Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair said she “jumped” at the chance of directing Queen of Katwe, starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, as it gave her an opportunity to make a movie about her home town, Kampala, and show a different side to Africa.
Nair’s latest film will receive its European premiere on Sunday (October 9) at the Odeon Leicester Square as part of the London Film Festival’s headline gala section.
It tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl selling corn on the streets of rural Uganda whose world changes when she is introduced to the game of chess by Robert Katen-de (Oyelowo) a soccer player turned missionary.
With support from her mother Harriet (Nyong’o), family and community, Phiona finds the confidence and determination to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion.
Nair said she first heard about chess genius Mutesi’s story from Ugandan Tendo Nagenda, the executive vice-president of production at Disney.
“He gave me a half-page article about Phiona, who was 11 years old and lived 15 minutes away from my house in Kampala. She was off to a Russian chess championship and was completely illiterate,” Nair said from New York.
“I was immediately interested. But more than anything, I wanted to make a film about my home and the streets where I live. I wanted to do that for a long time, since Mississippi Masala.”
Nair’s husband is Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani. The couple, who have a son, also have a home in New York.
The director said she wanted to be honest to Phiona’s story and had not tried to “sugarcoat” it.
“It not just brings a positive image of the African continent, but is also an honest and a truthful portrait of ordinary people. It it a purely African story and is told without any sugarcoating. Disney respected my vocabulary and sensibility as a filmmaker,” Nair said.
The 58-year-old filmmaker said Nyong’o and Oyelowo were her “first and only choices”.
Nair met Nyong’o when the actress worked as her assistant on The Namesake, an immigrant’s story adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of the same name.
“Did you know Lupita was my assistant on The Namesake? She is like a daughter to me. And then she became a huge star. She is a great actor and also from the continent and so is David. He is a Nigerian. It is an extraordinary time where we can make a major Hollywood movie with two stars and tell the story truthfully,” Nair said.
Nyong’o agreed to do the film within five hours and Oyelowo was similarly moved, Nair said.
She said Nyong’o called her and said she was “shaking and crying” when she read the first 10 pages of the script.
“I was thinking about Lupita while writing Harriet’s character. Harriet is like Mother Courage. Teenage pregnancy is a big thing in Kampala. She had her first child when she was 15. The remarkable things about Harriet are her courage and dignity and that’s how I think of Lupita. She has this massive core strength and dignity.
“In David’s case, I have chased his work for many years. He is an amazing actor and looks uncannily like Robert.”
Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala – about an Indian family forced to flee their home by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin – was one of the formative experiences for Oyelowo.
Nair said what also drew her to the story was the support that Phiona received from her teacher and mother. So before shooting the film, Nair wanted to meet Phiona, Harriet and Katende.
“I met Phiona in New York, my other home, and we got along famously. The screenplay was borne out of research and then I invited screenwriter William Wheeler. The book came out during the making of the movie and we used it as a reference.”
Nair added: “I have done this right from the beginning, shown the multiplicity of the world we live in. The screen must reflect this complexity.
“As a person of colour, it is important to me. We are told that they [Africans] are not like us. They are barbaric, dictatorial and have child soldiers. That’s how they see Africa.
“But we are the same. I feel it is important to humanise and lift the veil of otherness. I have always been attracted to such stories, to those who are considered marginal to any society. In their lives, I find stories of survival, resilience and also no self pity.”
During the course of shooting, Nair and the real-life Harriet bonded and the filmmaker said she was thrilled to plant Harriet’s garden.
“There are 80 plants in Harriet’s garden which came from my garden. Someone has given her a smartphone and every time a flower blooms, she sends me a picture. So even though she does not speak English, we have this communication and that’s what matters,” she said. (PTI)
For more information about the London Film Festival and the line-up of movies, go to www.bfi.org.uk/lff