How can films be for the Blind? Some Thoughts on the Art of Visualization

Dear Editor,

This is a letter from a choosy, (but) inexperienced, and (by inference) impassionate viewer of just a few films per decade. I am a blind person who likes literature and philosophy, and who has, therefore, come, over many years, to hold a few thoughts about the art of film-viewing and film-making. I can give two simple reasons for this: first, I would like one day to see films become accessible to people like myself; and secondly, I believe that one kind of sense-experience can be translated into another comprehensible form (however imperfectly so) through the medium of language and sound.

This set of caveats provided, let me move on to my modest ideas about an art form which is primarily visual, like a painting. This fact, however, does not prevent such artistic expressions as cave paintings, murals, portraits including photographs, and movies from generating curiosity in the minds of persons who happen to be blind. Let me speak here of one blind man, which is myself: when I find opportunities to view these works of art, and practice – in a very modest way – one of them (photography), I rely heavily on the linguistic description to make sense of the stories presented by the artworks.

Now it may be argued that with cinema (or moving images, where the emphasis falls on the word ‘images’), oral descriptions – for blind and visually impaired persons – can at best convey only approximations of the aesthetic experiences embodied by the visuals. This position approximates the view that visual arts such as film and photography are not meant for the blind; the further implication here is that today’s world, which is largely fashioned by visual aesthetics, does not include us in its fold. But this is only half the story (or truth of the matter). I find that when friends give me succinct or detailed descriptions of visual events taking place around us as well as of facial expressions, my mind conjures up images and scenes because I am partially sighted and have, therefore, seen the world better than I do now. So yes, I do enjoy listening to explanations about what a picture, painting, or movie portrays. This linguistic translation of the unique visual aesthetic experience may, then, be thought of as facilitating a different but equivalent aesthetic experience in the blind person’s mind through audition. What is more, my entry, through language, into the world created by that work of visual art enables me to participate in the emotive force embodied by the latter. This means that I can comprehend the aesthetic experience that results from viewing it. What this signifies further is that the blind person’s mode of appreciating the visual arts parallels the process of cognition itself in humans: we transmute (and so, in a way, translate) sensory data into concepts and pictures of the world we live in, the people we communicate with. I believe that this understanding broadens the significance of the cinematic art to include both the sighted and the blind.

Next, I will provide a couple of examples – I can write about only a few scenes from a small number of films here due to space constraints – to demonstrate my meaning. In that wonderful movie Koshish, written and directed by Gulzar and released in December 1972, we find a conversation between the deaf and mute protagonist Hari Charan Mathur (Sanjeev Kumar) and Durga (Dina Pathak), the mother of the deaf and mute heroine Aarti (Jaya Bhaduri). This is when the two characters meet for the first time. The former communicates his name to the latter by showing her a green chilli and his foot, and the viewer comes to know the hero’s name when the mother vocalizes it. It is worthwhile to note that Durga, as well as the sighted and blind viewers of the film, require vocalization of the name ‘Hari Charan’ to comprehend it.

I will now come to the sometimes insightful, but mostly irritating, song ‘Tere nainon ke main deep jalaunga’ from the film Anuraag, which was directed by Shakti Samanta and released coincidentally in December 1972. What a contrast this movie offers to the one by Gulzar! The sequence of the song under consideration is picturized on the blind sculptor Shivani (Moushmi Chatterjee) and her beloved, the sighted Rajesh (Vinod Mehra). As the lyrics make it amply clear, the song and the story of the film glorify the foolish misconception of the sighted that life without their precious vision is equivalent to death. How is it that the sculptor does not comprehend the forms of the world, as she sings regretfully in this sentimental number?

Now to that memorable scene in The Passion of the Christ where the hero of the Biblical story, Jesus Christ played by Jim Caviezel, stamps a serpent – naturally symbolising Satan – to death. The vehement sound of Christ’s heel as it destroys the hated creature startled me. I was watching the film with a friend who translated the fascinating Aramaic into comprehensible English. When I asked him about the significant sound, he agreed that it had been very expressive of Christ’s killing of the serpent by stamping on its hood. In this case as well as in that of the 2012 Hindi movie Barfi!, I would have enjoyed the experience of watching them had they been enlivened by the skilful narration of the visual scenes. With the delightful latter film, the deaf and mute hero’s activities do require description for blind viewers.

Of course, we do have audio description as a method of making films accessible to the blind. However, I am not convinced of its efficacy. The one time I watched an audio-described movie (the documentary Across Still Water, made by Ruth Grimberg), I was disappointed by the experience: the audio commentary on the visual scenes was mechanically delivered and failed to convey the emotion and the developing narrative. So there was a gap between the cumulative visual impact of the successive scenes and the audio narration.

What is the solution to this problem? I think an intelligent, carefully thought-out mix of the dialogue (which is part of the movie) and (extra) storytelling which dwells on the solely visual details, will go a long way in making talkie films viewable by the blind. When it comes to silent movies, the storytelling for the blind viewer should be unobtrusively done, so that the background music and silence are not drowned out by the narrator. Inspiration and techniques required here may be drawn from storytelling traditions of the world such as the singing of epic poems or rhapsody and minstrelsy from the West and Harikatha as well as Dastangoi from the Subcontinent.

I hope these incomplete ideas will provoke thought and lead to some conversation about the visual poetry of films among your readers.

Sincerely yours,

 

 

 


About the Writer

Aravinda Bhat is an Assistant Professor at the Department of European Studies, Manipal
Academy of Higher Education. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the English and Foreign Languages
University, Hyderabad and currently teaches the courses: European Literature, German
language and Critical thinking.