Mira Nair: Breaking the Colour Code
Mira Nair’s new movie is a daring rejoinder to racial prejudices
It’s been a month since the tenth feature-length live action film of arguably the most accomplished and feted international director of Indian origin, Mira Nair, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey spoke of how the world has been catching up with Nair’s stories. Bailey went on to proclaim that Nair’s time is “now”, and ever since, the accolades for both her and her new film haven’t stopped.Being a four-quadrant-pleasing inspirational Disney biopic of an underdog chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Queen of Katwe may not be the standout movie of Nair’s remarkable career that counts, among its many highlights, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful exploration of one’s roots, The Namesake. And yet, it is, by all means, just as important as every other story Nair’s chosen to champion through her distinct cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.Because this is the year in which the American film industry is still reeling from the embarrassment and backlash of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, where all 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white, for the second time in a row, since 1998. It is also, lamentably, the year where US Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against anyone who isn’t a straight, white, American male, has managed to sway a significant part of his highly-educated first world country into advocating for him.In such a time, so fuelled by class divide, prejudice and racism, here’s a film by the most successful of the ‘Big Six’ American film studios at the moment, featuring an all-black cast led by a 16-year-old debutant non-professional actress from Uganda, set almost entirely in Africa, and directed by a woman filmmaker of Indian origin. In any other year, a film like this would have been an anomaly, but in 2016, when the world seems to Benjamin Buttoning itself into a de-evolved, Neolithic version of itself, the very fact that Queen of Katwe was made, is akin to a miracle.
But that’s exactly what attracted Nair, never been one to shy away from challenges, to the story in the first place. “If you see Africa on any screen, even within Africa or without Africa, it is always to do with dictatorship or beastiality or child soldiers and violence; it has nothing to do with the kind of everyday life in Africa,” she says, over the telephone, in a conversation that took place minutes before her film’s European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.
“I think it’s so important to break the ignorance, the myopia, and the, sort of, terrible tropes and stereotypes that exists about other places in the world today. Even in India, there is massive racism against African students. There is so much importance given to the colour of our skin, and there’s caste prejudice that we’ve been carrying on for years, that the government stokes every moment, you know. A film like this hopefully makes you realise that the Nigerian student down the street is not a hustler or whatever the world may tell you that he/she is, and that’s important to know right now.”
Lending a voice to those who don’t get much of a say has always been one of the prevalent themes of Nair’s movies. From tackling the pandemic of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding to the rising Islamobhobia in her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair takes pride in giving a platform to the disadvantaged, the marginalised as well as the misfits, while ensuring that their portrayal is not bleak, but instead, spirited. Nair calls it the “life-ist” attitude that she has seen as the fundamental component of the human condition, irrespective of where she’s set her film.
“This attitude, this embracing of life fully… the emphasis on how much you can create with your life, regardless of how little you may have, has always inspired me,” Nair says. “The struggle to just achieve you are by people considered outside of society, is a tale I have tried to tell since Salaam Bombay!, because there’s dignity and joy that you never see or hear of.”
When a Disney executive with Ugandan roots, Tendo Nagenda, brought her a cut out of a sports magazine that had profiled Mutesi, asking her if she’d be interested in making a film on her, Nair knew this was a story she needed to tell. Mutesi’s story took place barely 15 minutes away from her house in Kampala, a city she calls home since the last two decades (she met and married her husband Mahmood Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, New York, in Kampala), but it was opportunity to authentically portray a people she has come to love, that jumped out at her.
So if Queen of Katwe tick marks the genre sports film, it also firmly shines a light at the vivaciousness and compassion of the Ugandan community, beyond just the colours of its streets, the hip hop music or the vibrant camerawork (by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). The story of Phiona, she points out, is not just the story of how “genius can be found everywhere”, but that of the entire community that lived her dream with her, and for her, “because that is how life is lived in Kampala.”
“It’s not an individualistic life or a one person show. It takes a mentor like Robert Katende, a mother like Harriet Mutesi, it takes a street, a family… it takes a village to make a genius. It’s this prismatic view that I find interesting. I also think the world is ready to see on screen what the world is off screen – the multiplicities, the diversity, the inclusivity, and the humanity – which I love to film. Because I am certainly never going to make the reductive formula sports film that is expected of me,” she laughs.
Having grown up between Rourkela and Bhubaneshwar, then studying in Delhi University and Harvard University, and then, having found her calling in Hollywood, shuttling between her three homes in New York, New Delhi and Kampala, Nair is a global citizen, if ever there was one. So presenting an all-encompassing world in every story she illustrates on screen, is not just important to her, but in some ways, obligatory.
