Chess player Darpan has a curious problem. “Once he wins, he continues to win,” says his father, “but once he loses, he can’t stop losing.” His friend and rival Sai Krishna, on the other hand, “cannot accept that he is blind”. A grandmaster hides within Anant but the 16-year-old has been neglecting his game. Around the three boys revolves British filmmaker Ian McDonald’s documentary, Algorithms, about blind chess players in India. The film has won seven awards at international festivals and was long-listed for the Oscars in 2014. It will release in India on August 21 as part of PVR Director’s Rare.
“The real challenge for me as a filmmaker was not to reduce the players to simply being defined by their blindness,” says McDonald. A report on blind chess had jumped out at him from a newspaper in 2006 and “it made me curious,” he says. With not much information available, McDonald and his wife Geetha J, producer of the film, began their research. They contacted Charudatta Jadhav, former champion and current General Secretary of the All India Chess Federation for the Blind, and met him at the National Team and Junior Blind Chess Championship in Mumbai in 2009.
The film opens with the championship — an image of a hall full of players bent over their boards. “There were lots and lots of blind and visually impaired adults and youth players, and the curiosity with which I had started the film turned into amazement,” says McDonald. “Blind chess is a hidden social movement in India. The number of blind people in the country is around 12 million, the size of a small European nation,” he adds.
The film evolves chronologically, as the trio prepare for their tournaments. McDonald uses extreme close-up shots to create an immersive experience for the audience. Often, the screen fills up with fingers poised among chess pieces, or moving like a pianist’s around the board. McDonald’s visual focus is on how blind players compensate lack of sight with touch.
The film travels through the players’ homes in Chennai, Vadodara and Bhubaneshwar and through tournaments in India, Sweden, Serbia and Greece. Parents, trainers and the players speak to the camera and, without a narrative voice, take the story forward. “You don’t think about your future, it’s not in your hands. Think about your present and play well”, says Sai, who, unlike the others, is losing sight steadily and will soon be totally blind. The gamut of human drama plays out throughout the film, from aggression and exhaustion to jokes and tears. Then, there are conversations that can only happen in the land of the blind. Darpan introduces himself to a foreign player in Serbia as being “100 per cent blind”. “That’s great,” comes the answer.
“My aim has been to raise larger issues about power, equality and identity through the lens of a sports film. The subject of blind chess struck a chord with me at multiple levels; it was about sports as well as about a marginalised world and children,” says McDonald, whose earlier film, Brighton Bandits, about a gay football team, also throws up questions about homophobia and sexuality in a macho sport.
The film is in black and white but not just as a metaphor for the chess board; it works on many levels, not least to deprive the sighted of one aspect of vision — colour. “It also imparts an abstract and lyrical quality to the film”, says Geetha adding, “You wouldn’t think so but we needed to do not one but two colour corrections to get the right contrast and balance of brightness.”
McDonald says that he wanted to use music sparingly, “I don’t like films that use music to steer audience’ emotions.” The film opens with guitar strums of music based on Carnatic music as R Prasanna, better known as Guitar Prasanna, complements the colour and texture of the film with intricately structured melodies.
The story appeared in print with the headline Black And White