4 January 2018

We girls are lions

My Mirror column:

Young girls battle the odds of childhood in Kampala and Kabul: thoughts on Mira Nair's Queen of Katwe and Yosef Baraki's Mina Walking.

Queen of Katwe, directed by Mira Nair
You only have a childhood if the world allows you one. And much of the time, much of the world doesn't. Yosef Baraki's incredible 2015 film Mina Walking tracks the everyday life of one such 'child', the 12-year-old Mina. We walk with Mina from the shack she shares with a senile grandfather and a drug-addict father through the streets of Kabul, where she joins the war-torn city's endless stream of hustlers, selling cheap mass-produced scarves with the plaintive and unbelievable tag of “I sewed them myself”.

The 27-year-old Baraki, whose family migrated from Afghanistan to Canada when he was a child, was inspired to make the film after he met a group of young streetsellers on a trip back to Kabul as an adult. Having cast a real-life 12-year-old called Farzana Nawabi as Mina, Baraki's approach was to give her only segments of his fluid script, often shooting her in real-life situations. Following Mina and the other characters around the city's crowded bazaars and empty backstreets, the skeletal 5-6 member crew tried to blend in whenever possible.

The result is a gritty film whose performances and locales both have a wrenching, dry-eyed aridity – the wasteland of a graveyard, a polluted river, plastic everywhere, Airtel umbrellas providing little shade to the blue-burkaclad women with whom the film ends. Some of Baraki's urgent, discomfiting immediacy comes by placing us in medias res. As soon as the film begins, we are accosted by the vision of a child shouldering more responsibilities than most adults.

The motherless Mina not only takes care of her ailing, half-demented grandfather -- cooking for, and feeding him, even begging neighbours for milk for him -- but has to also save him from himself when she goes to school, by tying his ankle to a post so that he doesn't wander off. In school, her textbook theorises about the equal responsibility of men and women to educate themselves. On the street, she is the one given the job of breaking in the new entrant, and the only one who defends the young ones against the older boys. Back at home, she must defend both her earnings and her school-going against a father who constantly berates her, arguing with her as if he is a child himself.

“Boys are so weak. We girls are lions,” preens a schoolmate of Mina's. Her childish bantering tone befits the classroom, where there are still children with childhood troubles, such as not being able to do homework because visiting grandparents have caused a late night. But it seems utterly incongruous when applied to Mina, precisely because it is true.

Another indomitable young girl, hustling for survival on the streets of another third-world city, is at the centre of Mira Nair's 2016 film Queen of Katwe. Nair's film and Baraki's couldn't be more different – Baraki is a first-time filmmaker funded by his father, Nair is an established international director backed by Disney. And Nair is telling a real-life fairy tale. The film's eponymous 'queen' is Phiona Mutesi, a ten-year-old from the Ugandan slum of Katwe, who went to a chess class run by missionary 'Coach' Robert Katende for the free porridge and ended up reaching the World Chess Olympiads.

But the comparison springs to mind, partly because Phiona's surroundings, like Mina's, are desperately poor. Nair's frames are not gritty and her camera isn't handheld, but she does not shy away from the indignities of the Kampala slum: the murderous traffic, the putrid heaps of garbage, the laborious daily filling of water in yellow plastic containers at an open tap – and conversely, the terrible annual rains that flood the Katwe shanties, making families homeless. For a film that a lot of children have watched, Queen of Katwe is also impressively frank about this being an economy in which women can often survive only by selling their sexual selves. We see Phiona's fear of treading the same path as the many young women she has watched graduate to high heels, only to keel over into the laps of men. “Very soon men will start coming after me. Where is my safe square, Coach?” says Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), soon after she has learnt that her older sister is pregnant.

In different ways, sexual adulthood seems to loom over these girls as a threat: increasing their supposed value in a market in which they don't wish to become commodities. Young Mina's struggles for money, for food, for dignity, come to a head when her father decides to use his position as an adult man to trade in the only capital he still possesses: his daughter. (The same premise appeared in two films I wrote about a fortnight ago, Closeness and What Will People Say. If it recurs so often in realist cinema, I wonder, how much more terrifyingly often must it occur in life?)

Nair's film picks out the one narrative in a million where a young woman in a dysfunctional society manages to pick herself up out of grinding poverty. It celebrates the inspiring exception, turning an African underdog story into the perfect American dream: as a classmate tells Phiona, “In chess, the small one can become the big one.” Mina's story doesn't allow her – or us -- that sort of happy ending. And yet there is something that lets us believe, even as her bright courageous gaze is covered up by a blank blue flap of cloth, that Mina is still out there somewhere, walking.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 Dec 2017.

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