You know the Indian-born, Harvard-educated, Uganda-adopted moviemaker’s famous features—Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, The Reluctant Fundamentalist—but the full reach of her 37-year career touches documentaries, anthology shorts and advocacy for film education (with a trust in India and school in East Africa), all informed by her rich personal life.
Nair’s Queen of Katwe is a Disney movie, yes—her first—but when you peel back its glossy veneer you’ll find the same themes (of family and travel) as in her earlier work. Based on a book by Tim Crothers, it’s the real-life story of young Ugandan chess master Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), co-starring Lupita Nyong’o as her mother and David Oyelowo as her teacher. Below are Nair’s strategies, for both life and for art. Once you’ve taken them in, it’s your move. – KL
1. Your instinct is all you have that keeps you distinct. Preserve it amidst the myriad voices that surround you.
2. Never treat what you do as a stepping stone to something else. Do it fully and completely. Only at its fullest do you know where it might lead you.
3. Let the heart inform the brain. Prepare and communicate, but at the moment of working, allow inspiration from any quarter: a carpenter, a street child, the light of the moon.
4. Find safety in family life and bravery in work.
5. Cultivate stamina. Practice the craft in all sorts of ways: making short films, mentoring others, planting gardens, remaining a student of nature.
6. Learn to know the world. To make a film, you must have something to say. Live life fully. I take equal care to be a cuddly mother, a cuddly partner (hopefully), a decent sister and a full-blown daughter-in-law. Sab ko salaam aur pyaar (“Salutations and love to each” in Hindi).
7. I seek to enjoy every frame. There is no greater positive energy than the joy of making a frame that sings, capturing the moment photographically, emotionally, humanly. Never consider a single frame to be “eh, just ordinary.”
8. Cherish your collaborators. My greatest treasure is working with the same film family, film after film—it makes the struggle easier to speak about in shorthand. We take each other farther after decades of working together.
9. Never make the same film again. Savor the adrenaline of not knowing.
10. Shooting a film is not a popularity contest. Conserve your energy because creative energy is not limitless.
11. Feed your team of actors and crew with everything concerning your idea of the film: other films, photographs, music, examples of light, even used clothing… whatever makes the idea come alive.
12. Keep the editing sacred and contained. I love listening to an audience seeing the rough cuts of my films—their rhythm in the room tells me a lot. Then, my editor and I find our own inventive way of solving the issue.
13. Beware the fruits of action. Serve your work purely and without thinking of reward. In the film world, rewards can be immense and confusing.
14. The film is bigger than all of us. As the director, be the bigger person always. MM
Queen of Katwe opened in theaters September 23, 2016, courtesy of Disney. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2016 issue.