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PVR's Accessible Cinema Program shows the way forward in inclusion

December 5, 2018

A big part of the magic of movies lies in the awe and thrill they inspire as you watch stories of people triumphing over impossible odds. Going to the movies, however, is often the opposite experience for people with disabilities, given the many barriers they encounter, right from entering the theater itself.

PVR Cinemas, India's largest multiplex chain, is out to change that with the launch of the Accessible Cinema Program for people with mobility, hearing and visual challenges. In the first phase, 50 theaters in 30 cities, will be equipped with assistive equipment and technology. In the second phase by June 2019, 95 theaters and 230 screens will be open for people with mobility challenges.

It was Spiderman who said that with power comes responsibility. Technically, it is great to be always talking about technology, consumer experience, bigger cinemas, etc., but as a leader brand we have a certain responsibility towards your country and opening doors to newer audiences. This is a step towards being inclusive. As you grow bigger, you want more people to know about you beyond the core domain. - Gautam Datta, CEO, PVR Cinemas

Attention to detail

From assistive equipment like step sliders, step climbers, roll- a- ramps, stair lifts and one step ramps to wheelchair-friendly seats, the planning and careful attention to detail shows. The inclusivity aspect has been closely monitored and charted out at every stage by Sangeeta Prim Robinson, Head Sustainability & Inclusivity, PVR Limited. Not an easy task, as Datta points out.

"The theatres were originally not built keeping in mind the disabled fraternity, so a lot of our cinemas and the malls were not mobility-friendly, which is why we needed a dedicated resource person. Sangeeta closely monitored the building plan and the work on the ground. She was the strong voice that made it happen".

Months of planning went into the final launch which included mapping every single step that a wheelchair user would need to make from the time he/she entered the mall right up to the cinema hall. The result is that every row has been made accessible, with corner seats removed to enable a viewer in a wheelchair to roll in.

Disability rights leader Nipun Malhotra who has viewed three films in two of the newly accessible theaters is very happy. "When I went there, I was worried there may be a stairlift but there were hydraulic ramps, so I could take my wheelchair into the theater and stay on it. I live in Gurugram where there are many theaters but had not watched a film in two years. What I like is that getting accessible seats is not hard any more. At the booking stage itself, once you mention that you are a wheelchair user, you are directed to an accessible seat".

Both the PVR cinemas App as well as the Website direct wheelchair users to accessible seats and companion seats and there are plenty to choose from. So, gone are the days, when as Malhotra points out, you would have to cancel movie plans if the few accessible seats were taken.

For blind and low vision movie-goers, PVR has partnered with Brajma Intelligent Systems Pvt. Ltd, to offer audio description with the help of the XL Cinema App, available on Android and iOS.

"Any mainstream efforts to access is a big step", says Jitendra Minocha, Former Trustee, Saksham, the Delhi-based organization that has been spearheading efforts to make movies accessible for blind and low vision audiences through audio description (AD). It has created the AD content for many films, most recent ones being Sanju and Andhadhun.

"If you do audio description and it is shown only in special shows, it does not go very far", says Minocha. "Now we must look at creating sensitization on how cinema can be made accessible. The real message goes to the production houses so the whole thing is done from the start".

For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, PVR has programmed the first show after 6 pm to be played with subtitles for films, which are released with subtitles/captions. For Tina Saighal, Founder, Sanket Foundation, these steps have finally brought home the magic of the movies.

"I have missed out on many social outings to the cinema since they don't show many movies with captions. Since PVR's initiative was introduced, I have watched a few movies with captions. These experiences have made me feel a part of outings and conversations about movies, and since it's the dialogues that enhance the story line, I now understand the nuances of the movie and feel engaged as a viewer".

Like Minocha, Saighal hopes this will spur more fundamental changes.

"If the cinema fraternity, like distributors and producers are made aware of the need for providing captions, they will then be sensitized to the need of releasing copies of movies with captions every single time".

Saighal suggests PVR theaters do a public service announcement (PSA) on the need for closed captions before every movie screening to help sensitize audiences. She also recommends a real time chat service so deaf and hard of hearing people can interact with PVR staff for clarifications as many do not know sign language.

These are first steps, which PVR is bound to fine tune in the months ahead. What is heartening is that the organization has taken this giant leap towards inclusion, which as a private company, it is not mandated to do. In doing so, it has shown the way forward to others.

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