It is all in the mind

Cerebral and compassionate, Ian McDonald’s 'Algorithms' is more than just an insight into the world of blind chess players.

August 12, 2015 08:10 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 02:49 pm IST

An image from the documentary 'Algorithms'

An image from the documentary 'Algorithms'

One day in 2006, Ian McDonald came across a story on blind chess players in a newspaper. As a sports sociologist and filmmaker the idea of blind people playing the game intrigued him. He asked his wife Geetha and a couple of chess players about it but they had no idea. He kept the clipping in his wallet and it stayed with him for two years. “In 2008 I met Charudutta Jadhav, a former star player and head of All India Chess Federation for The Blind. It opened a new world for McDonald. Charu took him to the national championship in Mumbai and what he saw was an “amazing underexposed but thriving community of blind chess players.” McDonald went back to his wife and thus started the journey of Algorithms , a stirring independent feature length documentary that simplifies the game of complex calculations into a lyrical celebration of indomitable spirit.

Releasing next week in theatres, the film unequivocally brings out that chess is a game where after three four moves everybody is blind. Though blind players have to announce their moves, every black piece has a dot on top and every piece has a tiny rod under it which goes into holes in each square, ultimately it boils down to how much you can foresee. And here quality of vision becomes redundant. “It is more about foresight than eyesight. That’s why it is called a mental game. In fact many top players practice blind folded because it helps them in concentrating. It is the only game which makes a blind person feel not only equal to a sighted person but also gives him the confidence that he can beat him,” reflects McDonald, who spent three years with the blind players following them to their homes and accompanying them to the tournaments across the world.

What resulted was 250 hours of footage but it doesn’t weigh on the film. “Shooting was the easier part; it was editing that tested our talent. The editing took one year. While shooting I was not really following a script in my head. I was busy capturing the truth of the moment and perhaps that has given the film the required depth.” McDonald, who likes to follow non-mainstream sports, says the idea was to bring out the deeper truth of getting over the disability. “And perhaps that’s why the film has been able to reach out beyond chess enthusiasts and regional boundaries.”

The camera captures the players in close ups but still it doesn’t look odd or obtrusive. “It is not about squeezing out emotions but to generate an intimate and immersive experience. That’s why we shot it in black and white. I felt that the blind people’s world centres on the sense of touch and tactility and tried to capture this interplay between their fingers and chess pieces. On big screen it will create a bigger impact,” he emphasis.

On how he picked his protagonists, McDonald says luck played its part here as he wanted three different personalities and in Darpan, Sai Krishna and Anant he found them. “Darpan was the undisputed champion, who is a little eccentric about victory and defeat. Sai Krishna is effervescent and ambitious and Anant is a raw talent, who has doubts whether he wants to pursue chess as a career.” Through them he wanted to show three different kinds of blindness. Darpan has no visual memory, Sai Krishna is losing his vision by the day and Anant became blind when he was 13. McDonald says the film’s focus is on emerging players but it is true that there is no blind International master from India. “Even at the world stage there are some blind International Masters from Russia and that’s about it. The primary reason is not lack of talent but lack of infrastructure for training. That’s why Charu emphasises the need to focus on young players so that they can be trained. He has developed a software called Talk64 which has been designed according to the needs of the blind players. Also, for blind players education is very important because they know that they have only academics to fall back upon. They have to be realistic about their chances and it is hard for them to devote full attention to chess after a certain age.” We can sense this in the case of Anant who comes from a very modest background. The government support, he adds, is only on tournament-to-tournament basis.

The film also evokes a strange sense of humour when Darpan asks a foreign player about the level of his vision loss and when he says that he is 100 percent blind with just a little perception of light, Darpan feels elated and expresses a sense of solidarity.

“We are very conscious while interacting with blind people. We avoid phrases like ‘see you later’ but having spent three years in the blind world I realise that it is a routine matter for them. In fact, often, their conversation starts with the level of blindness and the players who are 100 percent blind have a sense of pride.”

At the end of the day, McDonald admits, he is a white English speaking man and had to seek the help of his producer wife Geetha, who has a journalistic background, to get the families open up. In a scene Darpan’s mother walks out of the frame while talking about the days when Darpan suffered from a rare syndrome which resulted in his skin peeling off. “It was the first time that the parents opened up about it after a long time. We decided not to follow her or question her even as the father continued to narrate the experience. We didn’t want to pity them or sensationalise the experience.”

On a personal level, the film made the filmmaker question the whole idea of disability. “After the day’s play I used to follow the players into their hotel rooms for the post mortem. They would start chatting and I would stop them to draw the curtains to get the right light. One day Charu said, ‘it is your problem, your disability we want to discuss.’ It made me realise that disability is a very relative word,” sums up McDonald.

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