Mira Nair makes her films personal.
Even if she has lived most of her life abroad, she loves her country of birth, India, where she made her award-winning films, Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding. Her 2012 Pakistan-set film The Reluctant Fundamentalist was in part a tribute to her Lahore-born father, and she shot her latest film Queen of Katwe in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, where she has lived for the past 27 years with her husband, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani.
“This is my home and it will be forever, I hope,” Nair says.
Even so, Katwe, one of the most poverty-stricken of Kampala slums, seems an unlikely setting for a Disney film. Yet if anyone can make an upbeat film set amongst poverty, Nair can. It was imperative for her to shoot the true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) in the area where she was raised with few resources by her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). Mutesi, now 20, was introduced to chess at age nine and went on to become one of the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history.
Queen of Katwe, based on Tim Crothers’ 2012 book, takes its title from chess move, which allows for a pawn to be transformed into a queen – and that is very much the case here. Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary working for a local outreach programme, made it happen.
Nair has assembled quite a cast and she was truly able to welcome them as she lives within 15 minutes of every location.
HB: What was it like filming on your home turf?
MN: Oh it’s just such a joy and a privilege, because I have lived amongst that everyday dignity, everyday sort of sass and style for so long and have never seen it on a screen anywhere. The stories of Africa, if they are made at all, are stories of other people in Africa, where this huge continent is like a backdrop instead of a specific country.
With Queen of Katwe, I can take you in the back door and not be afraid of the complexity of the slang, the struggle and what we call the lifeist quality – like you may have half an inch of water in a basin to bathe with, but you’re going to wash your hair and you’re going to look super-smart at the end of it. It’s wonderful to be able to distill that on screen with a remarkable true story of a girl who refused to be contained in the place where she grew up.
HB: The film often feels like a documentary, as if you were following the people around with a camera.
MN: There is nothing random about it. It was all distilled to make you feel exactly that it’s the truth you are watching. But it’s also a heightened place, just in terms of the colour, the redness of Kampala earth, the green of the fauna. It’s because the equator runs through my garden; it runs through Kampala.
The first thing you see in a Kampala street, Katwe or any other, is crisscrossing school children going to school in uniforms and wanting to go to school. It’s the first joyful thing you see every morning. I haven’t seen that in any African story so far, but that’s what it’s like. And Disney embraced all of what I was presenting, because it’s not a portrait of despair. There is a vibrancy to living, no matter what you have. As Robert tells Phiona, you focus on what you have, not on what you don’t have. And that’s such an important thing to show the world and to make the world remember, that here we have so much and we’ve forgotten to dream.
"That’s such an important thing to show the world and to make the world remember, that here we have so much and we’ve forgotten to dream."
HB: Did you try to avoid sentimentality?
MN: Yes, very much so. It’s not the spirit of this film to be sentimental and to be self-referential and to take oneself too seriously. It’s not a one-woman show, it’s also about a man trying to achieve something against all odds, and a mother’s confusion and refusal to let her child be disappointed by dreaming.
HB: You developed a close relationship with the actors.
MN: We made this film on a very limited budget and limited schedule, so we had to achieve a lot every day. We already had two months with each other before shooting began so we were really like a family and there were no bones about it.
HB: A limited budget? This is a Disney movie.
MN: It was limited considering it’s an expensive kind of epic. We stage floods, we go to Russia, we have snow – it’s not a movie made on a street. And also we have kids, so we had eight hours a day. Disney, you know, they were very strict about that.
Watch Queen of Katwe trailer:
HB: Can you talk about the challenges and responsibility of involving the actual people in the process?
MN: Robert Katende was with us every minute for the chess, but David was not imitating Robert. It was more about the spirit of what Robert was and is, and then you have to invent it for yourself, otherwise it feels like you’re just carbon copying something. It doesn’t work like that somehow in film. Still I would recognise when the performance was getting far from the reality.
I’ll give you an example.
Uganda is probably one of the most courteous countries in the world and it comes with a kind of self-effacing quality. But in Nigeria, where David comes from, the Nigerian ways are very assertive. So probably the only direction I gave him was to keep it quieter and humbler and he did that.
HB: You’ve known Lupita Nyong’o for many years and in fact gave the Oscar winner her start in the business.
MN: Lupita was very interested in film. She was my intern in my production company for a year and a half, because we are family friends. We in fact had a lot of visitors in the office just to behold her! She then came and worked in Maisha, our film school in Kampala and instead of being the production coordinator was rapidly cast as the actor in all the student films. So that formidable strength of Harriet is the formidable strength in the core of Lupita.
HB: How are you family friends?
MN: Her parents and my husband and I have known each other for decades. In fact, the first time I met my husband [while she was in Uganda researching for Mississippi Masala] he was with her father, Peter. They both are academics and are both involved, moreso Peter, in politics. He was the head of the opposition in Kenya for years.
