Let a Billion Readers Bloom: How Bollywood Teaches Literacy in India

We don’t always need shiny new technology to do amazing things around the world. As this edition of Digital Diversity shows, with some imagination everyday technology can be re-purposed to do extraordinary things. Brij Kothari of Planet Read shares how he got Bollywood to marry karaoke, and how it doubled the number of readers in Indian primary schools.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Brij Kothari

“My teacher comes to class, writes something on the board, goes to her office and snacks,” explained Kavita, a resident of a slum in Ahmedabad, when I asked her why she couldn’t read despite being in seventh grade. But here’s the irony: she is one of the growing number of so-called ‘literates’ in India. According to the latest Census in 2011, 74% Indians, aged 7 and above, are “literate”. So how many “literates” in India can actually read a simple text?

The numbers are disturbing. The education NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2011 found that in Class 5, a shocking 51.8% cannot read a Class 2 level text. Our own studies at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, further confirm that over 50% of ‘literates’ in India cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

Although, officially, India is home to 778 million “literates” and 273 million illiterates, what is glossed over is the fact that an estimated 389 million “literates” are, at best early-literate. How will the early-literate transition from basic alphabetic familiarity to functional reading ability?

In 1996, I was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s classic film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with some student friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. An idea popped out of the idiot box. As a Spanish language learner, I wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Then I said something casually – maybe India would become literate if Bollywood Hindi film songs on TV were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi.


The film Kyun! Ho Gaya Na with Same Language Subtitling (Photo: Eros Entertainment)


Same Language Subtitling – or ‘SLS’ – is simply the idea of subtitling audio-visual content in the ‘same’ language as the audio. What you hear is what you read. SLS suggests subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs and music-videos on television, in the language they are sung in. Hindi songs subtitled in Hindi. Tamil songs subtitled in Tamil, and so on in every language (India has 22 official languages). In other words, Bollywood film songs marry karaoke to produce mass literacy.

The idea of SLS builds on some key observations:

  1. Indians have a lifelong passion for Bollywood film songs
  2. Bollywood produces a 1000 films, and therefore, 5000 film songs a year in a variety of languages
  3. 740 million people already watch television where Bollywood content dominates

How does SLS work?  SLS switches on lifelong and inescapable reading practice for millions of television viewers. The science underlying SLS is strong. Eye-tracking research from around the world has established that SLS causes an automatic and inescapable read-along response. Early-readers when exposed to SLS, try to read along, and in the process, find their reading skills improving. As viewers like to sing along to songs and are curious to know the song lyrics, reading skills are practiced subconsciously. Typically, a weak-reader faces a high motivational barrier to keep on reading when confronted with print. In the context of songs – marked by repetition, lyrics that can be anticipated, and subtitles that are sounded in the audio – the entry barrier to reading practice is significantly lowered.


Children follow along with SLS (Photo: Planet Read)


For the nearly 200 million children in India’s primary schools, the rudimentary alphabetic skills they pick up in school are practiced the same day at home while watching their favourite TV programmes. No additional effort or behavioural change is required. This constant and synchronous reinforcement of reading skills makes it difficult for a child to remain functionally illiterate by Class 5.

Independently collected data has shown that even 30 minutes of weekly SLS exposure over 3-5 years, as part of Bollywood film songs, more than doubles the number of functional readers in primary schools. Of course, SLS would be limited if the only reading it invites is song lyrics. As it turns out, the first thing that youth and adult functional literates tend to pick up in India are newspapers. To be seen reading a newspaper is infused with positive symbolism and status. Interestingly, newspaper reading among regular SLS-viewers shot up from 34% to 70% in five years.  Furthermore, SLS makes a meaningful contribution to female literacy because Bollywood on TV has a higher female viewership.


SLS has proved hugely popular (Photo: Planet Read)


SLS was first implemented on Gujarat state TV in 1999. That successful pilot led to another ongoing pilot on a nationally telecast Hindi film song programme, from 2002 to the present. Since 2006, SLS has also been piloted on one weekly programme each in 8 major languages, giving regular reading practice to an estimated 200 million early-readers. Today SLS seems on the verge of being scaled up nationally in collaboration with the Broadcasting Corporation of India, Prasar Bharati and the state TV network, Doordarshan.

On average, every dollar spent on SLS in India delivers 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 5,000 weak-readers, for one year. With India on board, the cost-effectiveness of SLS established and none other than Bill Clinton calling SLS “A small thing that has a staggering impact on people’s lives”, I believe the time has come for our idea to travel all over the world.

If you’d like to learn more, visit PlanetRead or BookBox.

Brij Kothari co-founded PlanetRead and BookBox. He is a Schwab Social Entrepreneur, Ashoka Fellow, and Faculty, Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net, he devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. His early research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.
  • Aisha Ashraf

    Wow! The best ideas are often the simplest! It is impossible to ignore subtitles on screen, something I realised when I watched Bollywood films to help me learn Urdu http://wp.me/p1J9Lk-MB

  • Sunil Deepak

    SLS is equally important for deaf persons in communities, whose needs are almost always forgotten, and in India there are a few millions deaf persons. All videos should have the option of SLS.

