'Queen Of Katwe' - Movie Review

Updated: 20 October, 2016 10:09 IST | Mayank Shekhar |

This film remains so remarkably restrained throughout, drawing hardly any attention at all to the big moments — through the background score (which is laidback, slightly calypso), or creating a sense of occasion (most scenes are tonally the same) — that by the end of it, you genuinely wonder if this was a sports movie in the first place

It is hard not to feel for a Third World girl from nowhere somehow making it bi
It is hard not to feel for a Third World girl from nowhere somehow making it big

'Queen Of Katwe'
U; Biopic
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o
Rating: 

This film remains so remarkably restrained throughout, drawing hardly any attention at all to the big moments — through the background score (which is laidback, slightly calypso), or creating a sense of occasion (most scenes are tonally the same) — that by the end of it, you genuinely wonder if this was a sports movie in the first place.

Well, genre wise, it is a sports film all right, with the usual tropes detailing the triumph of the underdog. But the sport we're dealing with is, well, the board-game chess. And as Indians who've celebrated Vishwanathan Anand all their life, but never actually watched him play will testify, chess isn't exactly a spectator sport. Filming it like a series of riveting battle scenes could be an issue. Just making a guess. I haven't, for example, seen the much loved Pawn Sacrifice (2014) yet. Is this film viewer-friendly, however?

Very much so. Partly because this is as much the story of Uganda, where this film is set, as it is about chess pieces. Now, what do most of us know about Uganda besides the late dictator Idi Amin? As much as we know about chess, I suppose — the general perception being that it's a game associated with deep intellect. The champion before us, growing up in the slums of Katwe, in Kampala, can't read. She can combine instinct and inherent intelligence, though, to crack a game meant for the gentry.

Or in her case, rich children, competing for the big trophy, unable to mix with the unwashed masses that a visionary coach (David Oyelowo; absolutely terrific) picks up from the shanties, and begins to promote at public schools. Metaphors that one commonly associates with chess concern "chaal" or cleverness, as it were. The coach suggests likewise as well: "Use your mind, follow your plans and you'll find your safe squares." But the way a little slum kid in this picture interprets the game gives you a better sense of what the filmmakers are perhaps attempting to convey. Which is that the queen is the most powerful piece in chess, and yet a pawn can reach the end of the board, and attain that status: "Small can become big. That's why I like this game," says the kid.

Frankly, that's why we will like this slightly raw, true story. It is hard not to feel for a Third World girl from nowhere — her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) struggling to make ends meet — somehow making it in the most unexpected field, because people, or at least a passionate old man around her, feels she can. Do you still get a sense as if some of the drama is missing?

I did. And this may be deliberate. Director Mira Nair is obviously the perfect choice to helm such a subject. One, she knows Uganda better than most established filmmakers, having lived there for 27 years, I hear. She gloriously began her feature film career with the Oscar-nominated 'Salaam Bombay'! (1988), similarly set among street children in Mumbai. She is also arguably India's most popular export to the West since Salman Rushdie.

What's the connection between Rushdie and Nair? I suspect they both shine the brightest still when their works deal with India. This film, although heartwarming, and real, barely comes close to Nair's joyous 'desi trilogy', for instance — 'Salaam Bombay' (1988), 'Monsoon Wedding' (2001) and 'The Namesake' (2006). But that's just a minor
caveat, taking away nothing from the fact that you must still check this out, mate!

Watch the trailer of 'Queen Of Katwe'

First Published: 05 October, 2016 08:25 IST

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