There are three places that the revered director, Mira Nair calls ‘home’. Kampala, New York and Delhi. Her latest cinematic offering — Queen Of Katwe — was born in Kampala and narrates the story of a chess prodigy (Phiona Mutesi) from the slums of the Ugandan city. The otherwise elusive filmmaker caught up with us for a long chat about her latest work, working with family friend Lupita Nyong’o and more…
What is the biggest takeaway from Queen of Katwe?
It tells us that genius can be found anywhere. We just need to look for it. It’s the story of the chess champ Phiona Mutesi, played by this absolutely stunning girl Madina Nalwanga. Phiona became a grandmaster in chess despite being completely illiterate. She did not know how to read or write.
Did Phiona and Madina interact with each other?
Not that much. They met on the sets once, and a number of times later. You see, while we were shooting, Phiona began her schooling. She started attending school at the age of 13. So she could connect only a few times with Madina during the shoot. But now they are like sisters. They live in the same street in Kampala.
And Lupita Nyong’o?
Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Phiona’s mother, spent a lot of time with Phiona’s real mother. And Robert Ketende, who was Phiona’s real-life chess coach, spent a lot of time with us on sets. In fact, Ketende was our chess consultant. He was on the sets every day. He taught all the kids in our film how to play chess. Every game of chess is authentic. We haven’t faked even one move.
Lupita Nyong’o is a phenomenal actress. What was it like directing her?
It was like directing a daughter. Lupita is a family friend. I’ve known her from the time she was a very young girl. She worked as an intern in my film The Namesake. She worked in my production company for about a year and a half. We wrote the mother’s part in Queen Of Katwe for Lupita because she became this meteoric star and more importantly she suited the part. We wrote the part as that of young Mother Courage, someone who had children from the age of 15.
Did Lupita rise to the occasion?
For Lupita, it was a big challenge to play a mother, because she isn’t one in real life. But she has the same core of courage and strength and an anchored quality in her as the real Phiona’s mother. Also, Lupita is from Kenya. So is David Oyelowo. It is very beautiful to be working with movie stars who are from the same continent where our movie is located. It’s very empowering to have a film that’s so truthful to the characters. It is very difficult , for example, to have an NRI playing a Bihari. It was such a blessing to have two bonafide Hollywood movie stars who were Africans and from the same place as our plot. It made my job so much easier.
Are you a chess maestro yourself now?
Maestro rehne do yaar. Phiona just taught me some chess moves. She would laugh at how recklessly I’d play. She would say (and here Mira imitates the African accent), ‘You must consider the other side of the board.’ I wrote that line down for future reference. I even had the screen Phiona say that line. I am no maestro in chess. I just know the basic moves. I’d rather make movies than play chess.
Are you coming to India for the film’s release?
Darling, I can’t. I am actually heading to the African subcontinent. The homecoming for the film is in Uganda. Then I am going home to rest a bit.
Where is home?
Well I have three homes — Kampala, New York and Delhi.