class disparity that drives how justice would be meted out. If Didi wasn’t representing the victim, chances are that a case won’t see the four walls of a court.

Although it’s not peculiar to Nigeria, director Hamisha Daryani Ahuja has lived in the country long enough to observe these nuances, carefully inserting an anti-gendered violence message in a way that doesn’t distort the film’s principal themes.

The title Namaste Wahala – which means “Hello Trouble” – is a hybrid of both Indian and Nigerian languages. But the movie hardly props up Nigerian language, except a few times where Igbo (spoken in Nigeria’s south east) is chipped in at the end of an English sentence, by Didi’s father.

Didi’s mother who is Yoruba, and played by Joke Silva, doesn’t say anything in Yoruba as much as Raj’s mother communicates in Hindi. This is the movie’s shortcoming, its characters – Nigerian characters really – disproportionately speaking English in a movie that should revel in the country’s slew of languages. — Digital Spy