Algorithms review: Inspiring story of three blind chess players and their blind coach

Vinayakk Mohanarangan

Aug 21, 2015 15:53:23 IST

Four moves in, we are all blind.

That’s the tagline of Algorithms, documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald’s movie on blind chess in India. Chess is a game of mind where in the first few moves, you need to look at the board. But, according to India’s blind chess exponent Charudatta Jadhav (more on him later), after four moves it’s all in the head. You calculate, visualise and plot your strategy multiple moves in advance.

 Algorithms review: Inspiring story of three blind chess players and their blind coach

Poster of Ian McDonald's movie - Algorithms.

That is what Algorithms portrays, following the lives of three visually impaired teenagers from India and their mentor Charudatta Jadhav – Coach Charu for a period of three years. The movie starts in 2009 with Charu and his team conducting a talent hunt from blind chess players to send the top two to World Junior Chess Championship for the blind, held in Sweden that year.

Vishwanathan Anand once said that chess is like a language and the top players are fluent. Enter Darpan Inani, Sai Krishna and Anant Kumar – the three extremely 'fluent' protagonists of the movie. Affected by varying degrees of vision impairment but blessed with extraordinary talent to play chess, the movie tracks the growth of the three kids — or in Anant’s case, the lack thereof — from Mumbai in 2009 to the World Championship in Greece in 2011.

Anant, the oldest of the lot who was 16 when the filming began, is from Bhubaneshwar and was brought up in abject poverty. “We could not go for further treatment because we had no money. I felt like dying, but now we feel okay,” says Anant’s mother, fighting back tears. Anant’s talent in chess is evident to his coach who tries to convince his parents to let him focus on improving his game. But they want him to focus on studies because they understandably crave a sustainable livelihood for their child.

Sai, the confident and sometimes brash kid from a middle-class household in Chennai, is a rising star. He is partially blind with the prospect of facing complete vision loss but comes across as a gregarious, strong-willed kid. From turning down offers for draws because he wants a win, to telling his coaches if there is one thing he is good at it is never getting tense, not to mention his positive outlook on life — “life is not in your hands. Only the present matters” — Sai is the most charming of the lot.

Which makes the uncontrollable tears in his eyes when he calls his mother to tell her he resigned from his game in the 2009 Sweden championship all the more hard-hitting. But he quickly follows that up with “okay Appa, you don’t cry now,” as he hands over the phone to his coach.

Darpan Inani is a prodigious talent.

Darpan Inani is a prodigious talent.

Darpan, by far the most talented  of the trio, is from a fairly well-off family in Baroda. With his mother who accompanies him to events and ends up losing her cool more than the kid does, Darpan misses out on the 2009 World Championship, but bounces back to make it to the Greece event in 2011. Inflicted with Steven-Johnson’s disease when he was four, Darpan lost his vision completely.

From playing his matches either standing up, or squatting or kneeling on the chairs, to reciting his daily routine to within a minute’s accuracy — “I get read by 11:55-11:56, at 11:59 someone picks me up and I come back home by 6:05” — Darpan wows us with his remarkable idiosyncrasies.

But the hero of the movie is coach Charu. Having gone blind in his teenage years, Charudutta was a star in his own right, defeating International Masters and competing with sighted players — something he says what every blind chess player must aspire to do, because fellow blind players are brethren.

Having retired from the game, Charu works as a consultant for an IT firm but his life’s aim is to win India laurels at the World Championship. It isn't until the last 10 minutes of the movie that his exceptional backstory is revealed, but by then Charu has already earned the respect of the audience, making his account that little bit more inspiring.

Still from the movie of Charudutta Jadhav.

Still from the movie of Charudutta Jadhav.

The movie is undoubtedly, and rather admirably, about chess. That is except when the parents talk about the condition ailing their kids, the documentary veers away from the chessboard. With poignant shots like kids playing cricket in the background in a park where Anant is practicing chess with his coach, Sai playing in front of an automatic door and yelling “I won the game” when he stops the door from closing by jumping in front of it, and Darpan and his competitor talking about the percentage of their blindness – “Oh, you are 100 percent blind too? That’s great!” – the movie manages to stay light-hearted despite the gravitas of the subject.

Charu’s mentoring of the students is another of the film's highlights. When Sai wins a game, the coach gently points out areas for improvement to the child's vanquished opponent – “anticipate more, think ahead of your opponents.” When Sai loses in the World Championship, Charu is on hand to offer him a shoulder to lean on. When Anant tells him he lost in the nationals because he didn’t train enough due to his academics, he explains how chess need not be ignored to be academically successful — “with determination, you can be successful in both”. When he thinks Sai is not trying hard enough, Charu implores the kid not to become stagnant as he himself did.

In perhaps the most moving sequence of the film, Darpan and another Indian junior Kishan are playing each other in the penultimate round of the World Championship in Greece, with the winner assured of a medal. Too nervous to watch, Charu tells his friend how he did not have the heart to tell that to the kids, which would have put them under pressure.

As fate would have it, the match ends in a draw and Charu is left fighting conflicting emotions. Trying in vain to hide his obvious disappointment, he still consoles the kids telling them at least neither of them lost. But late at night, he wakes up Darpan just to tell him there’s a mathematical chance for him to win bronze. “I did not want you to go to sleep thinking everything was lost. That will not be good preparation,” he tells Darpan encouragingly.

Whether or not Darpan wins and the eventual fate of the coach is for the reader to discover, suffice it to say, the ending will leave the audience with a smile and a tear rolling down the cheek.

The movie starts and ends with close-up shots of tiny fingers feeling the board and pieces specially made for them. For these kids, chess – and life, for the most part – is about touch. Whether that’s locating and moving the pieces on board, or finding how much time is left to make their move with feeling the minute hands on the game clock or walking in a hallway alone by feeling where the walls and railings are, they thrive on touch.

That’s exactly the effect Darpan, coach Charu and company have on the audience watching Algorithms — touching — their heart.

WATCH: Trailer of Algorithms

‘Algorithms’ will be releasing across PVR theaters in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad on 21 August, 2015.

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Updated Date: Aug 21, 2015 15:54:07 IST