Mira Nair and the making of Queen of Katwe

David Oyelowo with the director Mira Nair, center, and Madina Nalwanga on the set of “Queen of Katwe.” Credit Disney

By Kalungi Kabuye

Before Queen of Katwe, Mira Nair was probably better known as the director of the 1988 film Salaam Bombay, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In Uganda we first knew her for Mississippi Masala (1991), a story of an Indian girl whose family had to leave Uganda because of (their deportation by) then President Idi Amin. It was the first major film in Uganda’s modern history to be filmed in Uganda, and use Ugandans as actors, so it was a real big deal here.

David Oyelowo with the director Mira Nair, center, and Madina Nalwanga on the set of “Queen of Katwe.” Credit Disney

Salaam Bombay was seen by many critics as an artistic and spiritual pilgrimage for Nair, paying dues to an India she had left behind. Mira left India as a university student after she was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, and she has never really gone back (It is said once you attend Harvard you can never really go back to what you were, anyway).

She went to Harvard to study drama, but found the theatre scene there uninspiring, and so started making documentaries instead. She would go on to make six documentaries, including one about Indian strip-dancers, where she spent two months living with the girls. But she soon tired of the struggle to show the documentaries, and the effort to try and get a feedback from whoever watched them. So, she ventured into feature films, with Salaam Bombay as her first.

I first met Mira Nair in 2002, just before Monsoon Wedding had its Kampala premiere. I was assigned to write a feature story about her, and we met at her hilltop home, overlooking Lake Victoria. She told me that she originally came to Uganda to research the film Mississippi Masala.

“I didn’t know anything about Uganda. In fact, I had never set foot in Africa before,” she said. “I was doing research for my film, and that is why I came here.”

As she told it, Nair was trying to explore the line that exists between a white world, a black one, and then the one in between, the brown one. So came the story of an Indian family that left Uganda and was living in Mississippi, where the daughter falls in love with an African-American. The girl has India as her spiritual home, but has never been there; while Africa is the spiritual home for the American, but who has never been there.

One of the people Nair interviewed as part of her research was Professor Mahmood Mamdani. The two ended up getting married and setting up home in Kampala, where I met them with their then eleven-year-old son, Zohran.

She spoke of how Kampala reminded her a lot about India, especially the architecture. She also said then, that one day she would make a film about Uganda; she didn’t know what the story would be, or when she would do it, but she intended to show the power and beauty of her adopted home.

Roughly fifteen years later, Mira Nair would make Queen of Katwe, about a young Ugandan girl that against all odds rose from living in the slums of Kampala and took on the world, with chess as her vehicle and weapon. It is a real life fairy tale, and it was fitting that it is Disney studios that made it.

But is it the film that Mira Nair wanted to make, all those many years ago? As the story goes, an Executive with Disney Films Tendo Nagenda, whose parents happen to be Ugandan, read Phiona Mutesi’s story in a magazine, and thought it should be made into a film. He strongly felt that Mira Nair was the right person to do it, and so one day when they both happened to be in Kampala, he invited himself over to tea at her house, and told her about the story. She was sold, and decided to do it.

I did not attend the Kampala premiere of Queen of Katwe, and got to watch it months after it started showing. By then a spirited debate had been going on in the media and on social media, and opinion was divided whether that was the real Uganda depicted in the film.

Very few people debated the technical aspects of the film (critics thought it was very well done, many thought there would be an Oscar mention, and rating site Rotten Tomatoes gives it a whopping 93%), but the usual question of how Uganda is depicted by the outside world took centre stage.

I found this strange, and not a little hypocritical. Should the filming have been done in Kololo, and shown flyovers and neat roads?  Katwe, where most of the action takes place, is a slum, and is shown as such. It is a Ugandan story, about Ugandans, and the hero is as Ugandan as you like; but maybe we are not used to that. Is there, maybe, a lingering colonial legacy that dictates there should be a white person to save the Africans?

Some of the slum scenes might have been filmed in South Africa (there was talk of disagreements with the tax authorities), but many were filmed here in the real Katwe.

But I can understand why some Ugandans may not have readily taken the film to heart. First, Katwe is not the largest, nor the most infamous, of Kampala’s slums (don’t believe what Wikipedia says). We know of Kisenyi, and Owino, and Katanga of Wandegeya; but to many of the city residents, Katwe is known more for its artisans and huge speed bumps than as a slum. It is nothing like the Kibera slum of Nairobi, for example; or Soweto in Johannesburg; where generations have lived and died.

Katwe is also said to at one time been a hotbed of nationalism in pre-independence Uganda, and the site of many popular nightclubs in the 1960s. So any imagery of being a queen in Katwe is easily lost on some Ugandans.

In addition, the slums of Katwe are like transit camps, where people go when they are hard up, and then move on elsewhere when their fortunes improve; just like what happened to Phiona and her family in real life. Right now, for example, there is nothing to show where Muteesi grew up, and the community shack where she learnt how to play chess has reportedly been razed by another pastor.

There is also the fact that Phiona Mutesi’s story is not yet done, or fully told. Yes, she has played chess at an international level, made some money and built her mum a house, away from the slums of Katwe. But she is yet to beat the world, and that at a sport not many Ugandans are conversant with. Phiona can walk into any newsroom in Kampala, and I bet very few journalists would know who she is.

The film is based on the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster by Tim Crothers. It is an incredible tale of an incredibly gifted girl; but until she actually becomes a Grandmaster, the now 22-year Phiona will remain the girl whose film Disney made, but unrecognisable to most Ugandans.

The film’s biggest draw to Ugandans is probably the fact that it was made by Disney, and starred Lupita Nyong’o, an Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actress 12 Years A Slave), no less. But unlike The Last King of Scotland, whose crew camped in Uganda for months on end (and used hundreds of local extras), very few people knew that Queen of Katwe was being filmed in Kampala. And by the time local media realised the filming was actually going on, the crew had decamped for South Africa.

While Forest Whitaker and Kerry Washington attended endless press conferences and showed up at even more cocktail parties, local media had very limited access to the cast and crew of Queen of Katwe.

Has Mira Nair made the film on Uganda she planned all those years ago? I would like to think not, and that she is still looking for that story that will not only resonate with Ugandans, but catch the attention of the world like no other story has.

But I did enjoy watching Queen of Katwe, and thought Madina Nalwanga was brilliant in the role as Phiona. And I still wonder why she wasn’t on the front pages of our newspapers.

Kalungi Kabuye is an award-winning writer and photographer, who has been a journalist for the last 20 years. He is a blogger at https://kalungikabuye.wordpress.com/ and won Uganda’s Features Writer of the Year several times; and the Multichoice Africa Photographer of the Year Award. Several of his poems were published in the book Anthology of East African Poetry edited by Andrew Amateshe.