Mental Pictures

How the blind can access the visual poetry of cinema

Illustration by Shagnik Chakraborty
30 April, 2021

In the 1972 movie Koshish, written and directed by Gulzar, a mimed conversation takes place between the deaf and mute protagonist and the mother of the deaf and mute heroine. This is when the two characters meet for the second time. The former communicates his name, Hari Charan, to the latter by placing a green chilli on her left foot. Thus, the viewer is shown how the hero, who cannot speak, communicates his name with ingenuity to a person who does not understand sign language—a language as developed as any spoken language. It is worthwhile to note that both sighted and blind viewers of the film need the mother to vocalise the name “Hari Charan” to comprehend the significance of the protagonist’s action.

Now consider the sentimental—and frankly, pretty irritating—song “Tere nainon ke main deep jalaunga,” from the film Anuraag, directed by Shakti Samanta and released coincidentally in the same year as Koshish. The film’s blind heroine, who is a sculptor, asks her sighted beloved to describe to her the forms of things around them, including mountains, gardens and mandirs. She laments not being able to distinguish shadow from sunlight. Note that she assumes a position of complete ignorance. For a sculptor, who makes art-objects with her hands, to sing regretfully of how she cannot comprehend the forms of the world is absurd.

There is a palpable contrast between the two movies. While the song in Anuraag, and the movie in general, embodies the popular misconception that sightlessness is an undiluted tragedy, the scene from Koshish carries recognition of the resourcefulness of people with disabilities. We see in the latter an attempt that is almost fundamental to language—the effort to bridge a divide, to express or communicate with another human being. Its focus broadens from the use of sign language between two deaf and mute persons to demonstrate the capacity for full lives and togetherness. In Anuraag, we get the patronising view that the blind cannot comprehend the world, or even live in it, without sight. The film ends with the curing of the heroine’s blindness through eye donation.

Being a visually impaired person who lives for literature and philosophy, I am a choosy viewer of a few films per decade. Although it may seem like a paradox, over the years I have come to hold some thoughts about the cinematic art. The simple reason for this is that I would like to see movies become fully accessible to people like myself. This goal may be achieved through improved Audio Description. With the advent of audio-described films on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, the time has come for careful reflection on the relationship that blind viewers have with films. Spoken description of visual art forms works on the principle that one kind of sense-experience can be translated into another comprehensible form, however imperfectly so, through the medium of language and tone of voice. Forms of the word “communicate” are not sufficient to capture this phenomenon, and so the concept of “translation” is more useful to my argument.

Aravinda Bhat is an assistant professor at the department of languages, Manipal Academy
of Higher Education, Manipal. He teaches European
literatures in translation, intellectual history of Europe, critical
thinking, creative writing and German.