While studying languages in the US, Brij Kothari wondered if subtitling the song and dance numbers in films back at home would teach people how to read.
Now the remarkably simple idea is changing lives.
“Essentially what we’ve created is a context in which reading becomes an automatic process and you don’t have to even think about it,” he tells Amos Roberts from SBS Dateline.
“Your brain will do the matching of sound and text… their reading skills are being practised subconsciously and almost by stealth.”
It takes about three to five years’ exposure to subtitles to turn someone who’s virtually illiterate into a confident reader.
“I only studied until Grade Three, then I started doing farming work,” says one of his success stories, farmer Mahotji Motiji Thakor.
“I did want to go back to study, but I couldn’t stop farming. If I got a letter, I would not understand, so I had to take it to someone else to read.”
“If I have to find out the price of raw rice grains, 295 or 298, I can [now] read it. When I sell cotton, I can check the price in the newspaper, and if the price is right, we would take it, otherwise not. That’s the advantage I have.”
The videos are subtitled in a small office in Mumbai, by Kothari’s NGO, PlanetRead. He says ratings for song programs on television are around 15% higher when they have subtitles.
“We’ve got the Broadcasting Corporation of India to agree this is a good idea in principle and should be scaled up nationally,” Brij tells Amos.
“What we’ve asked for is at least 50 programs a week in all of India’s languages to have same-language subtitles every week.”
And he has the backing of stars like Anjali Patil, who had her big Bollywood break in the film Chakravyu.
“It’s simple, but it’s very effective,” she says. “I could never think about songs being so helpful or being so effective and I was really thrilled to see it. It’s something which makes you feel good about being a celebrity.”
There are now ten different subtitled song programs on regional TV across India each week, reaching hundreds of millions of people.
“It’s only a billion people in India we’re making read, but imagine if this goes to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh,” he says of his plans for the future.
“They all watch Bollywood-style music videos. I think I have ten more years to get at least two more billion people reading in their everyday lives.”
Watch the full story from SBS Dateline in the video player above.