What Irudhi Suttru could have learnt from Queen of Katwe

Source: IMDB

Mira Nair is a filmmaker who possesses the (somewhat rare) ability to tell real stories about people — grand yet unembellished tales of everyday humanity. Her critically acclaimed 2001 film Monsoon Wedding was anomalous at the time of its release for this reason (and probably would be so even if it were released today). It remains one of the few depictions of Indian people that doesn’t seem to attach blame or judgment to lifestyle choices (or the lack thereof), and instead, focuses on narrating a complex, interwoven story about people — whatever background they might come from. It features a female lead who has an extramarital affair with her older, married boss; a mother who hides in the bathroom smoking because she doesn’t want her husband to find out; a woman who was sexually molested by an older relative when she was a child. Whether we love them or not, these are real characters and people.

Nair’s most recent film, Disney’s Queen of Katwe, seems to miss some of the “realness” of her other works even though it does a good job of taking us to Uganda and keeping us there for the entire 124 minutes of its run. Set in the Ugandan slum of Katwe, the film tells us the real-life story of Phiona Mutesi, a young woman who defies her low socioeconomic status to become a chess champion.

With sharp, bright cinematography and a soundtrack that enhances the emotions of the film, Queen of Katwe makes for a pleasant watch. But the dialogues (and at times acting) sometimes seem contrived and unnatural. The characters (mostly Phiona and her mother) seem to possess the ability to speak about their lives with almost journalistic and anthropological objectivity. This is not to say that poor people from Ugandan slums can’t speak so eloquently about their situation in life, but rather that the characters haven’t been developed well enough to give their voices more authenticity. It sometimes feels like some of the lines were written because that is how the screenwriter imagined that people like Phiona would talk.

With a star cast that includes Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Phiona’s mother) and David Oyelowo (Phiona’s chess coach), Madina Nalwanga holds her own as Phiona, never once making us question who the protagonist of the film is. While Phiona’s mother and coach emerge as well-developed characters, we never doubt that this particular story is about Phiona.

And that, I believe, is where Mira Nair teaches a valuable lesson — one that India’s current cohort of filmmakers would benefit from learning, if they already haven’t.

Earlier this year, I watched Sudha Kongara’s Tamil film Irudhi Suttru (Final Round). Shot simultaneously in Hindi (where it was released as Saala Khadoos), the film tells the story of a jaded and sarcastic boxing coach (played by Madhavan) who spots talent in a slum dwelling fish seller called Madhi (Ritika Singh) and coaches her to an eventual championship title.

The parallels between Queen of Katwe and Irudhi Suttru are easy to spot: a young girl from the slums is noticed for her talent by a coach and is eventually trained to become a champion after a few setbacks along the way.

But there is one marked difference. In Irudhi Suttru, unlike Queen of Katwe,the young prodigal talent is not allowed to be her own character. Instead, she is reduced to a shadow of a person, one whose story is eclipsed by an angry coach who feels wronged by life. As I watched the first half of Irudhi Suttru, I was surprised (even though I should have been prepared for this by now, after a lifetime of watching Tamil movies) to see that Madhi, the female protagonist, develops a romantic interest in her coach. She trades her tomboyish clothes for a sari and a shy smile in the hopes that he will notice her.

This is approximately the moment at which I turned to my friend, seated next to me in the movie theatre and asked, “Why?”

Why have we reduced this story of hard work and dedication and inspiration to the typical formula of romance, and that too, the kind of romance that makes the girl look foolish and silly?

This is not to say that women are not allowed to fall in love with their coaches (unless there is some rule to that effect in their respective sporting organisations). But this overwhelming tendency in Tamil cinema to reduce complex plot lines to “I saw, I observed and then I loved” has become tiring and boring. For a film to be successful and moving and powerful, we don’t really need to know the protagonist’s love life, unless of course, it is an integral part of the story.

But in Irudhi Suttru, Madhi’s crush on the coach doesn’t appear to be an integral part of the story, but a crutch to keep the film puttering along. It takes away from our understanding of Madhi as a person without the coach as an influence. It deprives Madhi of the recognition that she is a fully developed character even without the coach. It makes the coach her lifeline, which he wouldn’t be in real life. It weakens her story.

Romance or no romance, this is a problem that most Indian films run into. It’s this idea that women need a male protagonist to help us realise all the greatness that we are capable of. Take Chak de! India, the 2007 Bollywood sports film where it took Shah Rukh Khan’s strength of character and persuasive skills to convince a bunch of squabbling girls to unite and play field-hockey as a team. Or even the more recent Pink, where it takes one eccentric and poorly written character (Amitabh Bacchan’s interpretation of a lawyer) to shout at and shame the female protagonists so as to convince a bunch of male chauvinists that they should be ashamed of their behaviour.

In Queen of Katwe, Phiona’s chess coach, Robert Katende (played by Oyelowo) has his own story with enough interesting material to make a film of his own. As the audience, we see glimpses of it: his multiyear wait to get a job as an engineer in Kampala’s intensely nepotistic society; a moving conversation between Katende and his wife, where she tells him that he doesn’t need to apologise for being a man who would choose purpose over financial security. At the end of the film, we understand that the man has made a sacrifice and helped the girl, but we also know that Phiona’s success is ultimately hers. And we also understand and accept that this particular film, is about Phiona. It’s a choice that the filmmaker has made, and one that she has seen through to the end. Even if most promotional material may have featured Oyelowo and Nyong’o more prominently than Nalwanga (movies are a business after all), there is no doubt as to who the Queen of Katwe is.

In Irudhi Suttru, in Pink, we see filmmakers spending a lot of time trying to show us why these injured and damaged men would take on the task of playing saviour. And after those two hours of shaky narrative, we’re not sure who the story is about in the first place. All we know is that we just watched the potential of a strong (female) character come to a screeching halt as once again, cinema falls prey to prejudiced conventions of who stories should be written for and whom they should be written about.