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Bilal Mwaura: A journey to stardom in Kenya's film industry

 Kenyan actor Bilal Mwaura. (Instagram/@mwaurabilal)

Kenyan actor Bilal Mwaura, 35, through an inspiring 17-year career laid a foundation to become one of the biggest names in the local film industry.

At the moment, he is shooting Season 2 of Haki Mwitu, set to return on Maisha Magic.

“My creative process has changed overtime,” he says of how he does it.

“At the moment it is a cross between method acting and character interrogation techniques. I did a play in 2019 where I learnt to let the character takeover. I will do everything to learn this character and then allow him to lead the way- allow him to show Bilal how to play him. I think immersion would be a good word to sum it up. I lose myself in my characters.”

He plays Komu on Netflix’s 2020 film Uradi, a Kangéthe Mungai-directed film.

“A university student looks for a way to make quick and easy money and finds out that it’s not as easy as he had imagined,” IMBD describes it.

“Mwaura Bilal as Komu takes us on this very intriguing journey of the dark side of city life. We fall in love with his gentle nature and feel his joy, pain and anguish, even his desperation,” a critic review on the film website notes.

He’s also on 40 Sticks, a gripping, star-studded 2020 Thriller about a prison bus crashing into the forest, leaving criminals trapped with wild animals and a lurking mysterious killer.

His role, Biggie, in the film landed him a nomination at that year’s Africa Movie Academy Awards, Best Actor in a Leading Role category.

“You can watch me on Showmax’s Nganya and an episode of Crime and Justice,” he says.

When he’s not waking up at 4am, getting in a quick workout and catching the set bus at 6am in Town for a busy day shooting, he’ll take time to recharge.

“I’m a pretty chill person. Like now I’m on set Monday to Friday, on Saturday nalala man, na rejuvenate. But I like to walk in nature, as well as visiting random places I haven’t been to, grounding stuff.”

He tells The Standard a bit about his upbringing. He was born and brought up in Murang’a County and began to take a keen interest in theatre and acting while he was in secondary school.

“It was difficult for my parents to understand why I would choose this path. But looking back, without the support I have had from my family, I would be nothing. They are extremely supportive, and big fans. I lean on them a lot.”

“When I was in Form 4, I went to the Phoenix Players and watched a play written by Cajetan Boy. The main character was played by Andrew Muthure, who is known for playing Mustapha on Mother-in-Law. I remember thinking ‘whatever that guy has made me feel, I want to make people feel the same way’,” he says.

“So after high school, I started doing set books with the group Pambazuka Arts. I started performing in 2007.”

He speaks about his journey, which evolved from lots of stage management at the start of his career, to the diverse catalogue of screen and theatre work he holds today.

“I did mostly theatre for a long time. For me, the show that cemented my belief in this somewhat was a tour I did with Mumbi Kaigwa in 2010. It was an East African tour, so we toured major towns in Kenya and Tanzania. I was 20 or 21, and I was able to see the possibilities that art could bring into my life.”

Bilal adds: “The show was called Kigezi Ndoto. I was not performing, I was a stage manager, and I have done my fair share of stage management. So I was able to watch the performances from a different perspective. I remember after the tour I called all the producers I knew and said if you’re not giving me an acting job,mimi sitaki, sitaki ku stage manage anymore.”

“But for TV, that happened a bit later. I would say 40 Sticks - that was the thing that I shot and I was like, I am in love with this process now. That was in 2019.”

The conversation gets deeper as we get into mental health and welfare in the film industry, as The Standard learns that these, too, are issues that Bilal is passionate about.

He is candid when asked about how he takes care of his mental health.

“It’s been crazy sometimes, to be honest. The other day I was reading an email, and I came across the term functioning depression. It was like a eureka moment,” he says.

“Because most of the time if I am not involved in a project, I’m like dead. Or lost. It is like going through a maze and there is haze all around you. Because this thing we do is mental, especially if you allow the characters you play to takeover.”

He says that before he learnt to ‘de-role’ and remove himself from the character, he began his journey towards self-awareness and wellness.

“Yes, we talk about better rates for actors and all that, but from where I stand, first, we need to get proper psychological support, especially when you are done with a project. When you are done with a role you are left all alone, and it doesn’t matter the depths you went to. You are on your own. If we had an institutionalised way of following up and making sure…”

The actor says that the industry should come up with ways to better take care of each other’s mental health.

“It is crazy, but it is getting better. If you had made this call a month or two ago, it would have been a different story.”

The actor commends Kenya Film Commission’s Chief Executive Timothy Owase, who, he says has seen to it that filmmakers get better support.

“After he came into office we started seeing more support. You can walk into the KFC and get the support you need, whether technical or financial if you qualify,” Bilal says.

“But it needs to be institutionalised because I fear if Timothy completes his term and he is replaced with a CEO who is not as invested in the process... what next? The institutionalisation of all this, so that it doesn’t depend on the goodwill or the whims of whoever is in office.”

We dive into the lighter things, as the actor laughs when probed about his status as a ‘baby daddy’ with several ‘baby mamas.’

In a recent interview with a national publication, Bilal confirms the story, while also admitting to being pro-polygamy.

“Yes, I still believe in polygamy. Going forward I honestly want some stability in my personal life. I’m seeking that balance, and it’s a work in progress,” he says.

As the interview concludes, Bilal emotively describes his favourite part about what he does.

When he is on set, he feels alive. That, plus being able to interrogate the human mind thrills him.

“The opportunity to explore the human condition through the characters I play. We are complex beings and I believe we have not figured out what it means to be human. So getting to explore that human condition through the characters I play, through the decisions they make, the dilemmas they face. And I get to meet amazing people as well,” he says. 

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