The air was truly awesome at a special screening of a recently released Hindi movie at a suburban preview theatre in Mumbai. A mostly visually impaired audience sat through a show of the March 18 release Awesome Mausam. As the story of a Hindu-Muslim couple who face opposition from their families unfolded, the viewers were given a live audio description to guide them through the plot. The sighted guests watched the film with eye masks. The film’s director, Yogesh Bharadwaj, talked the audience through Awesome Mausam, much like narrators would describe events unfolding on the screen in the era of silent cinema.
In scenes that had no dialogue, Bharadwaj vividly described the action taking place in the shots. He also explained the setting of the songs, telling the viewers whether the lovers were running in the snow or rolling in sand dunes.The screening was organised by disability and gender rights activist Nidhi Goyal, who also runs the website www.sexualityanddisability.org. Awesome Mausam’s lead actor, Rahul Sharma, said, “I want the film to be accessible to persons with visual impairment. I believe they have a right to access entertainment right away, and not wait for three-six months for the film to appear on television. They definitely have a right to know and experience love.”
A trailer of the animated movie Frozen (2013) with an attached audio description helps sighted viewers understand how it works.
The filmmakers of Awesome Mausam told the gathering that they had been inspired by Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par (2007). The DVD for the movie, about a boy’s struggle with dyslexia, has been produced by Saksham Trust in Delhi, which works with disabled children. Saksham has provided audio descriptions for several movies, such as Taare Zameen Par, Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Black (2005) and, more recently, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and PK (2014). The focus has been on Hindi cinema, but the trust is also working on making Telugu and Tamil films as well as titles for children accessible to the visually impaired. “There is a huge demand to convert Bajrangi Bhaijaan and we are still trying to get in touch with the director for permission,” said Rummi Seth, the charitable organisation’s co-founder and managing trustee.
Seth has been championing the cause of disability-friendly entertainment for over a decade. “We started with Black since the film’s subject was closer to home,” she said. In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, a teacher helps a blind and deaf woman realise her potential and complete her college degree. “Actor Sushma Seth has been doing audio description for our films pro bono. It costs us upto a lakh from scripting to sound engineering,” Rummi Seth said.
The projects are few and far between. Seth said not many filmmakers show interest in their endeavour. “Luckily, for the film Gandhi, which we screened at the National Museum in Delhi last year, we were supported by Amway Foundation and Radio Mirchi” she said. The organisation worked on the audio description as well as subtitles for the hearing impaired for Gandhi. “We are doing the work in isolation and we need the support of people associated with films to come forward and do it like Aamir Khan, who helped by providing us valuable inputs in describing his films,” Seth said.
A sensitive producer can make all the difference to the quality of such efforts. Aamir Khan sat through the audio-backed copy of Taare Zameen Par, making sure its descriptions matched the events on the screen. “He would give minute details of what to describe,” Seth said. A line about Darsheel Safary’s character in the film staring at a pond was altered to identify the breed of the fish in the water, for instance.
The Saksham Trust has also produced the audio description for the documentary Algorithms. Ian McDonald’s acclaimed film, about blind chess players, was screened for a visually impaired audience in Chennai in 2015. The film’s producer, Geetha J, invited chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand to grace the screening along with Charudutta Jadhav, a blind chess player who also features in the documentary as the mentor of three talented boys competing at national and world championships.
“What is unique about such screenings is the collective experience for the visually impaired of watching a film without having to depend on family and friends to understand it,” Geetha said. The DVD of Algorithms with an audio description option is available in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, but McDonald and Geetha are still looking for an Indian distributor.
The blind “see” films differently from the sighted, as is evident from the Awesome Mausam screening. During a question and answer session, the enthusiastic audience demanded to know the number of retakes for kissing scenes and whether on-screen romance turns into off-screen affairs. They also rattled off the names of playback singers they could recognise from the songs in the film.
Some of the feedback was on unexpected lines. Disability activist Sushmeetha Bubna, who runs the non-governmental organisation Voice Vision, wanted to know what clothes the actresses were wearing in the movie. Khandu Bhandari, a State Bank of Hyderabad employee, was curious about how dialogue-free sight gags would be translated for visually impaired viewers. “How can such humour be made available to the visually impaired through audio?” Bhandari asked. It was a question the film unit wasn’t prepared for. The director said he would pay more thought and attention to the matter the next time.
Nidhi Goyal, who organised the screening, said that the Awesome Mausam show was the first in a long and difficult journey. “We need to create awareness of our community which enjoys watching films as much as anyone else,” Goyal said. “This screening will help us send out a message that filmmakers should think about us as an audience as well.”
The onus lies not only on producers to ensure that DVDs contain audio descriptions, but also on cinemas and multiplexes. “Theatres can easily provide headphones with an audio track for the visually impaired since most films are also being subtitled, which is helpful for the hearing impaired,” Geetha J pointed out. “It will have to first begin with filmmakers adding the audio track option to their prints.”
As the Awesome Mausam screening drew to a close, the elated audience members took selfies with lead actor Rahul Sharma, proving yet again that they are one step ahead of those who treat them with caution.