There’s no such thing as a ‘Mira Nair film’. But this heartwarming underdog tale set in the slums of Kampala is proof that this is where Nair’s strengths lie.
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga
Rating: 3 stars
A decade ago, it wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio and his uncanny Rhodesian accent that fascinated me in the Sierra Leone Civil-war drama, Blood Diamond. It was perhaps the first time I had seen parts of Africa – previously a ‘dark continent,’ even for Hollywood studios – form the backbone of a largely relevant mainstream production. So, the smuggling and warlord plots aside, there were the little things: A missionary (Basil Wallace) seated with DiCaprio on the steps of his children’s shelter suddenly breaks out an excited finger-snap (instead of, say, a hand-clap) to applaud a fancy football dribble. I didn’t know much about the mannerisms, but this looked genuine. It looked authentic in the moment.
Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe thrives on these little gestures, these tiny textural nuances. It may have something to do with Nair having lived in Uganda for almost three decades. That’s what she brings to the sanitized Disney ‘underdog’ template: a localness, a flavour replacing the Westerner’s hyperbolic gaze. It looks right. The faces look a part of their destitute atmosphere – this, despite choosing spoken English over their own dialect, a trait that takes some getting used to. A necessary evil, perhaps, to appeal to wider audiences. Even some of the leads, international stars in their own right, sincerely tap into their ancestry – until they stop standing out.
That’s what she brings to the sanitized Disney ‘underdog’ template: a localness, a flavour replacing the Westerner’s hyperbolic gaze. It looks right.
It helps that the story chosen helps Nair delve into the socioeconomic grassroots of a culture decidedly alien to most of us. By the end, Katwe – the Kampala-based slum that incubates the rise of young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) – becomes a living, breathing character of this journey.
By the end, Katwe – the Kampala-based slum that incubates the rise of young chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) – becomes a living, breathing character of this journey.
It’s this environment that forces a teenaged Phiona to unprecedented heights; every time she wins a junior tournament and becomes bigger, her surroundings seem even darker and inescapable. Because she must always come back to her single mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and three siblings, their modest maze-selling life, no matter how much she dares to dream.
This emotional pull is never compromised. It is, both, her anchor and a sobering anchor. A lady afraid that her daughter is being shown to a life beyond her means, and an angelic coach (David Oyelowo) determined to make them think bigger.
Nyong’o is so inclusive as the hard-as-nails ‘mama’ that you believe it when she struggles to comprehend the possibilities of stability aided by a “brainy” board-game sport. As is young Nalwanga (such a joyous rhythmic dancer; her celebrations are a sight to behold), who often can’t fathom her gift, conditioned to accept instead of do. “Did he let me win?” she asks her coach worriedly, after defeating educated higher-ranked boys repeatedly.
Nyong’o is so inclusive as the hard-as-nails ‘mama’ that you believe it when she struggles to comprehend the possibilities of stability aided by a “brainy” board-game sport.
This remains the conflict and resolution of their story, and of countless other inspiring tales rooted in the throes of abject poverty. We may call this a ‘formula’ and ‘device’ in every biographical drama ever, but honestly, there seems like no other way one can imagine these extraordinary minds beating all the odds. These narrative markers will never change. There has to be a mentor; there has to be an accident when everything is going smoothly; richness and snooty privilege is the enemy; there has to be the unfamiliarity of ambition and hope; and there has to be enough failure to sweeten eventual success.
Nair keeps it simple, and handholds us through Phiona’s meteoric rise, even designing the chess games to keep the sport’s fans hooked. Every turn is ticked off without too much fuss; only, there’s more fun to be had in the revealing of this world than its unfurling.
As a result, one isn’t left with any rousing speeches or memorable comebacks. Just the little reactions, the jubilant finger-snaps, the twinkle in the kids’ eyes, the spontaneous hip thrusts, their spunky grasp over their craft, their endearing God-fearing ways – on her first flight, when she wonders if the clouds are ‘heaven,’ she is gently told, “heaven is higher” – they all add up to enhance the air of this experience. You step out of the hall with a mild Lion-King-ish feeling, of having seen something new despite its age-old recital contrivances.
You step out of the hall with a mild Lion-King-ish feeling, of having seen something new despite its age-old recital contrivances.
More than a full-fledged biopic, Queen of Katwe is almost positioned as a live-action fairytale, and an uncomplicated chronicle of un-American doggedness – a rarity on its own. It says a lot about the director’s versatility, too, after all these years, that there’s no such thing as a “Mira Nair film.” So much so that even the horribly silhouette-ish Amelia Earhart biopic (2009) can be subscribed to every filmmaker’s mandatory phase of temporary insanity. Or a brave experiment gone wrong.
Either way, to paraphrase the catch-line of Phiona’s coach – this is where she belongs. Until her next project, at least.