The film is based on the life of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi.
Mira Nair's "Queen of Katwe" is the latest in the league of sport movies to hit the screen. Based on the real life of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi (essayed by a brilliant Madina Nalwanga), the film plays on the familiar trope of the underdog's victory over those more privileged.
However, Nair's film is still extraordinary because the story she has chosen to tell is not one that makes it to celluloid often. Phiona is not just black, she is from one of the poorest countries in the world.
Her sport, chess, is more about brain than brawn. It lacks the glamour associated with women's sports. We don't know what Phiona's legs look like; there are no contrasting shots of a sporty Phiona and a "feminine" Phiona - from the beginning to the end, she appears in the ordinary clothes from her limited wardrobe, playing nobody but herself. A child from the slum with a stubborn will to win.
There's no scope for the director to show the viewers inspiring shots of women's physical strength as in a "Mary Kom" either. There's no attempt to prove that Phiona is as good as the boys physically and deserves our respect because of it. Something filmmakers feel compelled to do when making movies about female sportspersons. There is a little episode when Phiona wins the boys' championship but it appears in the film as a comic moment laced with irony and not as an effort to move the audience to tears.
While chess requires stamina, we don't see Phiona's coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), humiliating her and winning her gratitude for the insults as in a "Chak De" or "Irudhi Suttru". Instead, Katende is a sensitive man who displays great understanding towards Phiona's circumstances and offers her a support system that she can depend upon. And more importantly, the film acknowledges the contributions made by several others to Phiona's success, notably her mother (a wonderful Lupita Nyong'o) and wayward sister.
The success stories of male athletes are attributed to their own efforts while the coaches of female athletes take a larger than life role when their stories are told. We know the names of the coaches of PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, but how many know who is Abhinav Bindra's coach? This gendered narration of athletic achievements reflects in films too. In "Queen of Katwe", Katende receives due acknowledgment but it's clear who the hero of the story really is.
Movies about women and sport are conscious of the gender of their protagonists and all the obstacles that it places on their path.
Take "MS Dhoni: The Untold Story" - when Dhoni (Sushant Singh Rajput) needs to reach Kolkatta from Bihar to play in a certain match, he and his buddies pile on to a car and drive the whole night to reach the city. Nobody asks the boys questions about their safety, where they will stay or who'd be their local guardian. Such questions are irrelevant in the life of any man.
If the film had been about a female sportsperson, the prejudices and risks that women face in a patriarchal society would have invariably found their way to the narrative, loudly screaming the bias from the rooftops. Remember the scene from "Chak De" when the girls bond over beating up men who harass them at McDonald's?
In "Queen of Katwe", however, the verisimilitude with which Nair has told her story renders such contrivances unnecessary. Phiona's identity is not reduced to her gender alone. The complexity of an illiterate child of a single mother struggling to make ends meet in a poor neighbourhood plays out beautifully in Nair's script. When we root for Phiona, we root for her because she's a champion in every sense of the word, not because we're making allowances for her gender.
If it's difficult to be euphoric about chess, considering how quiet a game it is, it ought to have been tremendously challenging to make a movie on it. The sporting battles that are usually shown with great drama in large stadiums and blinding floodlights are reduced to a tiny black and white board. But Nair still succeeds in making the audience cheer as Phiona checkmates her opponents one by one, ultimately slaying your heart like a true queen.