'Algorithms' Review: Gripping Documentary About Blind Indian Chess Players

21/08/2015 8:59 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

There's a scene in Ian McDonald's documentary Algorithms, which had a limited release in India on Friday, that any respectable sports movie would've been proud to have.

Young Sai Krishna, all of 14 years old and visually impaired, goes up to his coach and mentor Charudatta Jadhav to apologise for losing his game to a superior opponent. Not only did he have to make seven out of seven wins to be able to represent India at the then-upcoming World Junior Chess Championship for the blind (to be held in Greece), but he also lost to a move that was so superior that it literally took his breath away before he could croak a "Well played" to his opponent.

Now leaning in to and whispering in Jadhav's ear (who is blind) while other matches still go on, he can barely control his emotions as he apologises for letting him down. Jadhav, a former national champion who quit the game at the peak of his career to help train a future generation of blind players ("Because after me... who?" he says, in his characteristically calm and blunt manner at another point), can't be happy at hearing this piece of news. However, in a fatherly manner, he calms the young boy down and later tells him about the dangers of stagnation.

A fictional sports film or a lesser documentary might have chosen to play up moments like these — and there are many like this in Algorithms — and introduced faster cutting and a little bit of background music to drive the point home, but McDonald's approach is refreshingly restrained. All this scene needs is a tight, near-claustrophobic close-up and ambient sound, and the scene hits you in the pit of your stomach.

Algorithms is a documentary both about chess as well as disability, but it uses neither of these as crutches. Nor does it attempt to simplify the complex algorithms that its protagonists rattle off at top speed as though it were their first language.

What we get is an insight into the lives of the young chess players the film focuses on. Aside from the Chennai-based Krishna, we are also introduced to Darpan Inani from Baroda and Anant Kumar Nayak from Bhubaneshwar. Aside from different corners of the country, the three of them have different levels of visual impairment and also come from vastly differing economic backgrounds.

McDonald's unsentimental perspective is aided by a Carnatic electric guitar-and-mridangam score by Prasanna, which propels certain sequences forward without overwhelming them. Yes, the film has traces every now and then of an 'outsider's gaze', given away by the occasional clichéd establishing shot of a cow sitting calmly in the middle of a busy road or somesuch. However, the imminent conflicts — of whether these visually-challenged players will be able to compete against and defeat sighted players ("Chess is the only game where blind and sighted are equal," Jadhav explains to us at one point) and whether each of the players will manage to walk the tightrope between chess and studies — is what keeps us invested in the film till the very end.

The documentary, made in 2012, has won several accolades and received glowing reviews across the world. A welcome respite from the frequent assaults of mediocrity we're usually subjected to week after week, Algorithms offers discerning viewers a good reason to make the trip to their nearby multiplexes while it's still on.

Algorithms has been released in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kochi, Chennai, and Hyderabad by PVR Director's Rare.

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