By Bradley Alsop
Charudatta Jadhav, at blind chess player turned instructor, alludes to chess as a mental game in which physical impairment does not matter in competition. At the end of the film, at a national competition in Mumbai, a young player echoes the same sentiment: chess is a game of equality that all Indians with visual impairments or full blindness should strive to excel at. This idea of chess as an equalizing competitive force runs through the entirety of “Algorithms,” Ian McDonald’s enlightening and occasionally heartbreaking documentary.
The film centers around Jadhav and three fledgling blind chess players looking to compete at the national and world level. It catalogs their lives, through the lenses of their families and daily routines, as well as through the competitions, where they are met with varying levels of success. Each player is fascinating and nuanced in his own way, and that is readily seen through the testimonials of each player’s parents. The parents reveal their stories of how they became blind, how they dealt with their child’s blindness, and how they play their own game of chess. There is Darpan, a shy chess obsessive who is extremely critical of his game when he loses; Sai Krishna, the underdog who takes loss with raw emotion — he recounts many of his mistakes with tears in his eyes after the match is over; and finally Anant, a lumbering wunderkind who struggles to find the balance between his academic studies and chess. These personalities are united under Mr. Jadhav, a man of moral and motivational brilliance — through every crippling hardship these players meet in competition, his constitution never wavers. When two of the players are to compete for a medal, and ultimately come to a draw, they mar their only chances of competing for a medal. Instead of lashing out at the two players for lack of competitive spirit, Jadhav commends both for their play and tells them to value how far they’ve gotten. The warm, intimate relationship that Jadhav strives to maintain with his players is the focal point that makes this film a true pleasure to watch unfold.
McDonald shoots the film in black and white and the viewer sees the action in real time as each competition unfolds. The viewer is immersed in the relatively small but intense proceedings of these competitions. Aside from being a stellar commentary on overcoming adversity, “Algorithms” elaborates cogently on what competition can do for a person. These players, not only the ones spotlighted in the film, live for the ability to play chess. The capacity to win or lose drives them to continue, even when a less than optimal end seems like a foregone conclusion. With every defeat, in the eyes of Darpan, comes a reflection, a moment of sadness, and then the strong desire to return and to improve. This film seamlessly and beautifully follows a niche group that has experienced tremendous loss and, through chess, feels a sense of purpose and vindication. Watching Darpan’s mother leave the shot while his father speaks of his degenerative skin condition as a child is one of the most bitterly sad scenes in a movie filled with yearning and loss. On the other side of that, in the dichotomy that makes this film a success, the looks of pride and admiration from Darpan’s parents as they watch him overcome adversity through chess make for one of the most inspiring scenes of the year, in a truly inspiring film.
Bradley Alsop is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.