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App Allows Blind Indians To Access Bollywood

August 24, 2018

Shruti Kalra can never watch a film at the cinema without having to nudge the person next to her. “Every time there’s a silent scene, I need to ask them what’s going on,” says Kalra, a Delhi-based professor, who is blind. She only dares going to see a film with someone she knows won’t mind the disturbances.

But when she watched the wildly popular Bollywood biopic Sanju things were different. As the film began, she opened an app on her smartphone and plugged in her earphones. A few taps later she was listening to an audio description of the movie, for the first time in her life. “I felt so independent just to be able to follow and understand the entire film on my own,” she remembers.

Kalra is one of the first users of XL Cinema, an app developed in India that can synchronise an audio description of a movie with its cinema audio track. The app, launched in July by the software firm Brajma Intelligent Systems, uses audio descriptions provided by Saksham, an NGO working to empower people in India who are blind or visually impaired. Saksham produced the description in the office and studio of the film’s director, Rajkumar Hirani, a major figure in Indian cinema.

In its first two weeks it was used almost 2,500 times at screenings of Sanju, despite being introduced three weeks after the film’s initial release. The app is free but some data is collected, including the name and location of the cinema theatre where it’s been used.

The app is the first of its kind. India’s 8.8 million blind and 47.7 million visually impaired citizens have previously been excluded from the national obsession of Bollywood. “I often don’t understand why people around me are laughing during a movie,” says Krishan Kumar Murugan, who has limited vision.

While badly needed new legislation that was introduced last year has boosted the rights of disabled Indians, it stopped short of forcing private firms to use tools such as audio description, sign language and captioning when producing media, including movies. Bollywood studios have made positive noises about greater accessibility, though some ultimately argued there was little point in producing audio descriptions if cinemagoers had no way to listen to them.

“Film-makers didn’t take us seriously,” says Dipendra Manocha, Saksham’s co-founder, who is also blind. He’s hopeful that the new technology will now help ramp up the pressure on Bollywood studios to deliver.

“There has been a big shift in attitude from production houses after seeing the app work so seamlessly with Sanju,” Manocha says. Leading film production firms including Sony Pictures, Yash Raj Films, Phantom Films and Fox Star Studios have shown interest. “We are exploring this idea for some of our upcoming movies,” says Vivek Krishnani, the managing director of Sony Pictures Entertainment Films India.

“Next time, we’ll plan much further in advance to ensure that audio description can be part of our films right from day one,” says Hirani, one of India’s most feted film-makers.

Before the app’s arrival, the only way to watch a movie with audio description was to wait months after the film’s release to order a DVD from Saksham, if the NGO had created one for that film (it has made 28 so far). A handful of audio-described screenings are also organised a few times a year at film festivals and in auditoriums around the country by interested organisations.

The XL Cinema app was originally created to allow cinemagoers to listen to translations of movies in multiple languages, according to Kunaal Prasad of Brajma Intelligent Systems. “Meeting Kunaal seemed like divine intervention. We were so relieved to have found a solution,” says Manocha. Within three weeks, Prasad had carried out trial runs of the app while Saksham’s team gained permission to debut the app at screenings of Sanju.

Manocha and Prasad are hopeful of a wider response once word spreads. “The app is a great example of universal design,” says Manocha. “I hope that the power of Bollywood will be able to draw attention to inclusion.”

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