Meenakshi Shedde: 'We always laugh last'

Meenakshi SheddeLAST week I went to ‘hear’ a movie. It was a historic occasion in India — a special screening of the film Awesome Mausam for the blind, (OK, visually impaired), with audio description. An ordinary movie, that otherwise may have passed largely unnoticed, suddenly became a revelation. About 40 blind people were invited to the first week screening. The sighted were encouraged to wear ‘eye masks’ to experience the film as the blind do. Director Yogesh Bharadwaj did a "live audio description" of the film, simultaneously describing in words, the scenes and songs that were not conveyed through the dialogue, so that the blind could follow the visual narrative as well. "At last we can laugh at the same time as the others," said an audience member. "Otherwise, we always have to request the person next to us to describe what was funny, and we always laugh last."

Actor Rahul Sharma (centre) with the visually-impaired audience that was invited for the screening of Awesome Mausum. Pic/Meenakshi Shedde
Actor Rahul Sharma (centre) with the visually-impaired audience that was invited for the screening of Awesome Mausum. Pic/Meenakshi Shedde

Without the visuals, and guided by only sound, you realise emphatically what you already know — that Indian films are kan-phatti loud. A Hindu-Muslim love story, Awesome Mausam has disco dances, gun shots, screeching cars and heavy duty dialoguebaazi. The eloping lovebirds take refuge with an NGO called Love Guard, which helps them get married. The film, which stars Rahul Sharma, Ambalika Sarkar, Suhasini Mulay and Mukesh Tiwari, is the sixth film by Yogesh Bharadwaj, who earlier directed Shabnam Mausi and Miss Anara.

The blind people in the audience are remarkably empowered — one works in Reserve Bank of India, another in Dena Bank; a third (herself blind) runs a computer centre for the blind; a fourth runs an NGO for the visually impaired. The initiative for the audio description screening came from Rahul Sharma, the protagonist, who is brother-in-law to Nidhi Goyal and her brother Ashish Goyal. Nidhi Goyal is a spirited, blind, disability and gender activist, and co-author of the website www.sexualityanddisability.org. Ashish Goyal is a blind trader in global financial markets. "I wanted everyone, including the visually impaired, to have the right to access entertainment, and the right to know and experience love," said Sharma. The screening was organised by Sharma, Yogesh Bharadwaj, Goyal and her team, backed by producer Mukesh Choudhary.

"It was totally fantastic to experience an audio-described movie," says the very pretty Tanya Balsara, who runs the Tanya Computer Centre for the blind. "It’s the first movie I’m seeing without my parents — who always describe the scenes to me. Awesome Mausam was so romantic. Yogesh, and particularly Dr Neha Goyal, did the audio description with such emotion, depending on whether it was an action scene or love scene, that we could experience it more intensely." Adds Shiv Raheja, "I particularly loved the scene where the camera pans and she is doing namaz and he is praying to a Hindu god in the same room. And I loved the locations, when they are playing in the snow." Harish Kotian, Assistant General Manager, Reserve Bank of India, also blind, makes the extraordinary request, "You know, VK Murthy (cinematographer of many directors, including Guru Dutt) would do fabulous ‘fading parts’ in his scenes, and the way he highlighted his scenes have become a textbook for visualising cinema. It would have been great if the audio description could have included the camera and shot details."

I took off my eye mask occasionally to see how the blind were reacting to the film. They listened intently; one cocked his head so his ears were facing the screen; another yawned, a few texted on their mobile phones. And it was beautiful to see a couple lean slightly closer to each other, careful not to touch. Just people like us. I know this, of course — I’ve been working with the blind for over 20 years, and directed the film Looking for Amitabh, in which the blind evoke Amitabh Bachchan through all the senses except vision — hearing, smell, touch, instinct. In fact, Saksham has produced DVDs of many Bollywood films with audio description for the blind, including Taare Zameen Par and Black. My favourite reaction came from Sushmeetha Bubna, who is visually impaired but runs Voice Vision, an NGO for the blind. "I would really have loved to know what dresses the heroine was wearing. Next time, definitely let us know!"

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

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