Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 19 August, 2017
Cinema, special audio transcript, Bollywood films, visually-impaired, visual medium, Aamir Khan, Dangal, special screening
A special screening of the film Dangal, adapted for the visually-impaired, was held at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium in May 2017.
Cinema is primarily a visual medium. So how do you adapt it for an audience that is visually-impaired? Of late, a number of popular Bollywood films have been so adapted, with the help of a special audio transcript that spells out what’s visible on the screen for the benefit of those who can’t see, writes Bhumika Popli.

Shruti bheed mein se nikalti hui Barfi ki taraf aayi [Shurti made her way towards Barfi cutting through the crowd].

Shruti ne barfi ki taraf dekha [Shruti looked towards Barfi].

Chalti jeep mein se barfi ne Shruti ki taraf ishara kiya, jaise keh rha ho ki koi baat nahi [from the moving jeep, Barfi gestured at Shruti as if saying to her that there is no need to worry].

Usne topi utaari aur pehen li [He removed his cap and wore it again].

Jeep chali gayi [the Jeep left]. 

These lines are from the 2012 Bollywood movie Barfi!, starring Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, and Ileana D’Cruz. But the text doesn’t come from the film’s official script. It was composed separately by a group of writers, to be narrated at a special screening of the film meant for the visually-impaired.

The idea is to showcase the movie in such a way that even those who can’t see can get a sense of what’s unfolding on the big screen. In the Barfi scene quoted above, spanning some 43 seconds, an accompanying audio track, of 23 seconds, is added, setting the ambience and describing the visual details. The audio feed picks out all the relevant bits from the visual medium—including the gestures made by characters, the objects that are focused on, etc.—making them accessible to the visually-impaired.

“The idea is to make an inclusive space for the visually-impaired,” says Rummi Seth of Saksham, an NGO that has hosted several film screenings for the blind at several venues in Delhi. “It was always on my mind to do something of this nature, so we decided to set up a team that could help us with achieving our goal. I contacted television and theatre personality Sushma Seth, who quite happily agreed to do voice-overs for us. Then I reached out to Narendra Joshi, a well-known radio personality, who came on board with us to do the scripts. That’s how we have created cinema which could also be enjoyed by the visually-impaired.”

Cinema has always been a primarily visual medium. It runs on the creative principle of “show, don’t tell”. The filmmaker’s challenge is to make the audiences privy to what the characters are feeling through images. The sequence of events, too, unfolds “cinematically”. Visual storytelling is the key to moving the narrative forward. So in adapting movies for the visually-impaired, one has to, in effect, work against such notions, and entirely transpose a visual medium into a non-visual, i.e. aural, realm. Visual storytelling is replaced by verbal storytelling.

“We mark the gaps and write the script in such a way that it connects to the dialogue spoken before and after the supplemented writing. A new track is added to the already present audio and video track in the movie.”

Narendra Joshi, who has written such scripts for many films, explains the process. “I see a movie a number of times before finally preparing a script. The first film of which I wrote the script was Black,” he says. “Our idea was to write the script in such a way that the movie could be understood even by people who have never been able to see. We first prepared a short clip of the movie so non-sighted persons can provide us constructive criticism on it, as the initiative is for them and they are the best judge. We improved on the feedback received and since then, the process continues.”

Through his film scripts—rewritten for the non-sighted—Joshi strives to convey maximum visual detail in as few words as possible. He talks about the technicalities involved in post-production. “We mark the gaps and write the script in such a way that it connects to the dialogue spoken before and after the supplemented writing. A new track is added to the already present audio and video track in the movie. The overall production cost varies between Rs 1-1.5 lakh per movie,” he says.

Rummi Seth.

Compared to the lavish production and advertising budgets allotted to Bollywood, films in general, the amount cited by Joshi seems insignificant. So why aren’t more films being adapted for the visually-impaired in this way? 

Dipendra Manocha, co-founder of Saksham who along with Rummi Seth, has been working on this initiative. “There is paranoia among producers about their movies being pirated if they give out their prints to organisations like ours before the film’s release,” says Manocha. “It is required that the producers make us, or someone working on similar projects, part of their team. And this act of inserting audio narration for the non-sighted becomes an industry in itself.”

The exception made in copyright law in the year 2012 also, in a way, supports the practice. Under the one of the “Fair Dealing” clauses of the Indian Copyright Law, the use of a work for making it accessible to a disabled person is considered legitimate. In non-legal terms, an organisation working for the benefit of the persons may copy, modify, and distribute a work, in an accessible format if the normal format cannot be enjoyed by a disabled person. This won’t amount to copyright infringement.

"Hello, how are you?” says Afzal in a matter-of-fact voice. He shakes your hand firmly. He is wearing a crisp white shirt with a blue floral motif, and black canvas shoes. He sports a French beard. Afzal lost his sight in 2003.

Dipendra Manocha.

At Saksham he trains the visually-impaired to use android devices and helps them with software-related technical issues. He also counsels people who face depression. He shares his experience of “watching” audio-transcribed films. “It is very good,” he says. “Now whenever I watch an audio-transcribed movie with a sighted person, I am not dependent on him anymore. I don’t have to constantly ask him, ‘What is happening on the screen?’ The voiceover helps people with disability to a great extent.”

Actress Sushma Seth has given voiceovers to many films, like Black, Taare Zameen Par, Munna Bhai MBBS and so on. She talks about the narration process. “The main focus,” she says, “of an audio artist should be on the element of drama in the voiceover. This is so because you are speaking for a non-sighted person and one needs to be extra careful so that they don’t miss out on the actual experience.”

Sushma Seth.

The latest film which has been equipped with an audio transcription is Aamir Khan’s Dangal. The special edition of this movie, for the blind, was screened on Zee Cinema on 15 August this year. This adaptation, too, was made by Saksham.

Creation of another audio track requires only a fraction of a Bollywood film’s overall budget. If the film industry decides to support this initiative, there would be many more options of movies that are made accessible for the visually-impaired. In fact, it’s then likely that the television industry would also start considering this practice of adding audio transcripts to their shows. What’s crucial is to create awareness, and promote this new idiom of accessible cinema. 

Narendra Joshi.

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