<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>It’s sunset; the waves crash against the rocks. The beach is deserted. The branches of the trees dotting the shoreline are swaying in the wind. Arjun and Kavi are walking on the beach; Kavi a little ahead of Arjun. She is wearing a sexy, low-cut dress, and the slits reach up to her thighs, so you get a generous view of her legs. Suddenly, Kavi stops walking and looks at the waves. Arjun’s eyes are on Kavi and Kavi alone.Theatre actor Neha Singh’s live Hindi audio description of the dialogue-less bit of a romantic scene from Tu Hi Mera Sunday was weaving magic. A group of visually-challenged people who had showed up for a special screening of Milind Dhaimade’s debut feature film at the MAMI festival was thrilled to bits.Singh was reading out from a carefully prepared 100-page script, replete with verbal and visual clues to ensure that her narration doesn’t interfere with the dialogues. She was vocal only in fleeting phases, each lasting less than 10 seconds. But throughout the film, she kept connecting the dots for the sightless who would otherwise miss out on the action unfolding on screen.The event, organised by Mumbai-based women’s rights organisation Point of View (POV), also saw enthusiastic participation of people with eyesight. They had willingly put on eye patches to be a part of an inclusive experience. The two worlds met in a controlled space where the boundaries were meant to be fluid — the world of light and colour merging with what Argentine littérateur Jorge Luis Borges describes as “an undefined world from which certain colours emerge”.In India’s disabled-unfriendly environment, the concept of cinema for the vision-less mostly encounters awe, disbelief, indifference or even disdain. A society blind sided by insensitivity and ignorance tends to forget that the country is home to the world’s largest population of the visually-challenged — numbering over 15 million. Every year, nearly 30,000 people lose their sight in India, even though 80 per cent of these cases of loss of vision can be prevented and/or cured.Over the years, it has become an entrenched practice to exclude this section from the world of visual entertainment. “Even then, 20 million visually-challenged people in South Asia watch and love Bollywood movies,” says noted film critic and POV board member, Meenakshi Shedde, who is passionate about the cause of making cinema accessible to the sightless. “Given their sheer number, how can the film industry afford to lose sight of this clientèle? Till this day, Shah Rukh Khan’s 2010 film My Name is Khan is the only Bollywood movie to have released in theatres with Hindi audio description.”Connecting the dotsPerhaps India can draw inspiration from the UK where the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s (RNIB) tireless campaigns has made it possible for its two million visually-challenged to partake in the joys of cinema. Since 2002, AD has gained traction in the UK following the glitch-free screening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A majority of Hollywood films releasing in UK theatres carry a special audio track, and more than 300 cinemas are equipped with systems to facilitate AD.Back home, Delhi-based Saksham Trust has been peerless in making movies, children’s films and documentaries accessible to the blind. Rummy Seth, the co-founder and managing trustee of Saksham Trust attributes the inaccessibility of cinema for the disabled to the ignorance of directors and producers. “They still can’t think of releasing a film with a special voice-over track,” says Seth. “On the other hand, even though many English films come with the special feature, multiplexes and single screens here lack the necessary equipment.” The devices she is referring to consists of a small radio transmitter and earpieces. A theatre owner needs to spend Rs 30,000 to cater to 20 visually-challenged people, provided the government allows the use of transmitters inside halls, which is currently prohibited.This begs the question: How often do the visually-challenged go to a film? “We are no different from the people who can see,” says Nidhi Goyal, programme director, sexuality and disability, at POV. Goyal collaborated with scriptwriter Rachna Kothari, Singh and Shedde for the AD of Dhaimade’s movie. “Sometimes I go alone. On other occasions, I go with friends or family.”Goyal questions the idea of treating the sightless as a separate entity. Having lost her vision at the age of 15 to a degenerative retinal disease, she has straddled both worlds. “We are as diverse an audience as the other folk. “A few of us like cheesy, corny fare, some prefer action flicks. All we need is a bit of tweaking to make cinema a complete experience,” she adds.Not that the lack of tweaking (absence of AD) has stopped Goyal and her friends from visiting the cinemas. Sometimes she draws her imagery from the ambient sounds and background music. Yes, she does miss out on some visuals (the speechless romantic gaze or frames of suspenseful silence), but she’s learnt to compromise. In the end, of course, she can tie up the loose ends. When family members accompany her to the cinemas, they describe things to minimise her loss. Other times, she and her visually-challenged friends make up stories for one another and exchange notes.The 31-year-old has joined hands with like-minded organisations and individuals in the movement for accessible cinema. Staying in Mumbai and working with POV has empowered her to lobby with the cinema industry. “Such special screenings are potent ways to reach out to big directors and producers to increase awareness. They already know about sub-titling. Now AD will make their films even more inclusive,” she says.A visually-challenged audience revels in the cinematic experience A peerless effortSaksham Trust, however, is trying to counter the prevailing attitude of nonchalance. Seth chooses projects based on the feedback she receives from the people who benefit from her work. Once the DVD is released, she goes through the film with in house scriptwriter Narendra Joshi multiple times to identify the wordless spaces in the narrative. “Since we can’t describe everything, we focus only on the important scenes. Once the AD is scripted, veteran actor Sushma Seth steps in for the voice-over. She has worked pro bono on most of these projects,” says Seth. The process for a three-hour feature film takes a month and costs about Rs 1 lakh.Till date, Saksham has given ADs and subtitles (for the hearing-challenged) in the DVDs of 22 popular titles. Thanks to their efforts, today Gandhi, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Taare Zameen Par have overcome the barriers posed by loss of vision and hearing. Though producers of these films had readily agreed to Seth’s initiative, her bigger struggle involves impressing upon filmmakers the need to release DVDs with the AD track. So far, Rajkumar Hirani’s PK has been the only one to fulfil that promise.“I’ve watched nearly all the 22 films on DVD,” says 30-year-old Anil Prajapati. The visually-challenged Delhi resident has been associated with Saksham Trust since 2008 and actively collects feedback on the Trust’s works. “They audio descriptions fill the void and help comprehend the dialogues better.”Quite often principals of schools for children with special needs call the Trust — which has gained popularity among the disabled population through a network of 40 NGOs and by word-of-mouth publicity — to ask for these DVDs or enquire about their latest projects. Seth has now set a target of completing six films every year.
The cast of Tu Hi Mera Sunday with Nidhi Goyal (centre) and Meenakshi Shedde (left)Spawning an inclusive cultureTheatres should have been the ideal meeting ground of those who can see and those who cannot, connected by their shared love for the movies. Since pre-recorded audio descriptions never interfere with the experience of a movie-goer with vision, the integration of the two worlds would be seamless. This intermixing, in turn, could have paved the way for further interactions in other spheres of life.Tu Hi Mera Sunday’s special screening at MAMI may have had a positive impact on the cast and crew of the film. Astonished by the heart-warming response at the event, director Dhaimade has vowed to make trailers for his films equipped with audio descriptions.The stirrings of change, however feeble, are making ripples. After MAMI, it’s the turn of the 47th International Film Festival of India, beginning in Goa on November 20, to host special screenings of Gandhi, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Dhanak. The world of the sightless needs a Bollywood touch to light up.