In a darkened cinema hall in Bandra, a movie plays through projector while rows of plastic chairs have walking sticks resting beside men and women. In one corner, Richard Falodia stares down as he listens to the movie dialogues, his foldable walking stick in his hand. In the background a running commentary of an on-screen scene explains what is happening in the movie: “Anna is lying on bed and Doreen closes the door behind her.”
The film, Awake, is part of a day-long film session for differently-abled people where audio-described format is used to convey what is happening in the film to its audience. The 22-minute movie, directed by Michael Actman, is on two visually-challenged women enacted by visually-challenged actors. Most in the audience in the dark hall were also visually-challenged.
“In a movie, expressions are something I cannot understand. I have to tap my friend’s shoulder to ask what’s happening. Recently I went to watch Padman and could not understand a few scenes,” Falodia, a social media manager, said. He is visually challenged since birth and often relies on dialogues to understand a movie. While watching the film in Bandra, he says, the importance of such platforms becomes evident. “Even the differently-abled can understand and enjoy a film.”
Realising there is a need to bring accessible cinema for the differently-abled, organisation Point of View is trying to bring together a series of films with audio descriptions for them to enjoy. “This is a new idea and we hope to have such shows more often,” says visually-challenged Nidhi Goyal, a disability and gender rights activist who approached Vernon Alvares, manager with Daughters of St Paul Church, Bandra, a building accessible to the differently-abled, to screen the movie. “Even these people need to step out and socialise. We selected movies on disability, sexuality and gender to discuss issues encircling around their lives.”
At least 150 people, including differently-abled, came to watch the films. At the end of each movie, an interpreter helps initiate a panel discussion. The format of audio-described film is simple — there are subtitles for hearing-impaired to read, and there are audio descriptions of scenes for visually-challenged to understand what is happening when there are no dialogues. For instance if a girl in a scene silently cries, the background commentary says so, much like how a cricket commentary runs.
Still a nascent concept, no Bollywood film has been supported with such audio-descriptions. Such formats are available for foreign TV seasons and films. Goyal adds that since mainstream cinema does not provide that facility, several differently-abled refrain from going to theatres fearing they will not understand a film.
Tony Kurien, a PHD student in IIT, Powai, says watching a film with other differently-abled people like him is a unique experience. “I started watching audio described movies three years ago, but I did so alone. Online portals like Netflix have dozens of such movies and shows. When we watch a movie in a normal theatre, we often get half information. We miss out on hand gestures. After I started watching films where scenes were described, I started enjoying the experience,” he says.
The idea is to now spread the word of such movie sessions for film buffs. Currently, they have to either buy audio-described formats or watch pirated versions.