'Algorithms': Film Review

Akam Puram
Emotional nuance makes this a distinctive underdog story

A documentary about blind players vying for the Junior Chess Championship

In H.G. Wells’ short story, The Country of the Blind, an adventurer lands in an isolated valley where sight is an alien concept. In the country of the blind, the sighted will be king, he thinks, but when he describes the visual world to them, they take him for a madman. The adventurer learns a lesson in hubris not unlike the one audiences might take away from Ian McDonald’s poetic new documentary, Algorithms, a nuanced look at blind chess players in India striving for the title of Junior World Champion.

Darpan Anani, a 15-year-old from Barnada, is the highest-ranking totally blind player in the country. He is an angular young man with an unassuming disposition that belies a rigorous training and academic schedule as well as a fierce drive to become the nation’s first blind entrepreneur. His teammate, Anant Kumar Nayak, comes from a poverty-stricken family that would rather he give up chess and focus on his studies. Sai Krishna is 12, high-spirited but thin-skinned, making his losses heart-wrenching to watch as he fights back tears, apologizing to the man who holds the team together, the inimitable Charudatta Jadhav. Jadhav, after going blind at the age of 13, won a district competition and never looked back, rising to the rank of National Champ and captain of the National Team before retiring in 2004.

“Chess is the only game where a blind player can play at par with sighted,” he tells his players. “If the infrastructure is provided to the blind, then he can surpass his sighted counterpart. Why cannot the blind become a world champion?” A successful IT professional today, Jadhav mentors the young men with an even dose of tough love, demanding they be uncompromising with themselves, but also providing reassurance when they struggle.

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For McDonald, the decision to shoot his debut feature in black and white wasn’t an arbitrary one. It provides the movie with an artsy sheen that avoids affectation by being organic to the material — black and white are the colors of the chessboard, the arena in which the battle for the next championship will be fought. They are also the only colors that many of the characters in Algorithms see, depending on the severity of their blindness.

McDonald’s short films have specialized in sports, and technically Algorithms falls under the heading of sports documentary, with stirring montage sequences of competing fingers, rooks, pawns and bishops set to composer Mridangam's throbbing beat of a tabla and sitar. Visually arresting as it is, the pic stands out mainly for its subject matter, the first documentary on blind chess, even though it fits snugly within the sub-genre of underdog stories.

Early in the movie, Darpan converses with a young European who is completely blind. Learning Krishna is as well, he replies, “That’s great!” It’s hardly the response most would expect, but Krishna takes it as a compliment. The idea that a potential National Champion is fully blind can only be taken as a positive sign.

In the Bhagavad Gita, when pure-hearted Prince Arjuna faces the Kaurava brothers on the battlefield, he is told, “Have an equal mind in happiness-sorrow; gain-loss; victory-defeat; engage in battle and thereby you will not incur sin.” It is this philosophy that Jadhav espouses as the boys progress through the 2012 World Junior Chess Championship in Greece. In the end, the result, whatever it may be, offers both reasons to celebrate and lessons to grow on.

With: Charudatta Jadhav, Darpan Inani, Sai Krishna, Anant Kumar Nayak

Director: Ian McDonald

Producers: Geetha J

Director of photography: Ian McDonald

Editors: Ajith Kumar & Ian McDonald

Music: Prasanna

Not rated, 100 minutes