HB: How do you think Lupita’s father’s background has influenced her?
MN: Because she’s truly a citizen of the world in the sense that she understands and imbibes the politics of the world. She’s also a resolute African. Kenya is a beautiful place and it’s good to know where you come from, but you can fly too.
HB: Like you? [Besides making movies, Nair and Mamdani both teach at Columbia University in New York.]
MN: Yes. The roots are strong.
HB: What was it like to work with Mira again?
LN: Mira is someone who I’ve admired and respected for a long time, and it’s been a dream to get to work with her in front of the camera. I know her so well and I know her sensibilities and she does not mince her words. She will tell you when she doesn’t like something. And I love that, because then you know exactly where you stand.
HB: Your character lives in this harsh reality, yet she has to be supportive of a daughter who’s starting to move away from that. How did you find that tension, that balance?
LN: One of the reasons I wanted to take on this role is because I grew up in a family that was very supportive of pursuing your dreams. So I really support that idea and I believe in the power of thinking of the impossible, and trying to achieve it. And my life is a testament to that. But Harriet has the complete opposite view when we meet her in this film. For her, dreaming is dangerous, because of the cards that life has dealt her. She had her first child when she was 15 and then her husband died of AIDS, and left her with five children. So it is out of fear that she tries to protect her daughter from having lofty dreams. But the journey she goes on is to realise that the best way to show her daughter true love is to let her go and let her try to achieve the things that were not possible for her. So it takes courage.
While I was making the film I called my mum and I said, “How on earth did you let me out the door – ever?” My parents sent me to Mexico when I was 16, without them, and I thanked them a lot.
"The journey she goes on is to realise that the best way to show her daughter true love is to let her go and let her try to achieve the things that were not possible for her. So it takes courage."
HB: Why did that happen?
LN: My parents knew that Mexico was important to me, because I was born there. I have a Mexican name, and they wanted me to learn about the place, and to grow up. I learned so much while I was there. If it had not been for their courage and their faith in me, I would not have had that experience.
HB: What was it like shooting in Katwe?
LN: I can’t imagine shooting this film anywhere else, because being in the place where these things transpired, we were faced with all the things that Harriet and her family experienced. There were open sewers that we had to navigate, we had to jump over rickety bridges, there were animals left, right, and centre. There were merchants and it was colourful, and life was going on everywhere. They don’t see film crews very often, so crowds would gather and we had to deal with all of that.
HB: Do you play chess?
LN: I had to unlearn the chess in order to play Harriet. I had to know nothing; I had to be even suspicious of the chessboard. And that was actually a lot of fun. I learned to play chess when I was younger. I am no Phiona Mutesi by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know what each piece does. While I was there, Robert Katende gave me a lesson and he is such an incredible teacher. He brings the board to life and he makes you understand it from your position. I think it’s so great, the way in which he’s used chess as a metaphor for these children living in such challenging circumstances.
HB: You were in Toronto with Twelve Years a Slave in 2013 and went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. How have you coped with the pressure of being famous?
LN: It’s been quite a ride. It’s been very confusing at times, very exhilarating, very strange. But I’m so grateful to have started with that film. It’s afforded me choice so I’ve been able to play roles I feel passionate about. Queen of Katwe has provided me with an artistic challenge that I feel has made me grow even more.
HB: So where does playing Maz Kanata in Star Wars fit in?
LN: Part of the fun of being an actor is that you get to experience a myriad of worlds. I love being able to do a true story here, and then a completely fictional one there. I love the variety.
HB: Given your love of filmmaking, did you also yearn to see what was going on behind the camera in Queen of Katwe?
LN: I got a lot of tea while Mira was cutting the film! I saw early takes, early cuts of it and stuff like that. It was really cool.
With four kids of his own, the effervescent and charismatic Oyelowo knows how to relate to youngsters, and took Madina Nalwanga as well as the other kids in the Queen of Katwe cast to the movies.
HB: Does Katwe have a multiplex?
DO: No, it doesn’t, to my knowledge, so much so that we had to go quite far afield. I took the kids to see Jurassic World and Madina sat next to me, clutching my arm the whole time. I literally had fingerprint marks on my hand! She turned to me during the film and said, “Is that what we are doing?” I asked her, “Have you ever seen a film in a movie theatre before?” she replied, “No.” We were halfway through shooting a film where she is the lead and she had never seen a movie before. The second time she ever saw a movie was the other night here, with 2,600 people watching her be the lead in this film.
Since there’s no multiplex in Katwe, we’re probably going to have to cobble something together to screen the film there. But I hear Disney has quite a bit of money, so I think it’s going to be okay!
'Queen of Katwe' opens in Australia on December 1st.