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'Extraordinary stories of ordinary people attract me'

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

She jumped at the chance of directing 'Queen of Katwe', starring Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, as it gave Mira Nair an opportunity to make a movie about her home, Kampala, and show a different side of African continent.

Nair says she first came to know about chess genius Phiona Mutesi's story from Tendo Nagenda, the Executive Vice President of Production, Disney.

An Ugandan, Nagenda visited Nair at her home in Kampala and over 'chai and samosas' asked her whether she was interested in directing it.

"He gave me a half page article about Phiona, who was 11-year-old, lived 15-minutes away from my house. She was off to a Russian Chess Championship and was completely illiterate. I was immediately interested," Nair said.

"But more than anything, I wanted to make a film about my home and about the streets where I live. I wanted to do that for a long time, since 'Mississippi Masala'," added Nair, who is married to Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani.

The director claimed that she has not tried to sugarcoat anything as she wanted to be honest to Phiona's story.

"It not just brings a positive image of the African continent but is also something that is an honest and truthful portrait of ordinary people. It is a purely African story and is told without any sugarcoating. Disney respected my vocabulary and sensibility as a filmmaker," said Nair.

The director met Nyong'o, a huge Hollywood star now, when the actress worked as her assistant on 'The Namesake'. Nair disclosed that Nynog'o and Oyelowo were her "first and only choices".

"Did you know Lupita was my assistant on 'Namesake'? She is like a daughter to me. And then she became a huge star. She is a great actor and also from the continent and so is David. He is a Nigerian. It is an extraordinary time where we can make a major Hollywood movie with two Hollywood stars and tell the story truthfully," the filmmaker added. Nair stated that Nyong'o, who plays Phiona's mother Harriet Nakku, agreed to do the film within five hours and Oyelowo, in the role of Phiona's teacher Robert Katende, was similarly moved.

"I was thinking about Lupita while writing Harriet's character. Harriet is like mother courage. Teenage pregnancy is a big thing in Kampala. She had her first child when she was 15.”

"The remarkable thing about Harriet is her courage and dignity and that's how I think of Lupita. She has this massive core strength and dignity. In David's case, I have chased his work for many years. He is an amazing actor.”

 and looks uncannily like Robert," Nair added.

The director says Lupita called her and said she was "shaking and crying" when she read the first 10 pages of the script while Nair's 1991 film 'Mississippi Masala' was one of the formative experiences for Oyelowo.

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