  • Mariellen Ward

    Great story and a great idea. I have spent a lot of time in India and know how much Indians adore Bollywood — I also know how entrepreneurial Indians are, and resourceful, so I am not surprised. Love to read positive stories like this coming out of India, cheers.

  • […] interviews PlanetRead and Bookbox founder Brij Kothari: In 1996, I was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s […]

  • Yogesh

    Nice Article, Good to see positive articles.about moving world forward with simple ideas.

  • raj

    love the article.. Grt move.. Always positive for the india.. I love my country.. N of course bollywood

  • […] Independently collected data has shown that even 30 minutes of weekly SLS exposure over 3-5 years, as part of Bollywood film songs, more than doubles the number of functional readers in primary schools. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/… […]

  • John M. Shin

    SLS on TV is also universally available throughout the Greater China Region — PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore — so that speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokken and many other varieties can share the same programming. Chinese language as the longest surviving and flourishing language with basically the same set of literary characters as 4,000 years ago is made stronger everyday by SLS.

  • saptono

    Now I remember, my capability of reading and writing in English has been helped significantly by my passion of hearing English pop songs and then try to capture the whole lyrics by wrote it down while heard the song over and over again.



  • Swaroop

    Juts Amazing Idea! The growth and development is clearly visible!!

  • Margaret Maine

    Our familiy has seem the results of this first hand. My daughter was temporarily partially deaf for 9 months while awaiting surgery to rebuild her eardrum and mastoid when she was in first grade. We used Closed Captioning, SLS available in the US for the deaf. Her reading skills and speed increased amazingly using this to watch TV. To this day, even though she doesn’t need it, she prefers to watch movies/TV with SLS on. We use it when available for our other daughters.

  • […] new media environment – is still something highly sought after in developing nations. This piece from National Geographic highlights an example where SLS (same language subtitling) is used to help […]

  • […] [source: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/02/22/let-a-billion-readers-bloom-how-bollywood-teaches…] This entry was posted in culture, language, translation and tagged india, language, literacy, translation. Bookmark the permalink. Tweet !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0];if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js";fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document,"script","twitter-wjs"); ← 3rd Cordillera Creative Writing Workshop to be held May 22-26 […]

  • Kajal Ghoshroy

    Fantastic idea! But it will not hep just to hear it for a short while. Language needs to be practiced and continued. Had learned quite a few French words during my French movie days, by following subtitles and listening, but now have forgotten almost all!

  • Ritu

    Fantastic idea… I Am sure it will work wonders…

  • Martin Jambon

    Who knows, maybe one day SLS will make it to Netflix.

  • Libor Supcik

    Offer more : Think who pays those who do the subtitling and program choice?
    It is possible that such activities can be shared and crowd-sourced. TED talks are subtitled by volunteers.
    Youtube videos can be subtitled by automatic captions (poorly yet the result depends on audio quality yet it would help the translators a lot)
    -Autonomy in program choice helps a student to engage.

  • Dipankar Pal

    Simple and marvelous idea that really works. Music channels
    should consider SLS to increase literacy of the country.

  • […] idea! Same Language Subtitling of Bollywood hits improves literacy in India. And that’s an idea that’s easily exportable. This entry was posted in Science. Or […]

  • […] Let a Billion Readers Bloom: How Bollywood Teaches Literacy in India As this edition of Mobile Message shows, with some imagination everyday technology can be re-purposed to do extraordinary things. Brij Kothari of Planet Read shares how he got Bollywood to marry karaoke, and how it doubled the number of readers in … Read more on National Geographic […]

  • hashi ghosh

    I would love to know more about this program and I wish I can contribute….

  • Jeane

    I would learn standard hindi from books and cd’s etc, or take a class ..then you can pctarice later recognizing words in hindi movies. The hindi in the movies isnt always what you would find in the proper hindi books, as its actually called Hadiboli’ (hindu/urdu dialect)- a dialect that is commonly accepted as the common language of communication in movies, and media, and modern literature etc. watching the movies is good pctarice once you know a bit especially if you dont have anyone to converse with, and if you can understand the speedy talking then you wil do well. Get the ones with subtitles so you can at least learn pick up on some new words, with repitition you will come to recognize alot of common words, but be warned that subtitles are often not translated well and have alot of mistakes.good luck!

  • […] used in India to make a huge impact on national literacy levels. You can read the whole article here. Most DVDs come with several language options. Watching with the subtitles can be a great way to […]

  • […] half of Hindi speakers can’t even read a newspaper headline, according to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Clearly, there are many who have not advanced beyond a basic familiarity with the […]

  • […] leverages the letter knowledge acquired in school with parallel everyday reading practice at home. Same Language Subtitling (SLS) of Bollywood songs on mainstream TV, in every language, is simple but not simplistic. SBS Dateline (Australia) tells […]

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