“If you are truthful and all-encompassing, whether you are watching Uganda in Queen of Katwe or Monsoon Wedding with the Punjabiyat of it, or the streets of Bombay in Salaam Bombay!, even if that world is far away from your reality, you will eventually see yourself in that truth too. You relate because you either know the feelings I have tried to portray, or you could know them.”
It was hence critical to Nair to have cast actors from the same streets that she tried to paint this honest picture of, if Queen of Katwe was to work. Madina Nalwanga, who played the lead role of Phiona, grew up not far from Katwe, in the streets of Kibuli, where she sold corn for a living, and was found through a dancing troupe she was a part of. All the other kids were non-professional actors too; a strategy that had helped her put together a magical cast during her debut in Salaam Bombay! as well.
“Children are like the maps of life in the way they move their hands or bodies,” she says tenderly. “I had no interest in taking an upper class child and teaching him or her how to bathe with half an inch of water. My interest, on the other hand, is actually being educated by a child, to show us the world that he or she is coming from. So when we found the kids, I distilled the roles according to their strength and their fun, so even the audience would feel a sense of familiarity on seeing them.”
“Morever,” she points out, “there’s a real alchemy that happens when you put together a kid from reality opposite a legendary actor like David Oweloyo (who plays Phiona’s coach Katende) or Lupita N’yongo (who plays Phiona’s mother Harriet), or Naseeruddin Shah in Salaam Bombay!. Because when you have a pure non-actor and a pure actor, they both have to meet at a point of purity, you know.”
It is this commitment to break out of the trappings of traditional Disney fare that gives Queen of Katwe the characteristic Mira Nair stamp, which the director gives full credit to the studio for not trying to “sanitize”. Because if the film plays out the conventional soaring, uplifting sports film tropes, like the sports metaphors that Katende uses to explain life itself (“Find your safe squares”), there are enough unpredictable and unexpected moments of genuine emotion derived from the “barbarity and brutality of living in the slums,” as Nair puts it.
The filmmaker points out specific examples of scenes where Phiona, when she first goes to the Church where the other kids are playing chess, is called a ‘pig’ and has to fight to eat the complimentary porridge by her own. Another scene, where Phiona, on beating a boy at chess, asks out aloud if she was allowed to win by him, is an example of the “familiar female diffidence” that is still rampant in so many women, according to Nair.
“These are not unique attributes, you know,” she explains, “These things happen to all of us, and that makes us think and believe that we are pretty much the same people, no matter where we are. I don’t like sugar coating this, but yes, I do like to tell it all in a way that you have mazaa (fun) also. Because if you feel the mazaa, you feel the pain too.
“That is how I make movies – I don’t want a harangue; I don’t want to be lectured to. So I have shaped the film like a human heart and the rhythm of it is like an accordion. It expands your heart with laughter, because the kids would do that to me with their finger snapping and their sounds that were so full of sassiness; and in the next moment, you’d see the reality of eating, where you are fighting for a bowl of porridge.”
A turning point in the movie, for Phiona, comes through when a kid she’s playing with explains to her why chess matters to her. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” she says, referring to the chess rule wherein a pawn can become a queen if it makes it across the board to the other side. Phiona makes this her motto, deriving courage from it, and giving it her own moniker that ties back with the movie’s title: “queening.”
Queening can aptly be used as a term to describe the swagger of the women in the movie. Because Queen of Katwe isn’t just an inspirational sports film that would empower the young Phionas of the world to dream big and then chase those dreams down; but for Nair, it is also a feminist movie inspired by, and dedicated to the Harriets of the world, because without their pluck and persistance, there could be no Phionas.
Says Nair, “I don’t ever want to make a female character who gives up on life. Even the real Harriet is a formidable ‘Mother Courage’, someone who became a teenage mother but refused to let her children follow her path, as best as she could. She struggled so deeply in her youth but resolved that she will stand up for her children.”
“That’s the tenacity that Phiona has inherited too. She’s lethal and resolute in chess, and that comes from her mother’s life, struggles and courage. And these are the women I like depicting on screen: who are as complicated as we all are, and inspiring in their own ways.”
With virtually no wrong moves in her film career spanning three decades, be it through her feminism or her movies that feature protagonists embracing life with all the curve balls it throws at them, or through the film school she’s started in Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab, that has been galvanizing African youth through its motto, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else well,” perhaps Nair’s endgame too, has been “queening” all along.
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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 21, 2016
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