Close your eyes: A first-of-its-kind film for the blind tells a story in sound
A boy loses his mother to gunfire in Kashmir. A machine-gun rattles, doors creak open, you hear the pitter-patter of feet on fallen leaves, in the unusual and effective Gulfam by Sanamjit Talwar.
A conversation and a question. That’s how India’s first-of-its-kind audio feature film for the visually challenged came about.
Filmmaker Sanamjit Talwar already had a script in place for his second project, Gulfam (Kashmiri for “like a rose”), the story of a six-year-old Kashmiri boy whose mother is killed by militants. His first movie was the crime thriller Dishkiyaoon (2014), starring Sunny Deol and Harman Baweja.
With work stalled amid the national lockdown in April, the filmmaker was on the phone with a friend’s daughter, Gurkirat Kaur, a medical student. They were discussing the problems he was facing proceeding with this second project when she said, ‘Can this be a film that the blind could see?’
“I’m interested in projects that have never been done before. That gets me going,” Sanamjit says. “Her comment prompted me to attempt it.”
Internationally, books have made into audio films for the visually challenged, with a precise and carefully engineered audio track helping the audience visualise each scene. For Gulfam, Sanamjit went back to the drawing board; rethought all his cast and crew choices; and rewrote the screenplay for the 130-minute film.
“It’s not a political film. I’m not interested in saying so-and-so are at fault. It was made out of the belief that everyone has the right to live,” says Sanamjit.
His big decision would be whom to pick for sound engineer. “This was an experiment. I didn’t know what the results would be like. We had to discover the process. I needed someone skilled, patient and inclined. Itek Bhutani ticked all the boxes,” Sanamjit says.
So he, Bhutani, two technicians and a cast of 50 actors recording from lockdown in their homes around the world, began work in August.
“All the dialogue had to be recorded on the actors’ own phones, to avoid any unnecessary exposure during this ongoing pandemic. They were then digitally restored to studio quality,” Bhutani says. “It was interesting trying to devise an altogether new process to achieve a coherent and immersive experience of sound design. Some ambiences at crucial points in the film are binaural [giving the effect of a 360-degree soundscape], which is very effective when heard on headphones.”
The background score composer, Sagar Kapoor, joined in mid-September. “The whole thing took a lot less time, and money, than a film with shooting involved would have taken,” says Sanamjit.
Here, sound is used to indicate movement, emotion, a change of scene or geography. Machine gun fire pounds in the background; doors creak open loudly; you can hear the pitter patter of feet on fallen leaves.
Sanamjit plays the narrator (he is also co-producer). The title role is voiced by Aryan Bhangu, a seven-year-old American of Indian origin. “I needed a boy who could effortlessly speak with an American accent as Gulfam goes to school in the US,” he says.
Actor Amit Sial (Mirzapur, Jamtara, Love Sex Aur Dhoka) plays Gulfam’s father, Yusuf Mir. “There is more to acting than just physicality. This is a unique film,” he says. “Here, I will be seen through my voice and the lines I speak. I feel I will be perfectly visible. And while doing it I never once thought of the fact that there would be no visual media element at all.”
In America, Gulfam’s relationship with Sampuran Singh, a former boxing champ with a dark past, a reluctant guardian of the boy as he himself is estranged from his own family, also gives the filmmaker and his technical crew opportunities to make sound a tool of visualisation.
“The sounds of Singh pacing his solitary 9/6 prison cell, or as he wriggles on the floor and his screams will circle in your head…” says the filmmaker. There is also a boxing match that is made vivid by the commentary that accompanies the sound of a hook, a punch and the panting of boxers as they try to overpower each other.
The film will be released online in two languages, Hindi and English, on jazztalkies.com. The film will be free for the visually impaired. “People blessed with sight can pay, so that we can make more such films,” Sanamjit says.
He has reached out to the World Blind Union, a global union representing 250 million visually challenged people. “We are also in the process of joining hands with institutes NGOS in India so that the film reaches the people for whom it has been made.”