It’s a long way to go for the 84th Academy Awards—which will be held on Feb. 22—but the race is officially on.
This year, while Malayalam actress and director Geethu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice is India’s official entry into the best foreign language category, there’s another Indian film being considered for an Oscar nomination.
Algorithms, a sports documentary about India’s small-numbered, yet blossoming blind chess players, is the only Indian production out of the 134 documentaries in the Academy Awards’ qualifying round. Filmed under an independent production banner AkamPuram, the 100-minute film showcases the tribulations of three young visually impaired chess players–Anant Kumar Nayak, SaiKrishna ST and Darpan Inani. At the center of the story, though, is their impassioned coach Charudatta Jadhav, who turned to chess when he lost his vision, and today heads the All India Chess Federation for the Blind.
It is rare for an Indian documentary to contest for the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has strict requirements for documentaries, such as screening the film “a minimum of four times daily during their qualifying theatrical releases in both New York and Los Angeles.” For an Indian documentary to get such a theatrical release in itself is a challenge.
British filmmaker Ian McDonald shot Algorithms for over three years, in collaboration with his wife and producer Geetha J. After making it to the long list, the couple is awaiting December’s announcement of the 15 official nominees to the Oscars. Though, this is not the first honor the film has received: Algorithms was also the only Indian production nominated for this year’s British Griersons documentary awards, commonly known as the Oscars of the documentary world.
McDonald told Quartz that the idea came to him when he read a news report about the blind chess community in 2006. He shelved it for a couple of years, until 2009 when he attended the national team chess championship in Mumbai, where he met Jadhav and the three boys. Once he got to know them, the documentary started taking life.
The film is a journey forward for all three boys. Inani is a better player than SaiKrishna and Nayak, but they are both rising stars of blind chess in India. In between tournaments and practice sessions, the proceedings in the film are interspersed with their parents narrating their stories—with forthrightness, yet at time overcome with emotions. The boys have been through drastic times: Inani is blind, and he doesn’t even remember a time when he could see. But SaiKrishna is slowly losing vision, though he wishes no one could find that out. Anant has no vision now, but he remembers a time when he could see.
“We didn’t pick them up for that, but it so happened that the boys were different from each other in all aspects,” Geetha said.
The fact that the three belonged to three culturally and linguistically different cities, Chennai, Baroda and Bhubaneswar, and were born to families of varying economic standings adds more layers to the story.
In a country where the first grandmaster, Viswanathan Anand, is a household name, the documentary exposes the lack of interest from the government for the blind chess. It brings hope of some visibility to those who are invisible, like the protagonists, who need sponsorship and infrastructure; they barely manage funds to attend tournaments, especially the international championships in a foreign country held every two years.
The film may also bring interest to Jadhav’s project to start teaching chess in blind schools: he makes a distinction between chess players and people who play chess. He certainly wants chess players to win medals, so that the government notices them, but he is more committed to nurturing more blind people who play chess.
He wants the blind to enjoy the same level of confidence that playing chess gave him. As he puts it in the prologue of the film, “chess is the only sport where the blind and the sighted are on par.”
Imitating the game of chess, the film was converted to black and white after being made in color. “It was like some sort of retrospective justification,” McDonald told Quartz, “By making the film black and white, we are depriving the sighted of an element of the vision.” As images are devoid of color, they appear sometimes abstract, yet immersing the viewers.
The film is most likely to release in India in the coming year, though it was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival in February.