That Mira Nair has, over the course of 37 years and 10 feature films, largely avoided repeating herself is both remarkable and not remarked upon enough. Few directors today can claim to have worked in as many varied settings and styles. The Rourkela-born Nair has made hyper-realistic street films and lavish costume dramas, ensemble pieces and techno-thrillers. Her stories have taken place in 16th century India and post-9/11 Pakistan, in the American Deep South, Kolkata, New York, Havana and Delhi.

Those who’ve kept up with Nair over the years would have noted her penchant for celebrating her home cities on film. Kolkata, where she spent summers as a child, became one of the settings for The Namesake. New Delhi, where she went to college, got one of its defining films in Monsoon Wedding (2001). New York, where she currently spends half her year, was one of the settings for The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). And Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where she spends the other six months, was seen at the start of Mississippi Masala (1991). Now, Nair has made her first full film in Kampala: Queen Of Katwe, the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this month.

“If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will," Nair says, over the phone from Kampala. It isn’t surprising that Nair would speak of this story in personal terms. She has lived in Kampala for 27 years now, ever since she went to research Mississippi Masala and fell in love with academic Mahmood Mamdani there. In 2004, she founded Maisha Film Labs, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships, produces films and imparts skills. During our conversation, she repeatedly referred to the locations in the film in terms of their distance from her Kampala home.

Though Mutesi grew up in the slums of Katwe, just 15 minutes away from where Nair lives, the director hadn’t gotten wind of her exploits. It was a phone call from Disney executive Tendo Nagenda which brought Mutesi on to her radar in early 2013. Two weeks later, she met Mutesi—then on a tour of the US—in New York City. She was struck, she said, by the 17-year-old’s modesty and shyness. In Kampala, she met Mutesi’s mother, Harriet, who took her around the city in a van and showed her six houses they’d previously lived in and been forced to leave. They visited each other’s homes; Nair planted seeds in Harriet’s garden. “It’s only because I’ve seen your garden that I can ask you to plant mine," Harriet told her.

Nair’s films are packed with strivers, underdogs and outsiders—Salaam Bombay!’s Chaipau, Monsoon Wedding’s Dubey, Amelia Earhart in Amelia—but Mutesi is a special case. As Tim Crothers wrote in a 2011 profile of her for ESPN The Magazine: “To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe." After her father died of AIDS when she was 4, Mutesi and her two brothers were raised by Harriet. Finding adequate food was a daily struggle; Mutesi would sell corn to help her mother out. One day, nine-year-old Mutesi followed her brother Brian to the local Sports Outreach Institute. She’d never played that game with the black and white pieces—all she knew was that they gave you porridge if you attended.

This is how Robert Katende entered Mutesi’s life. In a 2014 short film co-directed by Nair called A Fork, A Spoon And A Knight, we learn how Katende started the chess programme after he noticed children standing on the sidelines of the football games he coached. Katende taught Mutesi to play and, crucially, realized that the girl showed an unusual aptitude for the game. Soon, the 10-year-old was beating boarding-school children. In 2007, aged 11, she won the Uganda Women’s Junior Championship. She won it again the following year, and the year after that. In 2012, she became the first woman to win the open category of the National Junior Chess Championship. She repeated her triumph in 2013. She has been part of the Ugandan women’s team at the last three Chess Olympiads in Siberia, Turkey and Norway.

In 2012, the ESPN profile was expanded into a book, The Queen Of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path To Becoming A Chess Champion, by Crothers. This was adapted for the screen by William Wheeler, who’d worked with Nair on The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Meanwhile, Nair’s short film on Katende became a “calling card of sorts", an introduction to the film’s themes and one of its primary characters. Disney green-lit the film—very quickly, Nair says.

It probably helped that the people Nair had in mind to play Harriet and Robert—David Oyelowo (Selma) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)—were both Oscar-nominated actors. Nyong’o and Nair knew each other well; the actor had done a stint at Maisha, and had been Nair’s assistant during the filming of The Namesake. Nair says she sent both of them the script within hours of it being completed. Madina Nalwanga, a dancer by training, was cast as Mutesi; like the character she plays, she too is from the slums of Kampala, and sold corn as a child.

One of the biggest challenges for Nair was figuring out how to make chess—one of the most static of sports—into something visually compelling. She and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt devised different visual approaches for the various matches Mutesi plays. Katende, who was present for the duration of the shoot, designed the games, after which Nair and Bobbitt worked out how to shoot each individual one. In scenes with multiple games taking place simultaneously, this became all the more complicated. “The call sheet would have actual chess moves on it," Nair says. Later, she and editor Barry Alexander Brown “cut the games emotionally, like a drama".

After the somewhat underwhelming Amelia (2009) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Queen Of Katwe appears to return Nair to her cinéma vérité roots. Salaam Bombay! (1988), her first feature film, emerged from her fascination with the vérité tradition. She shot the 1988 film in 55 days in the brothels and slums of Bombay, with a cast and crew full of non-professionals and first-timers. Queen Of Katwe may have the backing of a big American studio, but it too was shot on location, in slums and crowded streets, with locals filling in many of the smaller parts (Nair estimated that out of the 100-odd Ugandans in the film, 80 had never faced the camera before).

If films about chess are a rarity on world cinema screens, so are films about Africa. African stories rarely make their way to screens outside the continent, and the ones that do are usually directed by foreigners. Queen Of Katwe could be seen as a corrective: an insider’s view of a specific corner of Africa, made by an adopted daughter who believes she’s “become Ugandan now".

Queen of Katwe releases in theatres on 7 October.

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A still from ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’.
A still from ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’.

All the right moves

Chess in the movies—it excited Bergman as well as Ray

There aren’t too many films about chess out there, and it’s easy to understand why. As a cinematic prospect, chess is notoriously difficult to make interesting. Yet smart directors have found a way to make the sport look exciting.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

In Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight plays chess against Death on the beach, wagering his soul on the outcome of the game. This scene is so well-known that even its parodies are famous by now. In Woody Allen’s one-act play ‘Death Knocks’, the Grim Reaper plays gin rummy. More recently, a meme surfaced in which Death is asked if he’s wearing a burkini.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

The Thomas Crown Affair is a contender for one of the most stylish films of all time. So overpowering is Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen’s charisma that they even manage to make chess seem sexy. A near-silent game between the two of them becomes a series of close-ups of pursed lips and twitchy fingers as the action heats up. A seduction in 64 squares.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)

In Shatranj Ke Khilari, Saeed Jaffrey and Sanjeev Kumar play two Mughal courtiers who spend their days locked in leisurely battle over a chessboard. This is one of Satyajit Ray’s funniest films.

Revolver (2005)

More of a guilty pleasure than a great movie, Guy Ritchie’s Revolver does have an intriguingly shot game of chess. As a conman demonstrates a formula he’s learnt that helps him win at any board game, Ritchie thrusts us right into the midst of the game. We’re so close we can almost feel the weight of the pieces, hear them scrape against the surface of the board.

Computer Chess (2013)

One of the strangest—and funniest—indies in recent years, Andrew Bujalski’s film is about a convention held in 1980 in which geeks try to beat each other’s computer chess programmes. The film is a mockumentary.

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