Inside Algorithm, a documentary about chess played by those who cannot see

British filmmaker Ian McDonald was in Chennai a few weeks ago to present his film Algorithms — “the first ever feature documentary on blind chess”. It lasts 96 minutes and it’s a revelation. It doesn’t quite tell you the story you think you’re going to get.

Algorithms was filmed over three years, as the press kit says, “from just before the World Junior Blind Chess Championship in Sweden in 2009 to just after the next championship in Greece in 2011”, and “it follows three talented boys from different parts of India” — Darpan Inani from Baroda (the highest ranked totally blind player in India), SaiKrishna ST from Chennai (a rising star, a partially sighted boy faced with the possibility of going totally blind), and a promising new talent from Bhubaneshwar named Anant Kumar Nayak, who is totally blind. Hovering over these boys, as mentor and guardian angel, is Charudatta Jadhav from Mumbai, a champion player who went blind in his teenage years. He has two goals. He wants to situate blind chess players from India on the global stage. And he wants all blind children to play chess.

To borrow a parallel from cinema, Jadhav is like Anirudh, the blind-school principal played by Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh. When Anirudh first meets Kavita (Shabana Azmi), she doesn’t know he’s blind. (He walks up to her house. She’s singing. He waits behind the closed glass door till she finishes.) She talks to him casually. He’s looking for a doctor. She says he’s at the wrong address and tells him where the doctor lives. As he leaves, he says she sings beautifully. She says she didn’t see him. He says he didn’t see her either. Her eye travels to the walking stick in his hand, and her attitude changes. Suddenly she feels she has to do something. She steps out and offers to lead him to the doctor. He refuses politely. He knocks something over, and, unperturbed, carries on.

Jadhav is like that, a man who wants no knee-jerk sympathy from the sighted community. His sole focus is on those who cannot see, and who lead perfectly “normal” lives, thank you very much. Algorithms is suffused with the same spirit. It doesn’t couch blindness in the euphemism “visually impaired”. It doesn’t seek to make us weep for someone else’s plight, or be thankful that we lead a different kind of life. It just wants to observe, unsentimentally, what it’s like to be blind and want to play chess at the highest levels.

McDonald, who is a sports sociologist, sees his filmmaking as an extension of sociological practice. He said that he was after not just an empirical truth but a fundamental truth. He sees the film as a metaphor for life. “It’s the difference between eyesight and foresight,” he said. “With eyesight, we see what’s before us, but what’s more important in life is foresight, to be able to see beyond. We all have to be able to see beyond the immediate if we are to be effective.” He said that blind kids find it difficult to play cricket or football with sighted kids, but with chess, they can sit down and play with sighted kids, “on par, no concessions”. As we use eyesight, they use touch. “Four moves in, there’s no point looking at the board anyway. There are so many permutations that it becomes a mind game.” Hence the tagline: Four Moves In, We Are All Blind.

In one remarkable passage, set in a European country, Darpan Inani meets another blind player and puts forth what we might consider a remarkably insensitive question: “So you have how much percentage of vision?” The other player cannot understand at first. Inani says, “You have 60 per cent vision or what?” The other player says, “No, no, I have no vision.” “No vision?” “I have no vision at all.” “You are totally blind?” “Yeah, I am a total blind. I have just a small light perception. This is not really useful at all. It is just useful to determine if it is day or night.” “So we can call it 100 per cent vision loss?” “Yeah, yeah, 100 per cent. And how about you?” “It’s the same.” The other player laughs. “Oh, that’s great!”

I asked McDonald how he managed to be a fly on the wall in these situations, how he ensured that this exchange was “real” and not something that happened because the boys were conscious of being filmed. He said, “If you spend enough time with this community, you become part of the furniture. It was not a big crew, just the two of us most of the time [him and the producer Geetha J], and that allowed for intimacy. You could get up-close. And the fact that they are blind meant that you could get really up-close. You could get the camera right in front of their faces.” He said that this kind of conversation — comparing blindness levels, as if bragging about scores in a video game — wasn’t exactly new or unusual. “When one blind kid meets another blind kid they usually have this kind of conversation. So it’s about hanging around and waiting.”

“The first duty of any documentary filmmaker is to show it as it is,” he said. “You try not to intervene. But there’s always a perspective. There’s no such thing as a neutral position. I’m holding the camera. It’s about what I am choosing to shoot, how I am doing the framing.” He spoke about a shot where a blind player walks down a corridor touching the wall with a hand. “There’s nothing in that shot,” he said. “But to me, it’s fascinating, his relationship with the wall. The film is about blind people, yes, but it’s also about something fundamental to us all: touch and tactility.”

Why Algorithms? Because it’s a chess reference. But also because, McDonald said, “If you are blind, you have to think algorithmically. You have to think about how you get from A to B through a set pattern. You have to think ahead. That’s the case with chess. And for blind people, that’s the case with everyday life. You have to think ahead and know where you’re going — 10 steps this way, 50 steps that way.” I asked him if he knew chess. “I played chess a lot when I was a kid,” he laughed, “but then at some point you have to choose between chess and studies.” It sounded like a very familiar dilemma.