Known for path-breaking films like Salaam Bombay!(1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and The Namesake (2006), director Mira Nair has carved an enviable niche in Hollywood. Her last film, Queen of Katwe was feted in festivals and awards for its true-tolife portrayal of the life of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi and struggles with poverty.
Excerpts from an interview with Nair:
How was it filming the chess scenes?
Chess games were a fantastic visual challenge because I love the rigour of the game and the strategising but I was so aware of the fact that we have so many games to shoot in the Queen of Katwe that I could not afford to be treading familiar ground visually with each game. So cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and my challenge was precisely how to treat games almost emotionally — in terms of what Phiona is doing or how she is growing through each game.
Were all the chess moves real?
This is a film equally for chess lovers. So every single move and every game of chess is true. There was a chess consultant who worked with us every day. Every move was rehearsed and our children were taught by Robert Katende himself before the movie began. The kids got into it so much that when I would say take, they would start playing and then I would say cut and they would all moan! The game harnesses the kids’ complete focus and that’s what’s so beautiful to see. But it’s also hard to direct as you have to be actually deeply involved with the game for me to be convinced. So it was a beautiful kind of challenge filming the chess in the Queen of Katwe.
What message would you like viewers to take from the Queen of Katwe?
Phiona is a girl who has a dream without even knowing it. She has a gift — that of playing chess — and she uses it to lift her family out of poverty. The story says that genius is in all of us and it needs a teacher to see that spark in you, it needs a mother, it needs a web of people who can harness that genius in you. Phiona’s story is one of great struggle but she has the ability to focus on what she has and not on what she doesn’t have and yet realise her dream.
You are an enthusiastic yoga practitioner and you ask the cast and the crew to have yoga sessions before the day. What are the benefits of mindfulness in filmmaking and for filmmakers?
Yes, I practise anger yoga that is a very classical form of yoga and I like to have a senior teacher with us on the crew who takes a class. It’s a voluntary class as you can’t force yoga on everyone for one hour before we start working in the morning. But it’s a beautiful way to firstly, put the ego out of the door and bring everyone together from the movie stars to the carpenters. I think practising yoga gives me the stamina and selflessness to be able to see a problem on set. Also at the end of a shoot it’s difficult to actually have energy for the next day because it’s very hard doing what we do. So yoga has become a great foundation of my personal and filmmaking life.
What were the challenges of filming in Africa?
My home is in Kampala, Uganda, and I have lived there for 27 years now. So filming Queen of Katwe was an enormous privilege. I tried to distill what I love about the everyday joy, the everyday dignity and the struggle of living there. I love the attitude of people to embrace life fully even if they don’t have much in their stomach. It was a chance for me in Queen of Katwe to bring that on screen — the vibrancy, sassiness and emphasis on education.
All that is what I see but you never see that about any part of Africa. All you see are safari lands and giraffes but this is how life is truly lived there.The tales of Phiona and her family exist around us but are never depicted on screen. It was a huge benefit to actually film in Katwe where the community came out of their homes to dance and work with us at all times.
There are hardly any extras in the film — it’s full of people really leading their own lives. It was constantly a boon to be around the people that you are portraying. So I really enjoy the fact that you are seeing Katwe as it is in all its vibrancy, struggle and joy.
Watch Queen of Katwe tonight on Star Movies Select HD at 9 PM