Queen of Katwe: A deft mix of emotion and strategy

Queen of Katwe took me back to an Indian film that released earlier this year, Sudha Kongara’s Saala Khadoos. The story arc here is quite similar — of plucking a potential sports champion from the poor slums; there it was boxing, here it is chess. Based on the life of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from the slum of Katwe who became a top player under the guidance of coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), Queen of Katwe is a fairytale of sorts; of maize seller Mutesi’s rise from abject poverty and lack of education to a life more than ordinary.

It has the predictability of a sports film and the emotions of a mainstream Hindi cinema, both in equal measure. Yet Queen of Katwe stands on its own feet because of its distinct raw rhythm and energy and for rooting itself well in the underprivileged world of Uganda. It catches the rough and tumble of the slum life in an unfussy way, at once specific and universal. The portrayal of prejudices— of class, gender — would ring true anywhere. The aspirations of the various characters in the film are the same as of the disadvantaged and deprived anywhere — like giving a better life to the children, of taking the next generation out of the mire.

Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o

Much of the authenticity draws from the performances. Specially the mother-daughter twosome, the tenacious Nalwanga and the dignified Lupita Nyong’o who plays Mutesi’s mother, Nakku Harriet. Initially the spoken English feels too halting, stilted and practiced but soon you grow into it and the setting along with the people.

There are times when things get clichéd, when they seem to get overstated and manipulative. You wonder if all the miseries of the world — from prostitution to floods — have been reserved only for the Mutesi family. Some of the life lessons get trite: “You don’t belong where you are. You belong where you believe you belong,” but then the film is finely tuned in other moments specially in the culture shocks that Mutesi gets exposed to or her own deep rooted identity issues which come to surface when she gets exposed to success and an alternate, more empowered reality.

“Things are changing but my life is the same,” she cries. And you promptly want to give her a tight hug, and lots of hope.

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