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 and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier 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.