Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Madina Nalwanga, Martin Kabanza, Taryn Kyazze
Director: Mira Nair
Mira Nair’s storytelling is very personal, to the extent that she makes you want to know more, and even then chooses to ignore that request. While watching Queen of Katwe, there are numerous moments when you want to know more, see more and perhaps feel more, but there seems to be no way to do that. Perhaps the limitations of the cinematic medium are more pronounced in a story like this. While it would be a sin to try and relate this film to any other, but one cannot help thinking of Salaam Bombay, and the life of those kids. Queen of Katwe is a similarly restrained, thriftily managed and precisely timed film, just as the lives of the people in it. From a distance one is curious and particularly interested in rhythms and routines of lives lived in such ghettos and slums. While Mira presents a beautiful biopic, she also makes sure that you get just the right amount of reality within the story.
It goes further from there, the biopic also presents a world of hope, a method of diversion and providing channelisation to the most wasted resource of this world, humans. It presents an applicable approach to people engaged in self-help groups and NGOs trying to figure out how things can change for the better in the longer run. There are no quick fixes, and often times the expense on the desired solution is very disheartening. Simple interventions like these can be effective in preparing adolescents in similar surroundings for better lives, and the film remains grounded, by not allowing you to bring in luck, talent or any of those words that are often disheartening. It simply emphasises on the importance of practice, persistence and performance in a non-heroic way.
Phiona is a delicate character placed within harsh and demeaning circumstances of the slums of Katwe, Uganda. Madina Nalwanga has perfectly played out Phiona and when you see the two of them together in the end credits you know instantly that they have bonded not just on the surface, but deep within, in a way that the actor has fully actualised the life and the pain of the person. I would really go much beyond the scope of this review if I were to talk about the perfection of casting in this film. Every character seems so real; they talk, as much as needed in real lives and they remain silent likewise.
Queen of Katwe is not very beautiful; it is filled with images that are not pleasant, faces that don’t seem to belong on the big screen. There are inconsistencies in parts but then again it’s a medium of limitations, and yet in those limitations there are some exceptionally crafted scenes, like the one in which Phiona and Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) are playing chess on the bank of the river, there aren’t enough words to describe the beauty of that scene. The film’s sound is considerably unpolished and dull, as viewers we are used to experiencing sound in theatres in such grand proportions that this one seems to be dull.
There are those crescendos and emotional peaks and in those moments the sound literally brings tears, but it still remains unnoticeable. Biopics like these are important; they don’t reject or demean you. They are simply stories of people who went through mountains of trouble and one step at a time they kept moving with a plan; trying to avoid the rough weather, hunger to finally emerge on top. The moment that truly stands out for me in the film is when Phiona is walking in the ghetto doing her chores, and she passes by a man who is making bricks. The man asks her the same question in both scenes. “Hey Phiona, how is your life?” In the two scenes the answer to the question not only takes you closer to the character, it also allows for exploration of transformations that happen on a minute scale every day.
The writer is founder, Lightcube Film Society...